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 just about anything.
Oddly (and most refreshingly), the women are the stars here. The males are merely supporting characters and are portrayed as either weak, gullible, or uptight. Without the ladies, these men are impotent, only reaching their potential when pushed by their better halves. The foursome of big city girls might be seen as the original blueprint for “Sex in the City”‘s Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. Their nasal-toned, cynical, cigar-chomping director ( the much imitated but never equaled Ned Sparks) is looking for a new backer to fund his Depression musical. He gets needed support when Keeler coaxes pianist-beau Dick Powell to his cause. Powell has an apartment across the way. He’s a remarkable songwriter (essentially, a personification of the Dubin and Warren team), but he’s also got a secret. MacMahon suspects he is a crook on the lam, but actually he’s well-to-do, with artistic aspirations, hiding out from kinfolk who do not want him mixing with theater trash.
The first obligatory number of the triptych, “Pettin’ in the Park,” is a an amorous romp with Powell and Keeler (whose dancing is still clunky). Berkeley gives each anonymous, pretty girl her two-second close-up and contrasts that with his usual amazing overhead shot, this time taking the pattern of a kaleidoscopic snowball. Dwarf Billy Barty (from Footlight Parade) is back as a lascivious toddler (!) on roller skates whose finds his rubber ball resting beneath the pumps of short-skirted women. The women, in gartered thighs, populate an artificial landscape akin to Seurat’s “La Grand Jatte.” Barty’s infantile raging libido tries to pull the veil away on a myriad of drenched women undressing. He’s a second too late, and now they are all comfortably armored in aluminum chastity vests. Powell is among the frustrated gents, but not to worry, Barty has a convenient can opener and the nondescript number ends with Powell plowing his way through Keeler’s metal barrier.
Back in reality (the sections directed by LeRoy), Powell’s sibling, Warren William, shows up to put a once-and-for-all stop to any and all showbiz ambitions. William is aided by family lawyer Guy Kibbee, but the two men fatally underestimate Blondell and MacMahon. Blondell displays raw emotion and her expression of guilt at having mislead William is genuinely convincing. Almost as good is MacMahon, who shows no such mercy toward Kibbee.
Naturally, it all works out, but even these accomplished actors, in the dramatic bits, cannot tell the story in such a way as Berkely’s numbers. “Shadow Waltz” is Berkeley at his most diaphanous, looking very much like a precursor to Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). The whirling dervishes of Rumi are mutated into Aryan Venuses, each rigged with neon violin. When the lights go down, they form a giant bowing violin. As impressive as Fantasia undoubtedly is, seeing similar ideas done with such expressionistic, black and white, primitive precision, with live actors and unfathomably monumental choreography, is startling.
That leaves the final number, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” This is Berkeley’s harrowing ode to the displaced veteran of the Great War. Wisely, Berkeley cast Blondell in the role of the tough hooker with golden heart, in full survival mode. Proving to be the Zeitgeist of the film, this is Blondell’s great celluloid moment. Rows of transient WW1 veterans, breadlines, and pathos-drenched housewives constitute cynical comedy as visual aria. Contrasting with the opener, “We’re in the Money”, it makes for a fascinating bookend to the Leroy/Berkeley tome. It is, perhaps, the closest film will come to being socially relevant opera.