Monday, July 19, 2010

Gold Diggers of 1933 - "We're in the Money"

This film was one of the biggest hits Hollywood put out in 1933, the very teeth of the Great Depression, and the biggest film at the box office for Warner Brothers Studios in that year.

While the story varies little in the way most musicals of the time carry their slender plot-lines, it is still I believe a landmark film. The movie combines a popular and "high-kicking" attitude with the grim realities of a land of opportunity now totally veering toward a place as "tapped out" as any country that any emigrant came to America to get away from.

in this clip Ginger Rogers performs one of the most popular songs of the period. This is the opening sequence of the film, and its important to note that the film audience here is being intentionally mislead--this upbeat production masks a hard reality. The police are on the way to close the theater and seize the costumes and sets of the would-be Broadway production. Even the things that make for frivolous entertainment --uptempo songs that stay in your head long after the show, sexy costumes, romantic love scenes with attractive stars--are not immune to an America with one quarter of its labor force out of work, soup kitchens and hundreds of banks closing from sea to shining sea.

The film opening features Ginger Rogers singing part of the lyrics in "Pig Latin"--an innocent bit of fun she did in rehearsal with the other ladies of the chorus. She later confessed she thought that diversion might get her fired when the producers overheard this clowning about. Instead the musical director, Busby Berkeley, kept that interpretation in the number.

This also features an early use (in sound films at least) of a super camera close-up of the aforementioned star. I'm sure shots of Miss Rogers uncapped choppers had many dentists in the film audience quite engaged by the spectacle.

Not all of the film is so bally-hoo of course, as the last production number "Remember My Forgotten Man", makes clear. (The second production is viewable in the comments section below.) This one--which seemed so remote and distant to me when I first saw it years ago--has a familiar ring to it today. Joan Blondell, a forgotten star of musicals and comedies, delivers some very soulful goods here in a lament fro the lost dignity of soldiers, farmers and industrial workers cast aside by harsh economic conditions. The finale, with an army of "dough-boy" soldiers in retreat from a unseen battlefield, shows the mixed nature of what people wanted from films of this popular caliber---escape, yes, but also a recognition of the struggles facing most people just outside the doors of the local movie house.


  1. One of my favorite films, not because it was terribly good, but because it's a giant social-commentary on the Great Depression.

    The iconic song you've posted, complete with the 'dancing coins', is a wish for better times.

  2. For those interested, here's the finale to the film, a very different number.

  3. I love these kind of films doug, they are pure escapism.

    I admired Ginger Rogers for the energy she put into all her films. She wasn't a bad straight actress either!

  4. Indeed Rogers did very well in straight roles like "Stage Door", "Kitty Foyle", 'The Major and the Minor" et al. She always aspired to be given more sway in dramatic parts--she even tested to play Queen Elizabeth in a Katherine Hepburn vehicle "Mary of Scotland"!

    In the end, RKO--her studio at the time--decided it was too far off from her image as a modern American leading lady. She might have been very good.

    Films like this indeed are troves of popular escapism, Cassandra. Some elements contain parallels to today's job market one would rather not see.

  5. In my view these film clips are an audio-visual equivalent of Stalinist Gothic.....very close in nature I think to the Nazi propaganda films of that era.

    The negro minstrel melodies orchestrating the aspirations of white working class America.

    Giantism is the name of the modernist game, Buddy Can You Spare A Dime, the glory and the pathos of imagined poverty in the midst of the real thing, set to music and sort of dignified in a Busby Berkley Spectacular.

    The art of making suffering sexy....these are great clips Doug, they really are a fascinating snapshot of a historic mood....the first stretch of the talons of American imperialism and thus historical documents in their own right, I think. Thanks for posting them.

  6. You're welcome, AA. And thanks for your unique analysis on these clips from my own late-night television memories and DVD revisits, and courtesy here of "You Tube" of course.

    There is an element of the African-American blues in songs like "Forgotten Man". A more integrated society would have had room for a musical built around the incredible talents of Bessie Smith or Ethel Waters.

    And, yes, recognition of the Great Depression didn't mean the movies had to hide
    the links between sexuality and commerce. Having chorus girls dancing in costume almost literally made of money rather gives the game away. It was a desperate time, but people wanted more "relief" than a spot on the dole line.

    Although not a big Nazi film fan myself, I understand that Third Reich cinema adopted some components of the American musical film into popular films. Warner Brothers films stopped importing films into Germany when their studio representative, a Jewish fellow, was hunted down and beaten up by a pack of storm troopers early on in Hitler's reign.

    Warners was the first of the Hollywood major studios to make serious anti-fascist features, starting around 1938-9. (Other big studios, especially MGM, danced around the realities of fascism for years after.)

  7. Yes, they were all films I enjoyed. They did also show a time when people struggled to find their way in show business and had to find roles not only for themselves but friends. Mmmm, I wonder what Ginger Rogers would have been like in that role as the queen?

    Maybe the studio was right, we had come to expect that particular lady to dance, although capable of other roles.

    At least some of her films showed us over here in England that not every American lives in huge great houses;-)

  8. Yes, I think that's right, Cassandra. "The Gold-diggers" films and especially the group of would-be actresses as characters in "Stage Door" (from a New York stage play) had that element of camaraderie amongst women struggling to deal with finding a niche in the theater at the boarding house.

    In a sense, I find these films much closer to modern times then many of the MGM musicals that feature an idealized America where no one misses a meal or "family" films from the 1950's and 60's where everyone has those big houses.

    Ginger Rogers was so identified with her great musicals with Fred Astaire and the working-class roles she had in the non-musical films that her personal struggle to take on a similar mantle to say, Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn was too uphill a fight for her with the studio and audience expectations.
    Hepburn herself made that famous remark that "Fred Astaire gave Ginger class in their movies, and she gave him sex appeal." (A remark that I found out concealed a rivalry between the two lady stars that is mirrored in their roles in "Stage Door". )

    That her other fellow actors acknowledged Ginger for her "class" and dramatic talent is attested to by the Oscar she won for "Kitty Foyle" in 1940. Although her role as a young working woman who falls for a man whose old-money Philadelphia family resents her "common" background was in line with other some roles she had played, it still must have been sweet for her to win over both great ladies (Davis and Hepburn) that year for the Academy Award.

    She definitely was the feminine counterpoint to the notion that Americans were all living in swank houses. 'Kitty Foyle" was the embodiment of that.