Warren William Under the Stars, Part 10: Gold Diggers of 1933

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 Dir: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks

 

Music rights for Gold Diggers of 1933 were a bonanza for Warner Brothers publishing.

A large part of Turner Classic Movies’ August 30th Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William consists of the decadent fun of suicide, murder, infidelity, corruption and just plain meanness. However, nestled within this ocean of sin is the joyful island of Gold Diggers of 1933. If you need a break from the mayhem, this is the place to moor for 90 minutes and enjoy a supremely entertaining mélange of comedy, songs and choreography from the Golden Age of movie musicals.

 

The “Gold Diggers” in question are three down-on-their-luck chorus girls, Trixie (Aline MacMahon), Polly (Ruby Keeler), and Carol (Joan Blondell), recently released from a bankrupt Broadway musical. Barely able to keep the big-bad-wolf from the door, the roommates are forced to steal milk for their meager breakfast, but still manage to maintain a wry sense of humor (“If there was a wolf, we’d eat it,” says Blondell). Living across the courtyard from the girls is Brad (Dick Powell), a composer without portfolio who has attracted the attention of Polly, and been attracted in turn. Fortunately for everyone, an angel in the guise of their former producer Barney Hopkins (the incomparable Ned Sparks) arrives to sell the girls on the idea of a new revue. At that moment Brad just happens to be working out a new composition, and – surprise – Hopkins likes what he hears. When Brad offers the flat-broke producer money to mount the show, Hopkins is able to secure the girls, the composer and the funds in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, as rehearsals begin there is a major complication – it turns out that Brad is the errant scion of a wealthy family that cannot countenance his dalliance with low theater folk, much less his impending engagement to Polly. Hence, they dispatch Brad’s pompous older brother J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), and attorney Fanueil Peabody (Guy Kibbee) to restore some sense to the boy, or buy off the girl. Through a series of wonderfully amusing misunderstandings, Blondell and MacMahon begin digging for gold in Bradford and Peabody’s deep, upper-crust pockets. These parallel comic elements shine as some of the best in the film; Warren William demonstrates a subtle comic touch, with his body language and facial expressions carrying far more than his words. Watching his reactions in the scene where Blondell chisels him out of the price of an expensive hat is positively priceless. Meanwhile, the teaming of Kibbee and MacMahon revealed unexpected chemistry, launching an unlikely series of films featuring the pair (including the 1934 version of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt). There can never be enough said about Ms. McMahon – she is a bright spot in almost any film where she appears, and her portrayal of the acid-tongued Trixie is another winner in her magnificent pre-Code oeuvre.

 

Behind the comedic goings on in Gold Diggers are the magnificent songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin; the film is populated with tuneful melodies (“We’re in the Money”), risqué revues (“Pettin’ in the Park”) and solemn torch songs (“My Forgotten Man”), plus the unique choreography of Hollywood’s master of excess, Busby Berkeley. Berkeley’s singular vision is particularly evident in “Shadow Waltz,” where a bevy of 60 zaftig chorus girls cavort with neon violins, and “Pettin’ in the Park,” featuring a creepy man-child (Billy Barty) who watches rain-drenched girls change their skimpy clothes behind backlit scrims. A few of the stage sequences are a trifle long winded, but overall this is one of the truly iconic Berkeley-designed musicals, and a must-see for fans of his eccentric touch.

 

Gold Diggers of 1933 hit theaters at the height of the Great Depression, and it does not skirt the issue like so many other studios’ feel-good musicals to follow. Hopkins himself tells us that his revue is “about the Depression,” and it is borne out through the hard edge of the stage show, and in the deep desperation of the characters; we are always aware of the fact that the girls are only one step away from dissolution. In fact, when it looks like the show will fail without Brad’s appearance on stage – something he is reluctant to do because of his wealthy family connection – MacMahon angrily reminds him that if there is no show, there will be many girls who will have nowhere to turn but the streets. “I wouldn’t want that on my conscience,” she sadly says. Within the playful exuberance of song and dance it is a small reminder from Warner Brothers that there are consequences of the economy direr than MGM and other Hollywood studios would care to acknowledge. 

 

Gold Diggers of 1933 will be broadcast by Turner Classic Movies as part of their Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, on August 20th, 2012 at 5:00 PM.

 

 

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About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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