Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933)
Technically a remake of a remake of a film adaptation of a play, Gold Diggers of 1933 is the tale of dirt poor Broadway performers trying to get a show off the ground in the midst of the Great Depression. When songwriter Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) throws a large sum of money into the production, his best gal, first time lead singer Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), wonders where he got the dough. Complications arise, hi-jinks ensue, and choreographer Busby Berkeley drops the fuckin’ mic.
Uh, hey, I’m fairly new to Busby Berkeley (outside of that time travel movie he did with Eddie Cantor), so can I go straight to the musical numbers? Pleeease?
Okay, sorry, boss.
So this is an oddly structured little story, in that it’s got songs and dances on the ends, but the middle is a zany comedy of errors without any tunes whatsoever. It’s not a bad story, but maybe I’m just so used to the musical convention of a tune every eight minutes that it felt a bit saggy in the midsection.
What’s with the chatter? Make with the toe-tappin’!
But okay, let’s cast genre conventions aside; is it still a fun plot? Sure! It’s a whole lot of “you can only have the money if” and “I’ll only keep your secret if” and “I’ll only marry you if” and “I thought you were this person” and “this person thought this about you” and “let’s get a guy wasted and blackmail him.” Oh, you plucky little schemers, you!
Again, though, it’s all kind of forgettable compared to those musical numbers, can we talk about them, can we, can we, can we?
Alright, fine, everybody’s good. Dick Powell is especially wonderful as the constantly smiling musical genius Brad Roberts. He oozes positivity and isn’t a creepwad like that molesty Eddie Kearns from The Broadway Melody.
And he plays his own instruments… ladies.
All the broke women each have perfectly distinct personalities that really shine when they come together. Ruby Keeler is the cutely shy Polly Parker, Ginger Rogers is the glamorous spitfire Fay Fortune, Joan Blondell is the lead vocalist Carol King, and Aline MacMahon is the snarky comedian Trixie Lorraine. If they were trying to set this up as a backdoor pilot for a sitcom, they certainly laid the groundwork.
What’s Great About a Depression?, Thursdays at 8 on CBS.
Also fun are Ned Sparks as the curmudgeonly producer, Warren William as Brad’s snobby brother, and Guy Kibbee as this guy holding a dog.
I smell Oscar.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
What’s really great about this movie is that it knows it’s a movie. Whereas The Broadway Melody plants the camera in the audience and we see what any theatergoer would see as the performers play to the fourth wall, this film is having none of that. A typical number starts out tiny with minimal set decoration…
…and then a dreamlike dissolve and a thrilling camera swoop transport us to a purely cinematic production that no stage could ever do justice.
If you take the time to point out, “Hey, they just edited over the set change from fall to winter! You couldn’t do that in an actual show!” then you officially hate fun, so get out. Gold Diggers of 1933 is smart enough to know that if we wanted to see a live performance, we’d go to a live performance. These numbers have snappy edits and creative camera angles and sets upon sets upon sets filled with enough dancers to collapse a stage. This is true filmmaking.
So, what have we got for tunes? For starters, a brilliantly ironic and mesmerizingly flashy coin-filled performance of “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money).”
Wow. And yes, those are coin panties.
Later on, once the show is ready to open, we get “Pettin’ in the Park,” a naughty little number about public groping. It’s charming, goes on for about eight minutes without ever being boring, and is so much fun that you might forget the segment features a little boy trying to peek at naked women.
Ahh, that Pre-Code smell.
Then, after the movie is just a normal movie for 40 minutes, it’s back to the sensational with “The Shadow Waltz,” which is just… almost indescribable. It’s one stunning image after another that makes full use of light, shadow, camera angle… “jaw-dropping” is not an overstatement.
Picture a roomful of people saying, “AWW, NO WAY!” at a musical.
And then, in a bit of a surprise, the show ends on a somber tune about the miseries of war and the Great Depression called “My Forgotten Man.” The bag of tricks that’s been previously used to dazzle and delight is now opened up to leave us with a powerful message.
Nicely done, movie.
Two notes of, uh, note: first, just like The Broadway Melody, this movie is based entirely around putting on a show, and technically every song in the film is just a stage performance; I’d be hesitant to call it a “true” musical if not for the surreal transformation of each number into pure fantasy. (I should probably stop getting hung up on the qualifications, eh?) Second, many of the songs are first heard as sung by Brad at his piano, or we get a taste of them in a rehearsal. Were early musicals afraid to just put a new tune out there without any warning? Were they trying to prime the audience, or were they so proud of their songwriting that once is never enough?
“Oh, hiya, neighbor! Say, is this ditty I’m working on complete crap?”
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
This week’s winner for the lyric that exists solely to fill some time is the section of “We’re In The Money” that’s inexplicably sung entirely in Pig Latin. And I’m pretty sure it’s wrong and Ginger Rogers is just adorably summoning the devil.
“E’reway inhay the oneymay! E’reway inhay the oneymay!
E’veway otgay alay otway ofway atwhay itway akestay otay etgay alongway!”
I want you to drop everything and watch this movie. And yet, I feel hesitant to call it brilliant as a whole. The entirely non-musical middle portion, as funny as it may be here and there, feels over-complicated (though not by ’30s standards) and a bit… off. But, while it doesn’t completely flow together, the musical numbers are simply too good. See it, see it, see it.
Top Hat (1935)