Gold Diggers of 1933
I have no such thing as "favorite old movie," so when asked what mine is, I either deflect or go on too long in too many directions.
However. Among the handful of pictures I can see any time in (almost) any mood, Gold Diggers of 1933 is high on that list. It's got everything: snappy dialog expertly delivered; beautiful girls in great clothes; weird Dr. Seussian musical numbers; and an adorably silly self-awareness that brings me joy every time.
The gold diggers in question are a group of girls trying to make a living in the show business: ingenue Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), comedienne Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon), torch singer Carol King (Joan Blondell), and hoofer Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers). The film opens on Fay in dress rehearsal for a big musical number backed by a bunch of chorines dressed in nothing but their Sheer Energies and some strategically placed cardboard coins, singing "We're in the Money." Right in the middle of the number, a bunch of goons barge in and start breaking down sets and gathering coins, claiming the creditors are closing the show due to lack of payment.
This throws producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) into a rage and the girls out of work -- again -- this unnamed show being the latest in a series of productions they've rehearsed for but never opened in. Some weeks later, there is a rumor that Barney is casting for a new show! Great news for the girls and for Polly's crush across the way, a young composer and crooner called Brad Roberts (Dick Powell). Barney tells the girls all about this great new show. It's about the Depression, see, with men marching marching marching, can't you hear it? Brad starts playing a doleful march; Barney loves it. Polly thinks Barney should use Brad's music. Barney thinks so too, and Brad will do it if Barney gives Polly a feature role. There are parts for everyone, especially the comedienne, because it's a show about the Depression and it's going to go on for six months, easy!
That is, as soon as Barney gets the money.
Not to worry, Brad says, he can get them the $15,000 they need, no problem, as long as he doesn't have to appear on stage. The girls, presuming him to be just as poor as they are, think he's making a cruel joke. Everybody is annoyed and saddened, but when Brad shows up at Barney's office the next day with stacks of cash, all is forgiven. But the girls (especially Polly) fear that Brad is in trouble with the law or the mob or something: where else would anyone get that kind of money, and in such neat little piles, and why won't he appear in public?
Because Brad Roberts is in reality, Robert Bradford, the youngest son in a wealthy family whose fortune is held in trust by Brad's elder brother, Lawrence (Warren William), that's why. Brad/Robert wants to make it in the musical theater, a profession disdained by his class, and is living incognito on the poor side of town. So the show goes on, with Brad at the piano, Polly in the lead, and Busby Berkeley at the drawing board. On opening night, however, the "juvenile" lead gets an attack of lumbago (he's been a juvenile for 18 years) and Brad MUST go on in his stead, which he does. The show is a SENSATION but Brad is immediately recognized by a society reporter (Charles Lane), who rats him out in the newspaper the next day. Enter angry brother Lawrence and family lawyer, Faneul Peabody (Guy Kibbee), who insert themselves into Brad's happy life.
Now that we've met all the principal girls and boys, the rest of the film is about how each of them wind up with each other. Lawrence mistakes Carol for Polly, falls in love with her (Carol, not Polly); Trixie latches onto Faneul (who's an established big, fat sucker for showgirls) beating off Fay once or twice in the process; and the real Polly and Brad, already in love anyway, wait for all the dust to settle.
Along the way there are three more spectacular, bizarre musical numbers: "Petting in the Park," an irritating if catchy tune about furtive groping through all four seasons; "Waltz of the Shadows," an unmemorable love song accompanied by girls in white dresses making jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic formations while playing neon violins; and the closer of all closers, "Remember My Forgotten Man," a ginormous blues extravaganza that explicates the plight of the Bonus Army in just under eight minutes.
If ever I taught a course on the Depression, I'd anchor it with this picture. It pulls you in with such affable, toe-tapping irony and shows you the door with another: the rousing dirge, a call to action that gives you hope and purpose. So entertaining, so silly, and so much to think about.
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I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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