Gold Diggers of 1933 (U.S., Mervyn LeRoy)
In compiling this list of the best of 1933 I realize that I may have more sentimental tastes than I ever knew. As I said in my review of Footlight Parade musicals have never been my favorite genre. So why are at least two of the 10 best pictures of 1933 musicals? (I don’t think it will be giving anything away to say there is another musical that will show up higher on the list.) Am I just a sucker for sentimental baloney? Or was it that Warner Bros (they are all Warner’s pictures) tapped into something in 1933 that resonated with both contemporary audiences and later generations? I’ll choose the latter, but I wouldn’t completely discount the theory that I’m a pushover for schmaltz.
What is wonderful about Gold Diggers of 1933 is the musical numbers (including the now iconic “We’re in the Money” number led by Ginger Rogers) and the plot could stand apart from each other and still have the same effect. This is likely because the film was adapted from a stage play and the numbers were tacked on to cash in on the fad for spectacular musicals. The Depression weighs heavy on the story and only needed to be slightly tweaked from the original 1919 Broadway play to update it. Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) is a promising young songwriter living in New York, but he is really the son of a prominent Boston family, mortified that a scion of their family would degrade their name by working in show business. He meets his three out of work neighbors, actresses and showgirls Carol, Polly and Trixie (Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Aline MacMahon). Polly immediately falls for the clean cut neighbor despite believing him to be poor, but Brad offers to bankroll the show of a producer friend of theirs, assuring them all work. Naturally they think he is either crazy or a crook, but he comes through and the show goes into production.
This is just the set up. Brad’s brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family attorney Fanuel H. Peabody show up to break up his romance with Polly and get him to give up his show business career. However, at the apartment Lawrence mistakes Carol (Blondell) for Polly and, wanting to humiliate him for his snobbery, Carol goes along with the charade, pretending to be a scheming gold digger only after his brother’s money. Meanwhile Trixie (MacMahon) sets her eyes on the wealthy Fanuel, played splendidly by the great character actor Guy Kibbee (with MacMahon above).
Many romantic and screwball comedies use the device of mistaken identity in their plots but it can turn gimmicky the screenwriter often has to perform some mental (not to mention logical) gymnastics to make it work. I have little patience for comedies that only work if we accept situations that don’t make a lick of sense. If can feel the screenwriter manipulating rather than allowing the characters to make a mess of things on their own, I become frustrated. I didn’t feel a bit of that manipulation here. It makes sense that Carol allows Lawrence to believe she is Polly. She is insulted by his arrogance and base assumptions while wanting to divert his attention from the real Polly. And Trixie doesn’t let on because she is out to snag herself a rich husband and “Fanny” Peabody will do just fine. As the picture goes on Carol raises the stakes higher and higher, allowing Lawrence to believe she is a cheap gold digger willing to take money to leave Brad. And we sit happily waiting for the inevitable: his well deserved comeuppance and their own realization that they are falling in love with each other. Sure Gold Diggers of 1933 is a romantic portrait of getting by during the Depression, but it doesn’t discount the economic and social realities either. Busby Berkeley’s incredibly moving “Forgotten Man” number reminded audiences of what they were escaping from by buying a ticket to this movie. (The number, my favorite Berkeley work, includes a startling cut from soldiers marching from war in the rain to the same men standing in bread lines.) That is the power of Gold Diggers of 1933: it served up escapist fare without ignoring the gloomy realities that were going on outside of the theaters.