By 1933 the USA was deep in the Great Depression, and Hollywood was stuck in a quandary over whether to directly confront the economic crisis in its films or to pursue a slick fantasy of escapism and optimism. Gold Diggers of 1933, the third adaptation of Avery Hopgood’s play The Gold Diggers, plays a hand in each direction. It showcases a group of dancing showgirls struggling to find employment and make rent, but also brings them into a comedic encounter with a fussy family of Boston millionaires. It definitely takes an escapist approach, but it doesn’t shy away from comment on the dire unemployment that existed beyond the movie theatre.
A group of struggling showgirls get a reprieve when their neighbour – an aspiring songwriter – invests $15,000 into their next stage production. After fearing he might be a wanted bank robber, the girls instead learn he is the son of rich Boston bankers, and his officious brother is hot on his trail to ensure the family fortune is safe from ill-advised romance with the lower classes.
The film makes a striking contrast for director Mervyn LeRoy, whose previous work for Warner Bros was dominated by crime films like Little Caesar, Five Star Final (both 1931) and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). While LeRoy handled the comedic scenes and narrative, the film’s four key musical numbers were directed by Busby Berkeley.
This is a Hollywood musical in an older style: the songs are developed as spectacles in their own right, rather than as an extension or exploration of character. Generally speaking they do not significantly forward or affect the story. It is a format that suited Berkeley perfectly, allowing him free rein to direct song and dance numbers as a purely aesthetic affair. He is at his best here with “The Shadow Waltz”, an increasingly stylised routine involving neon-lit violins and bows synchronised in movement and shot from above.
As a comedy the film is sharp, flirtatious, and surprisingly edgy. Gold Diggers of 1933 squeezes under the closing gate posed by Hollywood’s impending Motion Picture Production Code (known informally as the “Hays code”). While the code had already been introduced, it was not enforced on Hollywood films until 1934. Viewers used to the more conservative musicals of the mid-to-late 1930s and beyond may be surprised as the jokes about sex, and the amount of revealing outfits being worn. It enables Gold Diggers to positively spark with a mischievous energy.
Of the three female leads – Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), and Trixie (Aline MacMahon) – it is Trixie that impresses the most. She has a cynical attitude and an acid tongue; MacMahon gets all the best lines and quips and executes them wonderfully. Dick Powell is earnestly charming as secret millionaire Brad Roberts. Warren William is a little harder to pin down as Brad’s disapproving brother Lawrence: the character is stiffly uncomfortable, but it is sometimes hard to see where the character ends and William begins. It all seems just a little stiff and awkward, and William performs through the film’s unlikeliest character arc. As family lawyer Faneuil Peabody, Guy Kibbee is a delight. It is also worth noting the film’s supporting cast, which includes Ginger Rogers (fresh from her breakout role in 42nd Street and mere months ahead of her first partnership with Fred Astaire) and a young Billy Barty.
Gold Diggers of 1933 is respected – it was added to the USA’s National Film Registry in 2003 – but it has not endured to the level of other Hollywood musicals around it. That’s a shame: this is a superb film. It sparkles with wit, and entertains with aplomb. Of the extended franchise, it is the earliest extant film available. The Gold Diggers (1923) has been lost, and Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) is incomplete. This third instalment was followed by three more: Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937, and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938). The films share cast and crew, but not characters.