by Tony d’Ambra
“Gone are my blues
and gone are my tears
I’ve got good news
to shout in your ears
The long lost dollar has come
back to the fold
With silver you can turn
your dreams to gold
We’re in the money
We’re in the money
We’ve got a lot of what it takes
to get along!
We’re in the money
The sky is sunny
Old man depression you are through
You done us wrong!”
Ginger Rogers cute as a button hits the screen in medium close-up straight after the opening credits. She ain’t glamorous but she overflows with an effervescent charm that has you reeling as she bounces into ‘We’re In the Money’, one of the most ironic and catchy songs ever recorded on celluloid. The girl next door has rhythm! After the camera moves away to a cheeky cavalcade of chorus girls greeting the audience in close-up, Ginger returns to set-off Busby Berkeley doing his thing abetted by the brilliant music of Al Dubin and Harry Warren. And what a thing! You just want to grab one of those bikini-ed babes and start dancing – big 1993 ‘coins’ simultaneously hide and focus attention on their ‘assets’. The girls are rehearsing a number for a new Broadway show, but before they finish the Sheriff has raided the theater and confiscated all the girls’ accoutrements. The producer has run out of dough and the girls are out of a job. Old man depression still has some life in him yet.
“- It’s all about the Depression.
– We won’t have to rehearse that.”
Ginger on the skids recedes into the background after we are introduced to three out of work chorines sharing an apartment and clothes, and forced to pilfering a neighbor’s milk for breakfast: two forced-by-circumstance gold-diggers and a third cute little damsel with eyes that melt your heart. The exuberant wise-cracker Aline MacMahon, the hot and soulful Joan Blondell, and the all-singing and all-dancing ingénue Ruby Keeler. A trio of fresh dames that drive the narrative with comic delight and saucy innuendo. As Maurice Chevalier warbled in another movie – “thank Heaven for little girls”. Ruby’s heart belongs to Dick Powell an aspiring song composer down the hall. All the story needs now is dough and a producer for another show. After a few scenes we are there. A show about the depression. Music and mysterious funding by Dick, and production by the irascible Ned Sparks.
The scenario established, we run headlong into a romantic comedy fueled by sex, romance, cute misunderstandings, and gold-digging, peppered with fantastic show numbers courtesy of Berkeley. As stuffy suitors or marks – depending on who you’re talking to (wink, wink) – we have Warner Bros stalwarts Warren William as Dick’s older disapproving brother and Guy Kibbee as his lawyer, who in one rich scene is caught mugging in a hat-shop mirror with a pooch – mirror, mirror on the wall…
“- Isn’t there going to be any comedy in the show?
– Oh, plenty! The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the depression! I’ll make ‘em laugh at you starving to death, honey. It’ll be the funniest thing you ever did.”
As scenarios go we have been there before and we will go there again, but the glee is in the dialog, and here Aline MacMahon holds all the cards. Kibbee as her beau whom she dubs “Fanny” holds his end up, but his talent is his silly engaging demeanor. MacMahon is a talker and simply a joy: wise-cracks delivered with perfect timing have you smiling if not laughing out loud. Her effervescence has you enthralled. As John Fawell wrote in his 2008 book on the Hollywood studio era: “rapid-fire delivery, a lovely zippy rhythm… a cinema that has a buoyant energy and expresses that energy in a rapid, clever, excited use of language. There is a love of language here that seems to reflect a love of life”.  In the middle of her opening number Ginger Rogers sings a whole chorus in pig-Latin, nonsensical celebratory chatter full of mirth. Apparently this was added to the script after director Mervyn LeRoy and Berkeley heard her fooling around the set aping the latest rage!
“Trixie – Excuse me. Come here Fay, I have something I wan-ta show you.
Fay – what do you want?
Trixie – Do you see that?
Fay – See what?
Trixie – Can’t you read? Where it says ‘Exit’?
Fay – Exit?
Trixie – You said it, sister. You start walking and you keep walking, and if you ever come near him again I’ll break BOTH your legs, now scram!
Fay – I could easily resent that!
[As Fay walks away, Trixie kicks her in the bottom, making Fay squeal/shriek]
Fanny – Did little Fay cry out?
Trixie – No, that must have been the cornet you heard.”
This is movie-making liberated by the coming of sound: great dialog, wonderful singing, and dance extravaganzas made magic by vibrant music. A musical! The irony of course is that the movie was made for depression audiences – the credible rationale being that audiences wanted an escape from the daily realities of unemployment, soup kitchens, deprivation, and austerity. While no-one would be grateful for the Great Crash, thankfully this movie was made pre-Code.
“We just love it
Pettin’ in the park
Pettin’ in the dark
Whatcha doin’, honey?
I feel so funny
I’m pettin’ in the park with you
Pettin’ in the park”
After enforcement of the Production Code in late-1934 the ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ number would have ended up on the cutting-room floor, and one of the most deliciously outrageous musical numbers to hit the screen would have been lost. Here we need to thank not only Heaven, but also Warner Bros studio head Jack Warner and production chief Darryl F. Zanuck who had the pluck to give Berkeley’s creative vision free reign. The number oozes sex and is joyfully erotic, with Ruby Keeler adorably coy when she pouts “Bad boy!” and “I feel so funny”.
Just before the closing ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ number, Berkeley stages a gorgeous extravaganza of dance and unmatched geometry for a Powell solo– ‘Shadow Waltz’. The song is nice but it is Berkeley’s exposition of the mood and melody – featuring 60 neon-lit violins! – that has you agape.
“Remember my forgotten man
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted, “Hip, hooray!”
But look at him today!
Remember my forgotten man”
The expectation of a happy-ending is not compromised but a solemn musical coda places the fun and frivolity of the back-story into sombre relief. The ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ number is truly subversive. A dark mood prevails with Joan Blondell as a b-girl forced into prostitution lamenting the fate of her forgotten man – glorified when he returned from war and then discarded by the hard economic times (and by extension by the failure of the incumbent GOP president Hoover to deal with the massive unemployment and social devastation it was wreaking).
Blondell’s rendition is more rap than singing, with the true pathos and bluesy feeling delivered by (shamefully uncredited) black singer Etta Moten in a poignant much too short chorus. This dark expressionist finale with studio rain must have struck audiences at the time as totally out of left field. But it does redeem the cosmetic resolution of the narrative, which offers up a soppy romantic reconciliation where rich guys can be swell, and conspicuous consumption is just fine.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner Bros 1933)
Directors: Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley (musical)
Erwin S. Gelsey & James Seymour (screenplay)
David Boehm & Ben Markson (dialogue)
Avery Hopwood (based on a play by)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editor: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly (gowns)
Al Dubin & Harry Warren (music & lyrics)
Leo F. Forbstein (conductor – Vitaphone Orchestra)
Ray Heindorf (musical arrangements – uncredited)
Etta Moten (singer of Remember My Forgotten Man – uncredited)
Warren William – Lawrence
Joan Blondell – Carol
Aline MacMahon – Trixie
Ruby Keeler – Polly
Dick Powell – Brad
Guy Kibbee – Peabody
Ned Sparks – Barney
Ginger Rogers – Fay
Nominated for Best Sound 1934 Academy Awards
Selected for Registry by the National Film Preservation Board (2003)
 John Fawell, THE HIDDEN ART OF HOLLYWOOD: In Defence of the Studio Era Film (Greenwood Publishing 2008) p. 169
How GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 made the ‘Elite 70′:
Greg Ferrara’s No. 2 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 2 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 4 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 12 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 16 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 18 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 31 choice