‘Gold Diggers of 1933’: Fast Talk and Hard Times

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“Gold Diggers of 1933” is a terrific picture, the best of all the Warner Bros. backstage musicals. The screenplay is so witty and full of charm that the picture would be a pleasure even without the bizarre Busby Berkeley numbers. The cast is composed of the usual stock characters: the overnight sensation (Ruby Keeler), the incognito/slumming boy singer (Dick Powell), the wise-cracking matron (Aline MacMahon), the agitated producer (Ned Sparks), the theatre-hating bluebloods from out of town (Warren William and Guy Kibbee), the chippie with the heart of gold (Joan Blondell), the hoyden without a heart of gold (Ginger Rogers), etc., etc.; the plot is a compendium of The Show Must Go On clichés and conventions — there’s really nothing new about any of it — and yet, the picture is better than merely funny: it is also surprisingly moving. That it is funny is no surprise, but every time I see it, it’s funnier than I had remembered. Great lines keep whizzing by. Here are a few examples, taken at random:

Fay (Ginger Rogers): Aw, gee. I look much better in clothes than any of you. If Barney could see me in clothes . . .
Trixie (Aline MacMahon): . . . He wouldn’t recognize you.

*   *   *

Barney (Ned Sparks — asking about Brad (Dick Powell), a young composer): Yeah, what’s he done?
Polly (Ruby Keeler): Well, he hasn’t had a chance to do anything yet, Mr Hopkins, but he has genius.
Barney: Yeah? Well, the show business could stand a little genius .  .  .

*   *   *

Barney (trying to persuade Brad to be in the show): Now listen: you and Polly would make a swell team — like the Astaires! You’d be a knockout for the mush interest . . . !

*   *   *

Don Gordon (Clarence Nordstrom): Now let me tell you something: I’ve been a juvenile for eighteen years! And you’re gonna tell me how to sing a song?!

*   *   *

Barney: Listen, Brad, whyntcha do this juvenile part yerself? You’ve got it over Gordon like a tent!

*   *   *

Trixie (dancing with Guy Kibbee): You’re as light as a heifer . . . uh, feather.

When Metro tried to do this sort of musical, they always bollocksed it up with sentimentality. Take “Ziegfeld Girl,” for example: Judy Garland, in order to get her career on track, must break away from her excruciating has-been vaudevillian father, Charles Winninger; while Lana Turner, late of Flatbush, is unwilling to settle down with honest truck driver Jimmy Stewart and therefore (in typical Metro fashion) pays for her independence by dropping dead of an unspecified party-girl illness. In the backstage musicals over at Fox, too much emphasis was placed on dud romantic pairings. In “The Gang’s All Here,” the picture comes vividly alive when Alice Faye sings “No Love, No Nothin’,” but it dies a thousand deaths in the love-clinches. Nobody cares whether she ends up with that zero named James Ellison, who is her leading man. Six times she ended up with prissy, ruby-lipped Don Ameche: did anyone, other than Don Ameche, want to see her kissing Don Ameche? I know I don’t . . .

Ned Sparks, Ruby Keeler: 'The theatre could stand a little genius . . . '

Ned Sparks, Ruby Keeler: ‘The show business could stand a little genius . . . ‘

Love is always in the air in Warner Bros. backstage musicals, but nobody pretends it matters. It’s the gags, the snappy patter, the bare skin and the hallucinatory numbers that count. And the acting is always better in the Warners backstagers.

“Gold Diggers of 1933” is bracingly pre-code — it’s full of lewdness and casual criminality, the sort of stuff that widened the eyes of Joe Breen and made him foam at the mouth. Early in the picture, Aline MacMahon steals a bottle of milk from her neighbors and gets away with it. She makes a habit of stealing food from the neighbors. Nobody goes to prison for the theft; nobody feels guilty or even sorry about it. Over at Metro, Judge Hardy would probably have sent MacMahon to the chair for her incorrigible disregard of the law.

The Visionary

Every backstage musical has a hard-driven, hard-driving, fast-talking wizard who is the brains and imagination behind the hit show that has its premiere at the end of the picture. Sometimes he’s the director, other times he’s the producer; in these stories, the two are interchangeable. In “Gold Diggers of 1933,” he’s a producer/director of genius named Barney Hopkins. We see little of how Barney runs his rehearsals, but we get something rather more interesting and exciting: we see him at the exact moment of inspiration, when he suddenly sees every detail of his next hit show dancing before his eyes. And another interesting thing: he’s played by sourpuss character actor, Ned Sparks. In most other backstage musicals, the creative dynamo is a leading man part (e.g., Warner Baxter, Jimmy Cagney); he usually has some sort of conflicted love affair with his leading lady, and he nearly always has a grasping ex-wife who kicks up a financial rumpus at regular intervals, just to make sure the road to success is plenty bumpy. But Ned Sparks is not burdened with any emotional attachments or romantic entanglements: his Barney Hopkins lives to put on shows and nothing else. Sparks was an extremely popular supporting actor all through the thirties: the cartoonists at Warners made him a semi-regular character in their animated shorts (e.g., “The Coo-Coo Nut Grove“), but Disney’s animators also parodied him in their cartoons. Sparks was so famous for his sour expression, he took out a $10,000 insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London to protect his reputation from being damaged if ever a photographer took a picture of him while he was smiling. At times, he looks almost astonishingly similar to Steve Buscemi; Buscemi’s range as an actor may be broader, but Sparks is much funnier.

Caricature of Ned Sparks from 'The Coo-Coo Nut Grove.'

Caricature of Ned Sparks from ‘The Coo-Coo Nut Grove.’

The scene below comes just after Barney has overheard Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) play a tune in the apartment across the airshaft and orders him to come play for him. Barney is impressed with the young songwriter, and asks to hear another tune. Sparks goes in for broad effects, but he’s got the commitment and intensity to make them work. As Barney Hopkins, he’s a true visionary: the Artist as Hero; in this scene, we see him in the act of creation. Of course his acting style is artificial, theatrical and played to the last row of the second balcony, but his performance gives me goosebumps even while I laugh at it. I think it looks the way creativity feels — if you’re able to accept the artifice, the moment is thrilling.

So Brad goes back to his apartment on the other side of the airshaft and a few minutes later, this is what happens.

“Gee, don’t it getcha?” Well, it sure gets me.

The Foolish Old Moneybags

Guy Kibbee, who appeared in several of Warners’ backstage musicals, is a reliably funny actor, but I think he was never better than he is in this one. He plays a Boston moneybags named Faneuil H. Peabody, who gets taken to the cleaners by the gold digging Trixie (Aline MacMahon). In this clip, he reminisces about the last time he got involved with a chorus girl. That’s the light-loafered Eric Blore who stomps out at the end of the clip. This was one of his first Hollywood pictures. He’s so much younger than I’ve ever seen him before, that I didn’t recognize him at first. But that sibilant, silly ass British accent is unmistakable.


Later in the picture, we see Fuffy entirely under Trixie’s spell. In this scene, he has a low comedy bit with a dog. Kibbee’s such an old pro that he upstages the animal.

The Low Vaudeville Comedy

“Gold Diggers of 1933” also contains a peculiarly American brand of low comedy that was a staple of vaudeville: the dimwit immigrant comics with the silly foreign accents. This short clip makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I see it. I love dialect comedy; the more outrageous it is, the better I like it — it’s just about the lowest comedy there is — but I love Ned Sparks’ irritable wise cracks even better. My personal hero, the great George S. Kaufman himself, would not have been ashamed to write these gags.

The Pep Talk

At some point in every backstage musical, we get the pep talk. The device was so common that there’s even a joke about it in one of the last of the backstage musicals, “The Band Wagon” (Metro, 1953). The most famous of them all is the one delivered by Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler in “42nd Street” (Warner Bros., 1932). It is the template for all the others that followed.

Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give. They’ve got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can’t fall down. You can’t because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I’m through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!

Here’s Aline MacMahon giving the obligatory pep talk. You will see that she does it with supreme authority, at breakneck pace, yet with great specificity and attention to detail: MacMahon allows nothing to be vague or a generalized emotion. And she does it in a single take.

And yet, for all the low-down comedy and farcical elements, “Gold Diggers of 1933” is really very touching. These chorus girls — the gold diggers — are so resourceful and resilient, so good-natured, so lively and entertaining as they try to make careers for themselves in the bruising hurlyburly of the show business, and in the depths of the Great Depression, that they inspire genuine affection and sympathy. And they make you laugh. Not one of them has an ounce of self-pity — no complaint is ever unaccompanied by a gag — and not one of them would consider giving up on her dream of a successful theatrical career. When Trixie says of Brad, “He has nerve! He’s regular! He b’longs in the show business!” it’s the highest praise she can possibly give. The chorines’ devotion to their profession is evidence of their valor. In this picture, low-down variety artists are heroic figures, not phonies or dopes or egomaniacs — leave that to the swells. These chorus girls suffer set-backs far more often than they enjoy triumphs, but they rise above their disappointments and soldier on . . . and they never stop looking out for one another (even if they do swipe fresh bottles of milk from their neighbors’ window sills). I like the way the picture celebrates talent and commitment to one’s dreams; I’m touched by the way Barney Hopkins recognizes musical talent at once and hires it on the spot: “I’ll cancel my contract with Warren and Dubin: they’re out!” he exclaims after hearing only one and a half songs by Brad, who has not a single professional credit to his name. “I want you to write the music for this show and the lyrics!” (That’s an inside joke, of course: Warren and Dubin wrote the songs for the picture.)

‘Is Everybody Nutty?!’

On the other end of the spectrum from Brad, who heroically risks losing his inheritance by agreeing that The Show Must Go On, there is the arch-fiend, who tries to prevent the show from happening. No backstage musical is complete without the stock character of the skulking show-closer. He comes in many forms: the unpaid creditor, the blackmailing cop, the implacable sheriff, the bitter has-been, the pious busybody, the jilted boyfriend, etc., but whatever form he takes, he always appears just before the opening night curtain goes up. Take a look at this clip which comes right before the finale (“Remember My Forgotten Man”).

This phony “Detective” Jones (Fred Kelsey, who appeared in over 450 pictures and almost never got a credit) is the one true villain in the picture. It’s bad enough that he tries to close the show and throw the kids out of work, but he’s a veteran actor himself. In the theatrical world, an actor who doesn’t abide by the one unbreakable law, The Show Must Go On, is the lowest sort of scoundrel. Yet I find genuine pathos in his predicament: he’s as hard up as all the kids in the show, and this is the only acting work he has been able to find. It’s both funny and heartbreaking when he complains “That’s no way to speak of an artist! Why, I’ve played with Sir Henry Irving, George Arliss and David Warfield!” What an actor! Even when caught in his villainy, he can’t resist listing his credits! But Ned Sparks is having none of it.

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  1. Pingback: Busby Berkeley Dance Numbers | The Claude Rains Fan Club

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