Gold Diggers Of 1933 is Busby Berkeley‘s masterwork, assisted in no small way by the astute direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who had previously directed a number of stark, socially conscious films, such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Like Berkeley, Leroy’s best work was at Warner Bothers and, like Berkeley, MGM would buy his contract and essentially neuter him.
This is the second of the Warners/Berkeley backstage 1933 musicals, beginning with 42nd Street and concluding with Footlight Parade. Gold Diggers is a mix of harsh realism and opulent fantasy, more so than any other musical from the Great Depression. It jump starts in high gear fantasy mode with Ginger Rogers, dressed only in a skimpy outfit made of silver dollars (with one coin strategically placed over her crotch), singing “We’re in the money.” Rogers’ handling of the lyrics morphs into a glossolalia-styled Pig Latin aria that seems like it would be more at home in a Buñuel movie than a Hollywood musical. Behind her, a chorus of babes holding up undulating coins sings “let’s spend it, send it rolling along.” This is Berkeley’s phantasmagoric “F_ you!” to the Depression. And how would you climax such an opening? With a crash, as debt collectors break up the number, taking with them every prop, every stitch of clothing and everything, leaving only a crumb, a crumb even too small for a mouse.
Next we meet up with a foursome of Depression-era women. And these are determined women, bonding together to make it through a man’s world in hard times. Ruby Keeler is at her innocent best. Joan Blondell is the wide awake, street-smart wisecracker. Aline MacMahon is the shrewd, conniving skeptic, and Rogers (who is a supporting character here) personifies the word “gold digger.” Although Rogers part is brief, she commands attention, especially in the opening scene, so much so that it is abundantly clear how and why she rose above her co-stars. Rogers could do Continue reading GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933
42nd Street is the film that really made choreographer Busy Berkeley a star; and that, in itself, is telling. Although directed by Lloyd Bacon (a 1930’s version of a Ron Howard-type assembly line director), it was Berkeley who rightfully grabbed the honors.
The musical, it seemed, had already run its course when Warner Brothers released 42nd Street. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) had been the ground-breaker, ushering in the advent of sound. But, in the six short years between The Jazz Singer and 42nd Street, the genre had already grown stale. Warner, on the verge of bankruptcy, took a huge gamble (studios used to do that) and brought in the innovative Berkeley, teamed him with the competent helmsman Bacon, an unknown (fresh) cast, and the expert songwriting team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren (who make a cameo in the film).
The plot is hackneyed, and would set the pattern for what constitutes a “Berkeley” film. It’s a backstage story about the struggles of a Broadway musical production (who really thought 1980’s Fame had an ounce of originality?) with an overly intense, self-destructive director (Warner Baxter, an archetype later taken to the extreme in Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Joe Gideon in 1979’s All That Jazz) and an understudy (Ruby Keeler) who, at the last moment, fills in for the injured star (Bebe Daniels) and becomes a star herself.
Of far more interest, plot-wise, is the nuanced filler material. Virginal Keeler and her leading fellar, golly-gee-wiz swell guy Dick Powell have limited charm and register as flat and clunky next to the wisecracking chorus girl Ginger Rogers (already projecting star quality) and the dirty old rich lecher Guy Kibbee. This is the Depression era and there is talk aplenty about the desperate struggle for money and success, which gives the film moments of sweaty substance. Star Daniels, no fluff actress, is clearly an occupant of Kibbee’s casting couch, even if she is in love with George Continue reading 42ND STREET (1933)
The Hollywood musical has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. Contemporary audiences, corn-fed on laser battles with green aliens and tights-wearing, invulnerable superheroes who defy gravity, somehow find the idea of a film in which actors suddenly burst into song as “intolerably unrealistic!”
The genre’s peak era began at the dawn of sound, in the early 1930s, with Busby Berkeley at Warners and RKO’a teaming of the inimitable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The musical climaxed twenty later, in the 1950s, with the “arty” musicals of Gene Kelly, Vincent Minelli, and Stanley Donan.
Mark Sandrich directed a number of the RKO musicals with Astaire and Rogers. His first teaming with them was The Gay Divorcee (1934). This was followed by Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938). Later, he directed Astaire with Bing Crosby in 1924’s Holiday Inn (which some people still confuse with the inferior 1954 remake, White Christmas) and Blue Skies (1946).
Top Hat is Astaire and Rogers’ at their near-peak, although some revisionists have argued that honor should actually go to the George Stevens directed Swing Time (1936). I’m not siding with the Swing Time revisionists, because I have my own revisionist opinion, which I will cover down a later RKO road. Top Hat is a near-perfect film from Hollywood’s near-perfect decade, and it’s pure class, catapulting Depression-era man from his oppressive environment for 101 minutes of “Heaven, I’m in heaven” (well almost 101 minutes. More on that later). Astaire’s choreography blends seamlessly with the musical direction of the great composer Max Continue reading TOP HAT (1935)