Sunday, 20 November 2011
Gold Diggers of 1933
Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) dir. Mervyn le Roy
Starring: Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Warren William, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee
By Alan Bacchus
This film is the first of one of the most successful and beloved musical franchises in cinema – the Gold Diggers films, a series of musicals in the ‘30s portraying the predatory attitude of the poor against the rich with comedic fervour and eye-popping musical spectacles.
Busby Berkeley provides the staging and choreography of the musical sequences and the great Mervyn Le Roy (Wizard of Oz) directs this spectacular and topical comedic musical about men and women trying to 'put on a show'. Of course, this was the time of the Depression and the mixture of frenetic comic fever with Berkeley‘s distinct kaleidoscope-like visual spectacle makes all of these films classics beyond compare.
While intended for working class audiences, Le Roy’s execution of the theme of class struggle is just as biting and clever as, say, the sophisticated Renoir films from the same period. The first half of plotting finds poor musician and lyricist Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) struggling, like everyone, to make a living as an artist in bad economic times. But after hearing him play his own little ditties, bombastic stage producer Barney Hopkins hires him to write his next great musical. However, without the money to finance it, Brad miraculously and mysterious ‘finds’ the $15,000 needed to make it all happen.
After Brad is forced to perform in the musical, his identity is revealed as the heir to a rich and respected business family. When his father and brother find out, they arrive at the theatre to chastise him and bring him home. Enter Brad’s vivacious female dancers, who weave their sexual charisma around the stuck-up suits in the hopes of keeping Brad in the theatre and squeezing as much money out of them as possible.
Surprisingly, Le Roy cleverly switches our sympathy from Brad and his desire to buck his family legacy and live the honest life as an artist, to his brother Lawrence and father Fanuel, who, after being set up as the prototypical ‘30s upper class snobs, become putty in the hands of the women. In the case of Fanuel, the story reveals a forlorn love from his past, which his greed for money has tried to suppress.
Interspersed between the comic shenanigans are the scenes from Barney’s new show with the tone of each sequence cleverly reflecting the mood of the characters behind the scenes. As typical of the Berkeley style, his musical numbers are born from the stage-setting of the story, but are played and choreographed 100% for his expressive composition and dynamic moving camera.
In addition to the stunning dance sequences, as a pre-code film we can also appreciate the not-so-subtle suggestive subtext. Le Roy takes delight in showing us some rather salacious skin, including women undressing freely in front of men and the dancers overtly using their bodies to seduce men out of their money. We even get to see some stark naked bodies in silhouette in one of the dance sequences. The musical segment, ‘Petting in the Park’, is particularly naughty, dramatizing just what the title suggests – making out in Central Park
If anything, the film ends rather abruptly and leaves us hanging about the fate of Lawrence Roberts. But it’s not before we're supremely satisfied with the final ‘Forgotten Man’ sequence.