Gold Diggers of 1933

Reviewed by James Garfield

A 1933 musical comedy directed by Mervyn LeRoy and set during the then-raging Great Depression, Gold Diggers of 1933 stars Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers as starving actresses looking for a break on Broadway.  Dick Powell, as the singer-songwriter millionaire next door, puts up the money for a musical that will deal with people’s current troubles.  Powell and Keeler fall in love, and his brother and his attorney show up to put an end to the affair, thinking all chorus girls are “gold diggers” who will take Powell for his money.  The chorus girls must use their charms to save Powell from being cut off from his family.

Despite being light and comedic, Gold Diggers isn’t completely escapist like most musicals—there is plenty of material about the Depression (details like the actresses resorting to stealing a milk bottle from a neighboring doorstep, or their first show being shut down due to debt).  The musical numbers realistically occur within the context of stage shows, rather than the usual fantasy element of musicals where people interrupt their everyday lives to break into song and dance.  The most famous number, the opening “We’re in the Money,” seems to mock its own optimistic sentiment by including a chorus in Pig Latin.  The film’s self-hyped closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” takes off from a famous speech by FDR in paying tribute to people who fought in World War I and now can’t even find employment.

Busby Berkeley choreographed and directed the musical numbers.  I thought that none of the ones that follow “We’re in the Money” (sung by Ginger Rogers staring straight into the camera lens, accompanied by showgirls in skimpy coin-based costumes) quite match that charming production, although they are certainly watchable, with Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots of dancers forming kaleidoscopic patterns, and offbeat details like the neon violins wielded by dancers in the “Shadow Waltz” number.

The cast all performs energetically, although I wanted more Ginger Rogers, whose star was still rising—she disappears partway through, being peripheral to the plot, merely a friend of the three main actresses who share an apartment and thus are all entangled in the romantic complications when the brother and the lawyer enter the story.  As for the plot, well—who watches musicals for the plot, anyway? Watch Gold Diggers for the production numbers, the performances, and the unusual acknowledgement of reality—in the form of the Great Depression—in a musical.

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