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Gold Diggers of 1933

August 2, 2009

With the fluffy and lighthearted musicals that have been released within the past few years and about to surface, I’ve completely forgotten or maybe just never really knew that a musical could be so deep and socially reflective. With modern film musicals such as High School Musical, Phantom of the Opera, and Dreamgirls the impression of musicals as being memorable and enjoyable has in my mind been long forgotten. While I don’t consider the aforementioned films to be bad musicals, I do consider them unimpressive and average. While frivolous musicals of mere spectacle have existed since the dawn of the musical film, one gem stands out as one of the most impressive and powerful musicals, Gold Diggers of 1933. Instead of a simple story that ends in a neat bow, Gold Diggers offers a rich and complex script filled with snarky hilarious dialogue, satire, a ridiculous amount of sexual innuendo, and dazzling choreography by famed Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley. Question: So what makes Gold Diggers a better musical than say Rent, Dreamgirls, or Hairspray for that matter? Answer: Its bold take on social problems and female stereotypes, while also effectively delivering romance, humor, and drama. Not bad for a film made in 1933.

Gold Diggers starts with Fay (Ginger Rogers) leading an elaborate musical sequence “We’re in the Money”, while a sea of women sing gaily, and that’s 1933 gay not today’s gay, and move in fluid synchronization behind her clad in skimpy shimmering bras and 3 large cardboard coin cut outs; one on each hand and one on the crotch. Fay gracefully sings part of the song in Pig Latin, inspiring me to brush up on the language I use to speak so fluently in 2nd grade, as its revealed that the girls are rehearsing for a show. Rehearsal comes to halt however with the appearance of cops and producer Barney Hopkins’ (Ned Sparks) creditors who shut down the show because of an enormous amount unpaid debt by Barney.

The next scene opens to the main story as three women Trixie, Polly, and Carol awake to a lifeless alarm clock. They reminisce on the days when there was a reason for the clock to go off and announce their preparation for work. They convince themselves to get up and deal with another hard unemployed day as it is revealed that the three are out of work showgirls, but not the trashy-stripping-drifter showgirl Elizabeth Berkley once played (RIP Elizabeth’s career), but actual theater actresses who sing and dance… in skimpy clothing. The girls are late on rent, have had furniture repossessed, and are forced to steal milk from their neighbors balcony every morning. After offering to make breakfast one girl questions “do we have bread?” to which Trixie (Aline MacMahon) asks “do we have a table?” So what happened to make a group of beautiful showgirls so dead broke and depressed in 1933? Oh yeah the Great Depression, further explored when Fay enters and tells the girls of an opportunity to be cast in Barney’s new show. The girls become elated with the prospect of work at one point breaking down in tears of joy. Barney arrives at the girl’s apartment and fills their head with the blueprint of his new and spectacular show, finding more inspiration from the piano playing of the girls’ neighbor and Polly’s lover Brad Roberts (Dick Powell). Barney assigns Brad to be the principal songwriter for his big production musical about the Depression before dropping the bomb that the girls will not be in the show because there actually isn’t one due his lack of money to produce it; Brad offers to pay the $15,000 play instead—in cash.

Convinced he is only lying in an attempt to impress (and bang) his lover Polly, the girls fall into a slump as prostitution seems to be their only option survive. Brad however comes up with the money revealing himself to be the son of a millionaire whom has run away from his family and their unsympathetic beliefs of life in the theater. The play becomes a success and raved about in papers causing his brother Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) to not only find out about his new life as a songwriter but also his engagement to showgirl Polly (Ruby Keeler). Lawrence and his family lawyer Faneul Peabody (Guy Kibbee) decide to go to Polly’s home in order to pay off the vulgar gold digging jezebel who is only attempting to marry his brother for his money—atleast in their conservative minds. Once at Polly’s Lawrence berates her for her gold digging ways and criticizes all showgirls for their slutty and hedonistic lifestyle. However he makes one mistake– well besides being an ass, the woman he is berating is not Polly but Carol (Joan Blondell) while Trixie eavesdrops. The two decide to teach the foolish men a lesson by showing them what two gold digging women are really like as they make a plan to take the two men for every dime they can squeeze and thus the wacky hijinks and shenanigans of mistaken identity done so well by Classic Hollywood unfolds.

What makes Gold Diggers so amazing is the script. The dialogue is witty and edgy as the film not only focuses on the arching story of the four women trying to survive in a dark and dangerous time but it takes a bleak and somber topic, one that moviegoers fully understood and were personally experiencing, and gives the audience something to laugh at while still maintaining a serious attitude on the subject. Gold Digger’s also is a reflection of the quick changes in social and moral customs as seen through musical numbers and dialogue. An eight minute musical number “Pettin in the Park” (which is exactly what the title implies– an eight minute song and dance about the taboos of being with a woman in the park and engaging in public finger play and “baseball” scoring) reflects societal change of a generation coming off the cusp of the hedonistic 1920s, when public knowledge of casual sex and heavy petting became accepted in society, when women dressed in short outfits with androgynous haircuts and smoked cigarettes all of which were big no-no’s prior to the decade.

Lawrence and Fanuel become reminders that by 1933 the days of sexual and artistic freedom for women were long gone as society returned to its conservative ways and would stay there until the end of the 1960s. Gold Digger’s ends on a solemn note with some women breaking stereotypes and others strongly enforcing them, however it’s the touching final number “Remember my Forgotten Man” that reflects another major aspect of the Depression. The song expresses grief and sympathy for World War I veterans who were promised bonus pay for their services but instead were repaid with a cold shoulder from the government as they were forced to stand in bread lines in hope of receiving food. Even with its somber ending Gold Digger’s reminds the audience why film is considered a powerful art by many as a stage version of the film would not have the same punch due to its physical restrictions. Film allowed the background dancers to have faces and expressions with long shots from various angles and close ups of various dancers and actors, reminding us that not only were these four women affected by the Depression but everyone in 1933 was.

SEE IT: As soon As Possible.

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