Gold Diggers of 1933

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

8/10

USA 1933 : Mervyn Le Roy (& Busby Berkeley) : 96 mins

Still perhaps the most enjoyable of all movie musicals, Gold Diggers hits the ground running as Ginger Rogers belts out ‘We’re in the money’ in the very first moments. We’re soon whisked into the first of several crazily elborate Busby Berkeley production numbers, during which Le Roy takes a back seat and hands over the reins to the legendary choreographer – though Berkeley is never credited in movie history books as an official co-director.

You’d be forgiven, however, for thinking the shots are being called by Luis Bunuel when, halfway through this first number, Ginger suddenly switches into gibberish. Continuing to grin inanely, she produces a long, bizarre series of strangulated non-words in tune with the music – is she singing backwards? Is it, in Pauline Kael’s phrase, some kind of ‘pig Latin’? Who knows. Whatever the explanation, this is as nightmarishly disturbing a moment as anything conjured up by David Lynch, Roman Polanski or Tim Burton.

And Rogers’ speaking-in-tongues is by no means the final blast of surrealism in this gleefully absurd, tongue-in-cheek ‘behind the scenes’ Broadway classic: Berkeley’s numbers may start off innocuous, but they nevetr stay that way for long. Take ‘Pettin’ in the park’, a nondescript little ditty for lovebirds Dick Powell (who seems to be on speed throughout the movie) and Ruby Keeler (an actress whose sweet appeal is, if anything, heightened by her rather glaring inability to either sing or dance.) But Berkeley stretches the song out to ridiculous lengths, serving up increasingly way-out visuals that climax with an indoor rainstorm and Keeler turning up wearing a Metropolis-style fetishistic metal costume, which Powell starts to open using a kitchen-standard can-opener. An implement handed to him by a ‘baby’ who we’ve just seen jumping out of his pram, on rollerskates, and eluding a dozen or so Manhattan cops – also on rollerskates.

These startling interludes alternate with much more orthodox Le Roy scenes in which the deliberately dopey, broad-comedy (but still pretty amusing) ‘plot’ unfolds: Powell turns out to be a rich kid from Boston who, against the wishes of his family, pursues a career in what everyone calls ‘the show business’ (“in preference to banking,” sniffs a deadpan relative.) He falls in with a troupe of actresses (the even-handed ensemble includes Keeler, Rogers, Joan Blondell and wisecracking Aline McMahon) down on their luck – we are in the middle of the depression – and cobbles together a socially-conscious Barton Fink-ish musical for them all, at the urging of a foghorn-voiced producer (the show-stealingly cartoonish Ned Sparks).

When the show’s aged ‘juvenile lead’ suffers an untimely bout of lumbago, Powell must tread the boards himself – unexpectedly becoming a star when the show clicks at the box office (this despite the fact that, from the fragments we see, this ‘Forgotten Melody’ makes no sense whatsoever.) When word gets out in the press, his parents send his brother (Warren William) and their lawyer (Guy Kibbee) to restore family honour – only for both to fall into the eager clutches of the crafty ‘gold digging’ showgirls.

It all climaxes in a series of nonsensically abrupt weddings (moral: marry a millionaire to escape the breadline?) before we end on yet another dizzying about-turn – Blondell intoning (not singing), in a disarmingly matter-of-fact manner, ‘My forgotten man,’ a stunningly dark meditation about the WWI veterans who now haunt the American streets as alcoholic hobos. But there’s no time to sort everything out in your mind, as the ending is somehow even more abrupt that the start – as the cinema lights go up, you’ll feel like you’ve been shot out of a cannon.

7th May 2002
(seen 5th May, Cine Side, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young
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