Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Gold Diggers of 1933


Like many musicals from this early in the sound era, this one could have used more fabulous Busby Berkeley choreography and less plot. But those numbers were expensive and the other stuff wasn’t, and besides, you do need a plot. Still, this one is so standard it’s not really worth repeating much of it. It’s the Depression, and shows are closing before they open. Four chorus girls—Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers, in that order of billing (Ginger’s magical star-making role with Fred Astaire in Top Hat was still a year away)—scheme to get juvenile lead Dick Powell into a new show that he’s written the music for. He’s a Boston Brahmin in hiding, loaded with money but wanting to be in Show Biz, and in love with—who else?—Ruby Keeler. More shenanigans concerning his snobby brother and mistaken identity … and finally, we can get back to the money stuff, with “The Shadow Waltz” and “The Forgotten Man” numbers. The first features Berkeley’s trademark 100 or so blondes in white gowns, this time playing white violins outlined in neon. When the lights are turned out it is a stunning sight. The second is actually rather touching, with hundreds of doughboys marching home from battle, only to end up on the mean streets.

Before that we started the picture right off with the most famous of the dance sequences, one you’ve probably seen excerpted here and there: “We’re in the Money,” with 100 or so blondes dressed in outfits made out of coins and holding giant coins. Ginger Rogers is featured, and doesn’t dance much but sings in extreme close-up, which is not flattering to either her face or her voice. She sings one verse in pig Latin, which was probably funny at the time.

The number in the middle is the best: “Pettin’ in the Park,” with Powell and Keeler. It is way beyond surreal, it is seriously warped, in a fun way, with a quite young Billy Barty (age 9), probably Hollywood’s best-known dwarf, as an infant in a baby buggy who escapes and gets up to mischief. In one scene the chorus girls are changing clothes behind two long screens, seen in silhouette, and Billy pulls up the curtain. Now the girls have on tin blouses. Powell opens Keeler’s with a can opener.

As usual, the notion that these numbers could be mounted on a stage even 100 times the size of the one we see is way beyond laughable, and the transitions, in which the camera will zoom in to an extreme close-up of something that then dissolves into something else would have been completely missed by a live audience. But that’s part of the fun of it, I guess, laughing at the sheer zany foolishness while being blown away by Busby Berkeley’s incredible imagination.