Time to kick off year 3 of monthly TCM Pre-Code Crazy picks from me and my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin.
Let’s start this year off right with one of my all-time favourite pre-Codes, Gold Diggers of 1933. Where do I even begin talking about everything going on in this movie? How about a vivid memory of the time I was a pre-teen sitting in a dentist’s waiting room, reading MAD magazine and coming across a cartoon about Busby BERZERKley orchestrating some impossibly massive spectacle. No idea at the time who that was referring to, but always remember it whenever I watch his work, which is in top, sublime form in this sparkling movie.
Set during the worst of the Depression, this story concerns a group of showgirls (Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers) out of work and desperate due to the Broadway theaters’ constant financial troubles. It’s hard times, when surviving means stealing your neighbour’s milk and sharing one nice outfit to follow up a good job prospect. Along comes news of sure parts in a new production by a familiar producer (Ned Sparks), but he’s had no luck finding the seed money to get it rolling. Enter the sweetheart songwriter next door, Brad (Dick Powell) who has eyes for Polly (Keeler) and is keeping secret that he’s actually a wealthy heir whose family disapproves of this “Cheap and Vulgar!” theater business. His money starts the show off, a guilty conscience lands him in the leading role, and much comedy comes from mysteries and assumptions about his identity, and that’s just the first part of the movie.
Once the play hits big and Powell’s sudden fame elicits threats, insults and interference from his party-pooper brother (Warren William) and family lawyer (Guy Kibbee), we get into a delightful long con by Trixie (MacMahon) and Carol (Blondell). Initially offended by the hypocritical upper class twits’ low opinion of gold digging showgirls, Carol poses as Polly and the ladies take the fellows for an expensive, educational ride. Inevitably the relationships become complicated (and real), and all the while MacMahon shines, firing non-stop zingers as her Trixie teases and suckers Kibbee’s “Fanny.”
After all this nuttiness Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley hit viewers with a devastatingly dark and moving political statement in the closing number,”Remember My Forgotten Man,” a seven-minute epic that depicts the plight of the downtrodden, through performances by Blondell and Etta Moten, and masses of men marching to war, then back to unemployment and desperation. When, earlier in the film, Sparks’ character envisions this song marked by wails and showing men “marching, marching,” hungry and disillusioned, you could hardly imagine this brilliantly staged and moving mini-epic, or how sharply it pivots from, yet successfully fits with the preceding romantic and mistaken-identity shenanigans in its critique of the government’s mistreatment of veterans and their families.
In one of the movie’s many “meta” gags, producer Barney falls in love with Brad’s melodies and says he’s dumping the film’s actual songwriters, Al Dubin and Harry Warren. He promises Trixie the comedy gold, which she gets, and says this play will have “the gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the depression,” all of which this movie delivers in perfect balance. From the zany, cynical humour to the outrageous, absurd musical numbers, the coin costumes of “We’re in the Money” and that song’s Pig Latin verse, the naughty “Pettin’ in the Park” with its leering baby who knows adult things like way into ladies’ metal outfits, the neon violins of “The Shadow Waltz”– it’s all fabulous fun and unforgettable.
What’s the show about?
It’s all about the Depression.
We won’t have to rehearse that!
Treat yourself to Gold Diggers of 1933 on TCM January 29th, and now please click over to Karen’s blog to see which film she’s picked for your viewing pleasure. I hope Karen won’t mind me letting you in on our joke about these posts: we never tell each other which movie we’re picking, but after more than 2 years of monthly picks, somehow we’ve never chosen the same movie. I know the streak is safe this time, but how long will it last? 🙂