“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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?!
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.
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.