Most musicals and comedies made during the 1930s were escapist fluff, meant to take audiences’ minds away from the troubles of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl for a couple of hours of music and laughter. Fred and Ginger’s dancing at RKO, Bing Crosby’s singing at Paramount, MGM’s Broadway Melody series, the screwball comedies of Hawks and Leo McCarey, the slapstick stylings of the Marx Brothers – all of them sparkling and calculated to ignore the economic woes of the world outside.
But Warner Bros. as a studio was known for making less glamorous, more hard-hitting films in the 1930s, building their reputation on gangster films and “ripped from the headlines” social commentary pictures. It’s probably not surprising, then, that musicals made at Warner Bros. would have a different tone than most contemporary musicals. Sure enough, both show business classic 42nd Street and lesser-known programmer Gold Diggers of 1933 (which would spawn two sequels) take the Depression itself as a major theme and plot point.
Gold Diggers of 1933
42nd Street (1932)
42nd Street isn’t known as the granddaddy of backstage movies for nothing – it opens with word spreading around Broadway that famed director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a show, continues through auditions and rehearsals, setbacks and last-minute casting changes, and finishes with the opening night extravaganza.
(Click through for the rest of the entry. The video below is a brief bit of amusement from Gold Diggers of 1933.)
Marsh is just recovering from a nervous breakdown, and this show may be his comeback or his downfall. He’s really the central character of the story, though he’s surrounded by a large supporting cast: Ruby Keeler as the bright-faced wanna-be chorus girl, Dick Powell as the peppy juvenile actor, Bebe Daniels as the big star who brings the money to the show in the form of infatuated checkbook-weilder Guy Kibbee, George Brent as the man who threatens the show by coming between Daniels and Kibbee, and Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel as the wisecracking comic relief. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of subplots, but it all holds together rather better than you’d expect.
But let’s make sure we’re a little honest here. 42nd Street isn’t a great movie because it has a cast full of great actors. Warner Baxter holds it together dramatically as Marsh, and Rogers and Merkel keep it sarcastically funny, but no one else can act at all. It’s not even a great movie because it has the best singing and dancing ever – Keeler made a lot of tap-dancing movies in her time, and compared to, say, the dancers in 1920s movies, she’s not bad, but just wait until Ginger actually got some real dancing parts, or Eleanor Powell started hoofing at MGM. That spelled the end for the relatively heavy-footed Keeler.
42nd Street works because it has a vitality and freshness that actually revitalized the musical as a cinematic form. It works because choreographer Busby Berkeley is a genius of some sort. You can’t really call a lot of what he does dancing – it’s more like geometric manipulation that has to be seen from the top or bottom or other views that could not possibly exist in an actual live theatre, but that’s just the thing. He liberated the cinema musical from its dependence on stage-bound design. And it works because of its inspired mix of cynicism and optimism that could perhaps only come out of the Depression.
It’s not five minutes into the movie that Bebe Daniels tells her wanna-be lover/investor that she can’t have her pick of shows, “not with this Depression,” but the thought is belied by her incredibly large and well-appointed apartment. Later, Marsh gives Keeler (who predictably gets bumped up from the chorus into a leading role) a pep talk largely based around how many jobs would be lost if she fails to win over the audience. Though the characters don’t constantly harp on the Depression verbally, it’s sort of a background constant, and the climactic title number – a mini-story in itself, though not as epic as some of Berkeley’s later extravaganzas – brings out the desperate mood of the times with its minor key, depictions of murder and death, and yet gives a sense of the vibrant life that continues and will continue as long as Broadway itself stands. As the song goes: “The big parade goes on for years; it’s the rhapsody of laughter and tears. Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty, 42nd Street.”
Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers is both more explicit about and less infused with the Depression than 42nd Street. It begins with Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” (which includes lines like “Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong” and “we never see a headline about a breadline today”), but it turns out to be a rehearsal that gets interrupted by creditors shutting down the show for lack of payment for the theatre. From there we find three showgirls lamenting how few jobs there are and how they can’t afford food and clothes – but their spacious New York apartment is almost less believable than Bebe Daniels’ in 42nd Street. After all, these are chorus girls, not established stars.
Anyway, they learn a producer friend is putting on a show and the songwriter (Dick Powell again) across the courtyard somehow has the money to back it, with the caveat that his sweetheart Ruby Keeler (again) play the lead. From there, though, the story sort of devolves into a brief mystery regarding Powell’s true identity and where his money comes from, and then a REALLY contrived and unbelievable plot involving Keeler’s friend Joan Blondell (who’s far better than the material she’s given) and Powell’s rich brother, who doesn’t want Powell to get mixed up with showgirls. It also loses the undercurrent of the Depression, as it focuses on the backstabbing and role-playing and inexplicable falling-in-love of the characters, who start living up to the title of the film even though most of the point is supposed to be that they don’t.
By the time it’s over, there are so many unmotivated character shifts and unprovoked decisions that it’s really better to ignore the plot altogether and focus solely on Busby Berkeley’s dance routines and the one-off zingers that Blondell, Rogers, and Aline MacMahon can deliver so well. The last number finally remembers that the movie originally wanted to be about the Depression and ties it into the veterans of WWI, lamenting the fact that so many men who fought for their country are now in breadlines. Thankfully, the film ends with the strong visuals and emotion of “Remember My Forgotten Man” rather than with any silly pleasantries of the plot.
Yet even with its silliness, I still have a huge soft spot for Gold Diggers of 1933. Maybe it’s Ginger singing in Pig Latin, or dialogue exchanges like “If Barney could see ME in clothes…” / “He wouldn’t recognize you!” Or maybe it’s the shameless extravagance of Berkeley’s choreography, which would never fit on an actual stage – the routines are actually quite a bit better and more polished here than in 42nd Street. Or maybe it’s Warner Bros’ willingness to keep harping on the Depression, however sporadically and unevenly, and allow Harry Warren and Al Dubin to pen minor-keyed songs about it rather than allow people to just pretend everything’s all hunky-dory for a couple of hours in a cinema.
42nd Street is easily the superior film of the two and works much better as a whole – but I still wouldn’t give up the many delightful moments in Gold Diggers of 1933. Other films in the same vein are the other two Gold Diggers films, Gold Diggers of 1935 (which is similarly weak on story, but has the extended “Lullaby of Broadway” number which stands as one of the greatest things ever put on film) and Gold Diggers of 1937 (which is worth no-one’s time), as well as Dames (1934), Footlight Parade (1934 – gains a bit of cred due to James Cagney’s presence), and Go Into Your Dance (1935 – gains little cred, but historical interest due to pairing Ruby Keller with her real-life husband and renowned entertainer Al Jolson). It’s also interesting to compare the Gold Diggers series with MGM’s similarly-themed but much more posh Broadway Melody series (of 1936, 1938, and 1940) to see the marked difference in studio style.
Just for kicks, Ginger Rogers doing “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin. Legend has it she was bored on set doing tons of retakes and did a verse of the song in Pig Latin. Director Mervyn LeRoy liked it so much he left it in the film.