Home Video Reviews
Considering that it's the first entry in a famous series of 1930s musicals (with follow-ups in 1935, 1937 and 1938), it's surprising that Gold Diggers of 1933 is barely a musical. Although Gold Diggers of 1933: FDR's New Deal… Broadway Bound, the featurette on the movie's new DVD, just touches upon it, the most interesting thing in the short is news that the movie was originally intended as more of a straight drama and that, inspired by the success of 42nd Street, it blossomed into a musical. Still, there's a long stretch in the mid-section in which there are no musical numbers and, for better or worse, plot takes over.
Familiar faces from Warner Bros. early-1930s pictures abound in this story of a trio of chorus-girl roommates (Aline MacMahon, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler) who, stung by a series of cash-strapped shows that never make it to opening night, try to keep financially solvent. The fun opening, with Ginger Rogers singing the intentionally ironic "We're in the Money" (including a verse in Pig Latin), shows us one of those non-openings, when the sheriff's men barge in and shut down the dress rehearsal because of the production's debts. Fortune arrives in the form of the struggling actresses' new songwriter neighbor (Dick Powell). The closed show's producer (Ned Sparks) has a solid idea for a new show about the Depression, yet can't find backing for it. But not only does he like the songwriter's material; the newcomer also gives the producer the money to stage the show.
The show indeed goes on, which is usually the cue to start a flurry of production numbers. Gold Diggers of 1933 gives us one number, "Petting in the Park" (which, like "Honeymoon Hotel" in Footlight Parade, manages to be both risqué and overly cute), and then concentrates on plot. Powell's songwriter is adamant about not performing in the show, leading the roomies to wonder if he's a wanted man. A last-minute injury to the male lead presses the reluctant composer into service (what a surprise!) and soon the press outs him as a "Boston blue blood." His older brother (Warren William) and family lawyer (Guy Kibbee) are soon in town to tell him he'll be financially cut off if doesn't quit shameful show business and break up with Polly (Keeler), who he intends to marry.
But the street-smart actresses hop into action. When the brother thinks Blondell's Carol is Polly, no one tells him otherwise. She keeps him confused, while Trixie (MacMahon) wraps the doddering lawyer around her finger. As the women bamboozle and romantically seduce the men (a bit of each), they're all too happy to let the two rich Bostonians wine and dine them. MacMahon, who was usually relegated to less glamorous, plainer roles in the 1930s and then went on to play mainly matronly roles in later decades, steals the show, dressing elegantly, getting most of the laughs and, surprisingly in a movie with Blondell, playing the cynic with the tart one-liners. She's supposed to be the least attractive of the roommates (someone calls her a "giraffe" at one point), but she's actually very becoming and shines by showing a rarely-seen side here. (As in Footlight Parade, the presence of Warner tough cookies like Blondell, who's in both, offsets the saccharine duo of Powell, a decade away from reinventing himself as a dramatic actor, and Keeler.)
As this plot-heavy mid-section winds down, identities are untangled and bruised egos soothed as everyone heads back to the theater for the movie's most memorable production number, "My Forgotten Man." Although "Shadow Waltz," which immediately precedes it, is the more typically fantastic Berkeley number, complete with neon-accented violins and bows, winding stairs and a reflecting pool, the jolt of emotion and grit in "My Forgotten Man" is much more striking.
Starting with a spoken-sung verse from Blondell leading into a moving vocal by Etta Moten and a series of tableaux of weary women that recall the Depression photographs of Walker Evans, "My Forgotten Man" salutes the World War I veterans who served the country and in 1933 found themselves struggling to survive in the Depression economy. "My Forgotten Man" may be the only musical number to feature a soup line, and though this blend of song, dance and social commentary sounds like something tasteless that The Producers' Roger De Bris might cook up, it really works. Perhaps because of the movie's metamorphosis into a musical, perhaps because seguing into a typical happy coda seemed impossible, Gold Diggers of 1933 just ends after the number.
As with the other DVDs in The Busby Berkeley Collection, in addition to the featurette mentioned above, the Gold Diggers of 1933 disc also includes Warner Bros. cartoons that recycle the movie's Warren-Dubin songs and two musical shorts, including the two-reeler Seasoned Greetings, starring Lita Grey Chaplin (Charlie's ex) and co-starring seven-year-old Sammy Davis, Jr. in his movie debut. Because Warner Bros. chose to simply stick the pre-existing 42nd Street DVD into the Berkeley boxed set, one new and one vintage featurette for that movie appear on the Gold Diggers of 1933 disc, too.
For more information about Gold Diggers of 1933, visit Warner Video. To order Gold Diggers of 1933, go to TCM Shopping.
by Paul Sherman