Tag Archives: Guy Kibbee

‘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.

Busby Berkeley Dance Numbers

Original Poster

Original Poster

Gold Diggers of 1933” is a picture that I like a lot — especially Guy Kibbee as the dyspeptic, jumpy banker, a Boston blue-blood stiff-neck, who is putty in the hands of any pretty girl who sits in his lap and calls him “Fuffy.”  Joan Blondell is the sort of pretty girl who would call him “Fuffy” and cheerfully rob him blind, but in this one, she sets her cap for the hatchet faced Warren William. It therefore falls to wisenheimer Aline MacMahon to take Fuffy to the cleaners, which she does hilariously and completely. Blondell had a long career; I’ve seen her in a lot of bum pictures, but I’ve never seen her give a bad performance. It’s possible that this is her very best of the 158 pictures she made. In “Remember My Forgotten Man,” she so easily could have been sentimental, but she stays tough and underplays it. A terribly unappreciated actress, she’s excellent in “Nightmare Alley.” Aline MacMahon is an actress who is always worth paying attention to; her type of smart, single gal who knows the angles, but keeps missing the boat, stopped showing up in pictures sometime in the 1950s. MacMahon’s stock character went away, but her style hasn’t dated at all. In a small part, Ginger Rogers is funny, coarse, and she sings “We’re In the Money” in Pig Latin.

Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell:  'Every time you say "cheap & vulgar," I'm gonna kiss you!' 'Cheap & vulgar! Cheap & vulgar!  Cheap & vulgar!'

Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell: ‘Every time you say “cheap and vulgar,” I’m gonna kiss you!’
‘Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar!’

When I was younger, I didn’t care for the Warner Bros. Vitaphone backstage musicals. I always admired the way the men were dressed — I love the double-breasted suits with the wide lapels and the fedoras, but the slick hair, the pencil moustaches, the blackened lips, the mascara around their eyes — all of these things gave me the creeps. And everything about Dick Powell — his appearance, the rat-a-tat tremolo of his voice, the stridency of personality — repelled. (I still can’t stand him, though I can’t deny he’s talented.) So I always avoided the Vitaphone musicals. Then, back in the early spring of 2001, when I had just finished unpacking from a trip to Paris, I turned on the television and saw about two thirds of “Footlight Parade” on TCM. For some mysterious reason, my former objections no longer had any weight — how could I have ever disliked this sort of picture? There was so much about the genre to please me: tap dancing, berserk production numbers, loud-mouth floozies, bubble-headed chorines, harried directors and stage managers, gangsters talking out the side of their mouths — I suddenly realized it was the sort of entertainment that I’d been looking for all my life! How had I lived for more than 40 years without ever having seen “Footlight Parade”? I thought it was absolutely hilarious from the moment I turned it on. I especially liked the hard-berled patter and the Depression Era slang. The first lines I heard spoken turned out to be my favorites: the put-upon dance director (Frank McHugh) screams at the chorus girls. “No, no, no! Girls! This is supposed to be a Prosperity number!” And a gum chewing chorine with peroxide hair and a Betty Boop voice replies indignantly, “How can we look Prosperity when he’s got Depression all over that pan o’ his?

'Footlight Parade':  'This is a prosperity number!'

‘Footlight Parade’: ‘This is a prosperity number!’

At first glance, the “Forgotten Man” sequence at the end of “Gold Diggers of 1933” seems strangely out of place, even in a picture that has its fair share of surreal Busby Berkeley numbers: how odd to conclude a featherweight farce with a bucket of ice cold water in the face!  But the entire picture has been leading up to “Remember My Forgotten Man” from the very first scene — we’re watching the final rehearsal of the comically sarcastic “We’re in the Money”; marshals show up with a court order to shut the production down for non-payment of bills. It’s a perfectly delightful, merry comedy, but the Great Depression and social injustice run through every scene. “Gold Diggers of 1933” is the one of the few Busby Berkeley extravaganzas in which the non-musical parts are as entertaining as the musical numbers.

The picture was released in May of 1933, which means it must have been filmed sometime in the fall or winter of 1932, or at the latest, at the very beginning of 1933.  In June of 1932, the Bonus Army — 43,000 starving World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand cash payments for their service certificates; on July 28, President Hoover called in the Army, under the command of General MacArthur and General Patton, who routed them.  The newsreel cameras were on the scenes; the footage of Federal troops firing on starving veterans was seen by movie audiences all over the country. The political climate of the Forgotten Man number.  And Busby Berkeley, who was himself a veteran of World War I: a drill sergeant. No number could be more perfectly suited to his talent, background and temperament. Next time you watch one of his big numbers, notice how little real dancing goes on.  There’s a lot more marching and close order drill than dancing in his choreography. It’s reasonable to suppose that the previous summer’s routing of the Bonus Marchers must have made a deep impression on a man whose entire career was based on what he did in the army.  And one more thing:  when the movie was released, a smaller version of the Bonus Army had reformed and returned to Washington to see if the new President would be more accommodating.  So they were very much in the news.

The Forgotten Man number

The Forgotten Man number

As much as I like “42nd Street” as a picture, I prefer the Broadway musical version.  Everything about the stage show is more appealing.  The plot is the same, but it’s sprightlier and funnier and has about a dozen musical numbers instead of three or four.  The additional numbers are taken from the other Vitaphone backstage musicals written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

Ginger Rogers:  Her money-maker looks like a microphone.

Ginger Rogers: Her money-maker looks like a microphone.

As for Ruby Keeler, her stardom seems to be a freak of the times she lived in — it’s hard to believe anybody ever mistook her gracelessness for talent or considered her strikingly beautiful.  I think any popularity she enjoyed must have been based on her obvious lack of talent and grace — she’s a natural underdog who succeeds by sheer pluck.  She’s so utterly undistinguished (Pauline Kael referred to her as “the awesomely untalented Ruby Keeler”) that I expect every starstruck female who saw her pictures must have told herself:  “Say, even I could do better than that!”  Her success may have been due to the way her deficiencies allowed audiences feel superior to her.

Keeler was married to Al Jolson for ten years.  Before she met him, she had been the girlfriend of Johnny Irish, a notorious gangster in the Dutch Schultz mob.  Jolson gave Keeler’s mother $1 million as a dowry and was required to ask Irish for his consent.  The gangster agreed, but warned Jolson if he ever abused her, he’d pay for it with his life.  Now there’s a loving father!  Keeler’s heavy-footed dancing has been derided for as long as I’ve been aware of her — I call her Clunkletoes — but as a gentleman, I feel obliged to offer one word in her defense.  Contrary to popular belief, Ruby Keeler was NOT, technically speaking, a tap dancer:  she was a buck dancer.  Buck dancers wore heavy shoes with hard wooden soles and did not use metal taps.  This required them to strike the floor much more heavily and violently than tap dancers.  Buck dancing was a casualty of the growing popularity of tap dancing — one look at Ruby Keeler plying her terpsichorean trade and it is easy to see why.  But one should in fairness admit that the clunkiness of her dancing is not entirely her fault.

Ruby Keeler:  The buck stops here.

Ruby Keeler: The buck stops here.

The surreal effects created by Busby Berkeley are every bit as startling as they ever were — perhaps even more so.  As bewildering and mind-blowing as they must have been in the mid-30’s, today it is hard for anybody to conceive that such massive sets would ever be built for a single number or that so many hundreds of dancers should be brought together to create kaleidoscope effects.  It’s an interesting paradox:  the more audiences are exposed to the amazing images that are now generated by computers, the more the production numbers of Busby Berkeley strike them as inexplicable and beyond belief.  The widespread use of computer generated special effects has a way of making one believe that such effects can’t be created any other way.  So when one is suddenly confronted by these berserk, kaleidoscopic patterns being created by ever-changing figures of hundreds of anonymous dancers, far from being unimpressed, one can’t help being truly amazed.  And it’s not just the overhead patterns that surprise and bewilder — it’s the way Berkeley plays with the dimensions.  At the end of “Dames,” the overhead camera pulls back and back from a group of fifty or sixty girl dancers whose legs and arms create various patterns, when suddenly and without warning, the image is torn apart by the heads of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler ripping through the paper the image has been printed on.  What the hell?!  How did he do that?

Dames:  Last configuration.

Dames: Last configuration . . .

. . . & here comes Dick Powell.

. . . and here comes Dick Powell.

Or there’s another number in which the camera floats between the legs of a long line of chorus girls and then, with the use of trick photography, the mirror image of their legs appears beneath, so that the spread legs and their mirror image describe a diamond shape constructed of shapely legs . . . which then begins to revolve!  What on earth?!

Dames:  Surrealism & trick photography

Dames: Surrealism and trick photography

No, I can’t agree that computer graphics have rendered Berkeley’s demented routines unexceptional to modern audiences — I think CGI has made modern audiences, in effect, more innocent:  they’ve forgotten that startling, other-worldly effects can be created in a real (rather than a virtual) space by real people — all it takes is hundreds of extras, huge sound stages, thousands of hours of rehearsal and lots of extraordinary skillful camera operators.  Oh yes, and talent and a very wild imagination.

Not long ago, I spent a full afternoon and much of an evening watching a whole slew of Vitaphone musicals.  Here’s the element that struck me most forcefully when I first watched more than two dozen of those incredible dance numbers:  it was the juxtaposition of the collective and the individual.  The girls in these numbers are always dressed identically and almost always move identically, yet when we see them up close, there are never two who are pretty in the same way:  one looks like the girl next door, one looks like a vamp, one looks like Jean Harlow, one looks like a prom queen, one is light, the next is dark, and so on.  Time and again, Berkeley has the camera pan down a long line of chorus girls, each of whom smiles directly at the camera in tight close-up; in every instance, the girls are identically costumed, yet each is pretty in an entirely different way from the others, each one is an individual, not a carbon copy; seeing one utterly original, pretty face after another offers a testament to the great variety of feminine beauty (you won’t see anything like this today, when everyone tries to look exactly like everyone else).  Anyhow, I was struck by how generous it was to give so many unknown girls a big, cheerful close-up and I thought, “Gee, he really wants us to understand that every one of these girls is unique.”  But no sooner has this cavalcade of American Beauties been presented to us, but we get an overhead shot that obliterates every trace of individuality and personality — all of those unique girls, now literally faceless,  become merely the little bits of glass that Berkeley tosses about inside his cinematic kaleidoscope.  The only personality that remains is that of the creator of this bizarre creation.  And then I was struck by how seldom anyone dances in a Busby Berkeley number — the talent lies in his vision, not in the movements his puppets execute.

Starlet snowflake

Starlet snowflake

Starlet mandala

Starlet mandala

Starlet poppies

Starlet poppies

Berkeley staged huge dance numbers in which almost nobody danced; there is loveliness and surprise everywhere in his big sequences and there are dozens, even hundreds of uniquely pretty girls, many of whom are allowed to beguile us by smiling fetchingly into the camera.  But all of these hundreds of lovely, charming girls are never shown to possess any talent whatsoever — the talent resides entirely in the person of their director, who demonstrates his weird genius by turning beautiful young girls into kaleidoscopic images of whirligigs, poppies, sunflowers and slithering legumes.

Gold Diggers of 1933:  The Shadow Waltz

Gold Diggers of 1933: The Shadow Waltz