Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

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Mr Sausage
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Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Feb 04, 2019 6:32 am


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Cold Bishop
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Re: Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

#2 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon Feb 04, 2019 1:03 pm

While this movie awaits a rewatch, I’ll just canibalize what I last wrote about it:
The Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervin LeRoy, 1933)

Hand down, no-question, the best of all the Busby Berkeley musicals. This film is simply a jewel of 1930s cinema, the buzz of 42nd Street parlayed into a command and daring that he would never achieve again. The difference from the earlier film is felt right away. The credits start not unlike that one, the floating-head role-call of each of the film's stars. But when the credits end, we don't fade out into the narrative. A coin is pulled back, another in its place. It clearly reads "1933", and it's no mistake: this is a film about the times. It's pulled back, and he we have the ever-lovely Ginger Rogers staring back at us, singing "We're In the Money", perhaps the most lasting song of all the cycle. We work down the most effective "parade of faces" of them all, each gorgeous face more luminous than the last, back to Rogers. Suddenly, the camera pulls back, and we're thrown into a world of excess, extravagance and kitsch. Coins, coins, everywhere coins! Stuck to the women's dresses, towering over the set, twirling in their arms as if it's raining money! This may be camp if it wasn't so tongue-in-cheek and knowing. It's a parody of American economic might and prosperity, and a cruel one at that. Rogers declares proudly that she never sees a headline about breadlines, and that she can stare her landlord in the eye; little comfort for the people of the audience. Rogers' pig-latin isn't a silly and bizarre piece fun nonsense. Well, it is... but it has its purpose. What better to sum up the complete brazen and irresponsible frivolity of the Jazz Age than devoting an entire section of the song to nonsense, a complete and utter luxury with no utility whatsoever? But the Jazz Age is over, and Old Man Depression has the last laugh. The police bust in, the set is pulled down, the money vanishes. The entire number goes bust like Black Tuesday. The image of cops ransacking the set and shutting down production bring up a flurry of images: financial collapse, bank runs, shuttered business, raids on Hoover camps... and Bonus Army camps. It's the Depression, dearie, and don't you forget it!

That the film actually starts with a musical number is an innovation that can't be overlooked. This film is almost the best Berkeley by default, simply based off its structure. Instead of back-ending the musical numbers, he wisely divides them up and dispenses with them throughout the film. We open with a number, we have another halfway through, then we close with one... and when we think it's over, he hits us with a fourth, and our jaw turns to sea glass. Not only does this provide instant gratification for the musical numbers, it makes the dramatic story more palatable. But the film simply isn't the best because it's structured better; the numbers, while not quite integrated, play against the dramatic narrative and inform it. We cut from the collapse of the first number, and find our three leading ladies trying to scrape by in a room whose rent is well past due. It's all exchanged with clever wisecracks, but there's a palpable sense of desperation that mark these early scenes, and which make them quite effective: the sleeping till noon, the stealing of milk, the sharing of a single dress (not even their own). Joan Blondell, especially, is the ace in the hole to this film, and perfectly sums up its various facets. Her figure and looks are completely blonde bombshell, yet she'll open her mouth and she'll come as hard-boiled as the worst of them. Her big shining eyes can beam like an overexcited child, transform into a come-hither glance that'll stop you in your tracks, then they'll suddenly turn downcast and express a world-weariness well beyond her years. No surprise that she's chosen as the Spirit of the Depression, she's certainly the spirit of these films, and they lose a lot when motherhood calls her away.

If "We're in the Money" leads into the first half of the film, with its focus on the Depression, financial problems and working girls, it nonetheless has to turn into the sex farce that its namesake promises. Just like the first act of the dramatic narrative bounces off the first number, so does the second number announce a shift in the story. "Petting in the Park" operates almost as a prequel to "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," tracing how the lovebirds first met. It starts off on stage, then zooms in on a box of animal crackers, and in that tiny detail, comes to life. I guess the best thing I can say about the number is commend the way Berkeley's surrealistic imagination is given full-reign. The progression of the number is built entirely on the sort of stream-of-conscience twist and turns that I'd expect from the more imaginative cartoons of the era. Suddenly, roller skates. Now, a snow storm. Now, rain. Here, the frightful Billy Barty is the agent of Berkeley's dream-logic as an id-ridden, mischievous infant. This culminates in the scene in which we see the women undress behind the screen curtains, an iconic image on Broadway, and one which Berkeley appropriates for his own aim later in the film. Then, in response to the "date-rapey" overtones of the song, all the women are suddenly outfitted in metal chastity vests, thwarting the men's advances. But, Billy Barty gets the last laugh: he gives Dick Powell a can-opener in the sort of gag I'd expect from a pre-code cartoon.

For a moment, it seems we've put the Depression behind us, and we're back into escapist mode. Here, the sex farce begins. You can hardly blame them; this is, after all, a remake of a 1929 film/1919 play. Berkely and LeRoy, however, wisely condense this section entirely in the second half. They also don't ignore the show-business story, weaving both Powell and Keeler's romance and the need to put on a show into all the duplicity and mistaken identities. And unlike that last film, here, the working, wise-cracking women are put front and center. The class and sexual politics of these films are given their workout here, as upper-class morality meets working-class streetsmarts, all livened up by some great pre-code frankness (that shot of Blondell in her hotel room... wow!) . It's all light stuff, mind you, but it's pulled it off with an ease that the later films would struggle with, and it always remains great fun.

But then we're off again, and to "The Shadow Waltz." It's interesting to note that after all the pre-code shenanigans, Berkeley retreats into his classiest number. For a romantic song in a Berkeley film, it's chaste and tastefully done. But this has a different effect: robbed of sex appeal, Berkeley is able to give full workout to his visual experiments. Speaking of "surrealistic imagination", the round, whirling dresses and contorted swirling staircases almost inarguably bring to mind a Salvidor Dali landscape. At other points, when the cases interlock, one's reminded of Escher. Taking the basic conceit of "Young and Healthy" - white bodies against stark blackness - he pushes it even further. If that film was all about the abstraction of bodies into interlocking and contracting limbs, this does it one better and abstracts them into simply light and shadow. The "neon" violins are a brilliant visual, at times giving the sensation of living animation. The play of the dresses in the kaleidoscope formations give the sensation of contracting pedals in a flower (pointing towards Dames). There's also the play against glass surfaces and reflections, in which our sense of physical reality is distorted until even a concrete image dissolves into water (pointing towards Footlight Parade). This isn't Berkeley fighting against the staid bad habits of film choreography, but fighting against physical representation itself. If Oskar Fischinger directed a musical, it would look something like this.

Then we go backstage, and the sex farce neatly wraps up: Keeler and Powell marry, Kibbee and MacMahon, Blondell and William marry. The romantic coupling become complete, we get our three musical numbers, we get a full night of entertainment. In any other Berkeley, this would be enough to send us home, call it a wrap, with a nice pink ribbon on top. But this isn't just any Berkeley musical. Just when we think it's all over, it comes roaring out the gate with a final number the launches it into the stratosphere.

"Remember My Forgotten Man" is powerful, gutsy, ferocious. It's not only the ballsiest thing in all the Berkeley musicals, but among the ballsiest in all of 1930s Hollywood. At a time when the maxim was escapism and forgetting your worries, here's a number that dives headfirst into the stink. At a time when studio we're getting reluctant to step their toes into politics (although it only gets worse from here), this tackles it head on, with the wounds of the Bonus Army March still fresh. One must credit the optimism that FDR must have inspired, none the least in the Warner brothers themselves, to have allowed this to go on. As it stands, it's a brilliant slice of social-consciousness, agit-prop and white-knuckle filmmaking. Sure, Joan Blondell ain't much of a singer (cue Marian Anderson), but she doesn't need to be; those big blue eyes says as much as a hundred Berkeley kaleidoscopes . The moment when she stops the cop from beating the veteran still gives goosebumps nearly a century on from WWI. This is the ultimate rebuttal to the opening number and all the frivolous escapism it represented. The opening blindly celebrates prosperity and is proud of its ignorance to breadlines and headlines. Here, we watch as the big parades retreats into a nightmare of battlefield carnage, soup kitchens and abandonment. The black silhouettes reappear, but they don't contain nudie cuties this time, but the phantoms of marching soldiers. The surviving, plain-clothed veterans march underneath, towards the camera. The women, so crucial to the Berkeley musical and such a source of delight, are now at the sidelines greeting the men... or imploring them. They raise their arms, like saluting soldiers, and it's true that they are victims of this too: the "parade of faces" is inverted into something troubling, as we pass from window to window, catching a glimpse of a face stricken with grief and anxiety for their "forgotten man". The abused veterans and downtrodden women finally come together around Joan Blondell, the Spirit of the Depression, wailing, invoking us to "bring him back again". Like the FDR campaign, Berkeley is conflating the plight of the WWI veteran with the plight of the country under the Depression. The number is a violent, passionate call to arms, to make this new deal happen, to turn back the dark tide overcoming the nation, and to regain a bit of the former glory we've forgotten. Eight decades later, we've still yet to remember the forgotten man.

It is both surprising and appropriate that there is no prologue here. We're not allowed to come gently down before we're thrown out of the theater. The End credits come quick and sudden, and the power of the final number remains with us. And with that powerful note, Berkeley not just created his masterpiece, but one of the greatest American films ever made

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Re: Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

#3 Post by Godot » Mon Feb 04, 2019 6:26 pm

Cold Bishop wrote:
Mon Feb 04, 2019 1:03 pm
... what I last wrote about it:
Wow. You know, they don't just hand out "Member of the Year!" accolades. As usual, Cold Bishop's post leaves me rolling numerous ideas around that I hadn't previously considered, even for a movie I thought I "got" like this one. I need to dig out the screenplay Wisconsin published in the early 1980s, edited by Arthur Hove; Betterworldbooks has it for $4 (and many others from that wonderful Tino Balio series). That's why I love this forum. Nice way to start the thread!

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Re: Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

#4 Post by Slaphappy » Fri Feb 08, 2019 8:08 am

Overall I don't regard Gold Diggers of 1933 to be Barkeley's best, but "Shadow Waltz" is remarkable and "Remember My Forgotten Man" is one of the best songs featured in his movies.

"Shadow Waltz" is a masterpiece oozing Man Ray influence. Crisp but softly flowing cinematography, playful innovation with dreamy symmetry and distortions, photogram-like neon violins and so on. It's like a surreal mash-up of Edward Burne-Jones's "The Golden Stairs" and Man Ray's "Ingres's Violin". Even if there are cooler ideas in some of his other works, like Daliesque dancing half-man pianos of "Words Are in My Heart" or weird macro/micro-organic abstraction of "By the Fountain", no other piece works as well on whole while taking the stage musical genre way out to the experimental twilight zone.

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