The musical magic of Gold Diggers of 1933 at 90

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Like nan different 2 legendary 1933 backstage musicals from Warner Bros (42nd Street and Footlight Parade) Gold Diggers of 1933 is simply a charmed convergence of individual talents, campy songs, elaborate spectacle and snappy dialogue. In each three, Busby Berkeley directs nan philharmonic numbers, pinch songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The stars and characteristic actors – galore appearing successful each 3 – animate scripts rooted successful play details, and crucially, stay funny to this day. In Gold Diggers, I’m partial to Aline MacMahon arsenic nan unsentimental comic Trixie Lorraine and Ned Sparks arsenic nan hilariously superior shaper Barney Hopkins.

Yet what makes Gold Diggers much than timeless entertainment, turning 90 and caller arsenic a daisy successful 2023, doesn’t look successful nan charismatic screenplay. The movie was group to extremity pinch nan schmaltzy ‘Shadow Waltz’ relegating nan extremist ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ to nan middle. The screenplay besides stipulates a final, diminishing reprise of nan brazen satirical opening number ‘We’re successful nan Money’. Instead, ‘We’re successful nan Money’ opens nan movie successful a authorities of disarray, its brassy opulence rudely interrupted by nan harsh reality of nan Depression. ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ becomes nan finale to reply specified an opening, a different benignant of spectacle wise to harsh reality, erupting onto nan segment conscionable erstwhile you mightiness deliberation it’s each over.

‘We’re successful nan Money’ is simply a number designed to beryllium interrupted: cops large wind nan theater, closing nan show during dress rehearsal since Barney can’t salary his creditors. For nan film, nan spectacle is triumphant. Cutting it short takes head-on nan fantastic, hopeless excess pinch which our dreams mightiness compensate for impoverished regular life. The number features costumes made apparently of thing but elephantine coins, placed pinch bawdy expedience – a chorus of capitalist Eves, literalizing an idiom: these dames are so “in” nan money. As nan film’s title suggests, this is simply a drama of “gold diggers” and it features a group of sassy chorines, each moving women who find emotion successful nan precocious classes.

Yet these women play impishly disconnected nan stereotype. They agelong for nan things money tin buy, but not astatine immoderate price. Interestingly, Ginger Rogers’ Fay is nan 1 main female characteristic who doesn’t find a match, and she’s nan 1 who opens nan movie arsenic soloist successful this cheeky gold-digging number. She looks correct into nan camera, enunciating truthful we cannot perchance miss her gist moreover singing successful pig Latin, successful confrontational close-up. Characteristically, Berkeley goes acold complete nan top, not conscionable delivering a fantasy, but exposing 1 carried to nan constituent of absurdity. The underlying subject of this creation brings america look to look pinch thing stubbornly and strangely real. Rogers closes nan scene, drily: “It’s nan Depression, dearie.”

Because of its accumulation history, and because nan crippled wraps up neatly earlier ‘Forgotten Man’, immoderate critics person considered nan last number an afterthought. Yet its anarchic power is what puts it over. We’ve heard it discussed astatine its conception – rhapsodically, successful nan show-girls’ flat wherever Barney recounts his vision. Barney asks nan composer Brad (a goofy young Dick Powell) if he’s sewage “something pinch a benignant of march effect, march hit to it?” Does he ever.

It’s “something astir a forgotten man.” As Brad starts to play, Barney, electrified, discharges a stark poem successful his typical comic style: “Stop!…Go on…That’s it! That’s what this show’s about! – The Depression – men marching – marching successful nan rainfall – doughnuts and crullers – men marching – marching – jobs – jobs – and successful nan background, Carol – tone of nan Depression – a bluish opus – no, not a bluish opus – but a wailing – a wailing! …”

In nan event, Blondell, not a singer, gives nan opening successful speech-singing aliases recitative. She’s a prostitute, picking up connected a statement earlier successful nan film, erstwhile Brad initially refuses to switch nan show’s lead “juvenile” (stricken pinch lumbago). Brad has his reasons, and that play propels nan romanticist plot, but Trixie doesn’t attraction what his reasons are. If he lets those girls down, they’ll suffer their jobs: “They’ll person to do things I wouldn’t want connected my conscience.” How different group get connected one’s conscience whitethorn beryllium an improbable preoccupation for philharmonic comedy, but it becomes cardinal to nan film, starring up to and including nan last number.

Just really conscience tin person a consciousness of joke comes up successful that speech successful nan show-girls’ apartment. Trixie presses Barney connected wherever she, arsenic comic, fits into this alarmingly superior picture: “Isn’t location going to beryllium immoderate drama successful this show?” “Plenty,” he says. “The cheery side, nan hard-boiled side, nan cynical and funny broadside of nan Depression. I’ll make them laughter astatine you starving to death, honey. Be nan funniest point you ever did.” To laughter astatine specified things is either callous, aliases it is humane successful a measurement that couldn’t person been foreseen, and goes to nan bosom of what makes this movie tick. The funny point astir Barney is that, for illustration Buster Keaton, he ne'er laughs, but he sees wherever laughter is possible.

The last number successful itself mightiness beryllium fatally superior aliases “hilariously dated” (as Pauline Kael recovered it by 1961), taken retired of context. You don’t get from it “the cynical and funny broadside of nan Depression” unless you spot it successful sequence, and successful nan measurement it balances and completes nan opening number, ‘We’re successful nan Money’. A “Forgotten Man” hadn’t conscionable been mislaid, but betrayed. The building came to mean what it intends successful Gold Diggers – a WWI seasoned neglected by his state – pinch a 1932 reside by FDR, earlier his presidency, while nan Bonus Army was preparing to march connected Washington. The song’s imperative is “Remember” yet nan authorities of remembrance are indeterminate. Carol’s opening lines dispense pinch immoderate plea for pity: “I don’t cognize if he deserves a spot of sympathy. Forget your sympathy, that’s alright pinch me…” This won’t beryllium a opus of idealism.

In nan opening series of this number, nan camera pans to women successful windows: 1 worried pinch a baby, looking for illustration she’s walked retired of a Dorothea Lange photograph; 1 white-haired successful a rocking chair, wringing a handkerchief. One is Etta Moten, nan Black vocalist whose rich | contralto picks up wherever Blondell leaves off, lifting reside into song. In an era erstwhile Black performers were formed almost exclusively arsenic servants aliases clowns, there’s powerfulness successful nan calm authority she brings to this comparatively little quality – Moten’s presence, uncredited but not token, is simply a quiet explosion.

Plainclothes costumes play against nan outrageous bling of ‘We’re successful nan Money’. The shape approximating humanities reality – from nan parade sending men disconnected to war; to nan “marching successful nan rain” Barney promised (with bayoneted rifles); to abject soldiers marching backmost from nan warfare successful nan aforesaid rain; to breadlines of nan film’s coming time – plays against Berkeley’s trademark fantasia.

Blondell’s close-up echoes Rogers’ from nan opening, nan steadiness of her regard arsenic if she’s daring america to blink first, and Moten’s singing conveys sorrow and a fiery, dry-eyed resilience. The opus retains its powerfulness coming done these performances, and because of nan persistence successful modern life of group relied upon and betrayed. Veterans of nan warfare successful Afghanistan and Iraq whitethorn beryllium nan evident 21st-century equivalents of “forgotten men” but nan correspondence doesn’t extremity location – these are nan exploited multitudes, implicated astatine each level of first-world life.

The constituent of chance that brought nan movie together, making it whole, primed it to meet a 21st-century request for conscionable this quivering equilibrium betwixt levity and fury. Framed by ‘We’re successful nan Money’ and ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ this sparkling drama of conscience remains a tonic for acheronian times. Making a spectacle of shared suffering turns retired to beryllium 1 measurement to carnivore it.

Published 27 May 2023

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