September 10, 2007

Gold Diggers of 1933: Depression-era nugget


Reviewer: Dylan de Thomas
Rating (out of 5): ****

It's often said that we're again living in an era in which our entertainment is politicized, unseen since the muted tones of the seventies. Though the decade that brought us The Candidate, The Parallax View and Nashville is clearly an influence on cynical filmmaking today, I think we should cast our collective eyes to an earlier time, when we mixed our politics with fluffy romantic comedy, when highly-synchronized dancers ironically sang "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin.

Released at the height of the depression, Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933, sets the scene quickly with the aforementioned routine featuring rows of chorus girls sporting plate-sized, gold coin crotch pieces, doing Busby Berkeley (the dance director of the picture) routines, as Ginger Rogers sings "Let's lend it, spend it, send it rolling along," before the revelry is shut down by the Sherriff's Office for unpaid debts. By way of explaining the scene, Ginger exclaims "It's the Depression, dearie!"

From that point on, we're gifted with witty repartee, a genius, cigar-chomping Broadway producer - prone to ending every phrase with an exclamation mark and saying things like "Listen, he's got it!" - and staggering dance numbers, each topping the last. The plot of the movie centers on three down-on-their-luck show girls looking for both work on the Great White Way and a sugar daddy to help make it through those troubled times. The filler is entertaining, saucy piffle worthy of any classic film lovers evening. You're here for the dance routines, sure, but the rest ain't bad.

But the dance numbers are indeed marvels of their, or any, age. The final Berkeley routine "The Forgotten Man," for example, is a thing of jaw-dropping wonder. A fantasia of what led to the Depression, Berkeley gives us a gritty blues lament (Remember my forgotten man/You put a rifle in his hand/You sent him far away/You shouted, "Hip, hooray!"/But look at him today!) which morphs into an expressionistic take on WWI soldiers staggering home to breadlines and homelessness, eventually reaching an operatic pitch, gloriously taking the viewer to the end card. I could hardly believe my eyes that the studio would be so audacious as to allow such an over-the-top political number end what is ostensibly a racy, puffy romantic comedy/musical hybrid. But that's the way they did it back then (at least at Warner Brothers), and, perhaps, again some day.

Gold Diggers of 1933 - itself adapted from a stage play which was filmed twice previously - was followed by two sequels, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937 (n/a on DVD). Those noted, if you're only interested in the money shots of undulating streams of dancing (or swimming) ladies, with some serious doses of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire for good measure, check out the literally awesome That's Entertainment! series (GreenCine has four of 'em for rental.)

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Posted by cphillips at September 10, 2007 4:16 PM

Fabulous review, Dylan. You've forced me to put this one on my list. I have the sense that I've seen it way back when. Clearly, it is time for another look.

Posted by: James van Maanen at September 20, 2007 7:44 AM