not in our stars, but in ourselves
Let’s stick to the golden theme for another day, shall we? Gold Diggers of 1933 (dir. Mervyn LeRoy) is just as gaudy, just as representative of the dirty ’30s, as its title promises. The musical numbers that take place “on stage” are all directed by Busby Berkeley, and as I scrawled in my notes while I was watching: “y’all Surrealists ain’t got SHIT on B.B.” Crassly expressed, but nonetheless true.
If you go into one of these Berkeley musicals expecting a plot, you’re on a fool’s errand, but such as it is: it’s the Depression. Stage revues, which once upon a time were guaranteed blockbusters, now can’t even get enough money to start on Broadway. Three showgirl roommates – Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon), and Polly (Ruby Keeler) – are desperately hard up for work and for money. Producer Barney (Ned Sparks) has a great show ready to go, but no money to finance it. Polly’s new boyfriend, Brad (Dick Powell), fronts $15,000 in cash and donates his services as songwriter (inside joke: Barney says to Brad that they were going to have Warren and Dubin do the songs, but he wants Brad instead; the songs were in fact all composed by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, ho ho ho). He ends up co-starring in the show as well, much to the chagrin of his Boston blue blood family. His sexy older brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), brings family lawyer Fanueil H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee, the human egg) to try to reason with Brad by threatening to cut off his income. J. Lawrence mistakes Carol for Polly, they fall in love, fight a little, and then everyone kisses and makes up by the end. Ginger Rogers is in there, too, as a little gold digging gadfly.
Throughout, there are songs galore. Quite a few are actually performed diegetically, without any cinematic tricks or embellishments: Brad plays piano and serenades Polly, and then he demonstrates his songs for Barney as well. But in any musical with Berkeley’s name attached, the songs aren’t really the point. The real point is the extravagant, bizarre number that comes along with the song. And Gold Diggers of 1933 has some doozies. It opens with the Rogers-led “We’re in the Money”, a sardonic swipe at Depression-induced poverty; then there’s the extremely naughty “Pettin’ in the Park”, complete with Billy Barty as a perverted baby (sadly, no longer available on YouTube); what passes for a romantic ballad in this kind of movie, the “Shadow Waltz”; and then finally, the extraordinary out-of-left-field ending, “Remember My Forgotten Man”.
Early in the film, Barney makes a few speeches about how this new show he’s putting on will be about the Depression, about men in breadlines, that kind of thing. I’m not sure how “Shadow Waltz” and “Pettin’ in the Park” fit into that scenario, but “Remember” surely does. It’s a remarkable number, for quite a few reasons: as told by Carol playing a prostitute, the song is about strong men who were sent off to fight in World War I and are now destitute – seemingly forgotten.
No chance of finding such a musical number (or even such an idea) in any movie made after 1934. Recently, I re-read Thomas Doherty’s fabulous Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. As he writes,
In language and image, implicit meanings and explicit depictions, elliptical allusions and unmistakable references, pre-Code Hollywood cinema points to a road not taken. For four years, the Code commandments were violated with impunity and inventiveness in a series of wildly eccentric films. More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter that they seem imported from a parallel universe.
In a sense pre-Code Hollywood is from another universe. It lays bare what Hollywood under the Code did its best to cover up and push off screen. Sexual liaisons unsanctified by God or man […]; marriage ridiculed and redefined […]; ethnic lines crossed and racial barriers ignored […]; economic injustice exposed and political corruption assumed […]; vice unpunished and virtue unrewarded […] – in sum, pretty much the raw stuff of American culture, unvarnished and unveiled.
Of course Hollywood after 1934 is a rich index of all of the above too. The fractures of American life, still less the open embrace of sex, did not close up when the Code clamped down. […] But in pre-Code Hollywood the fissures crack open with rougher edges and sharper points. What is concealed, subterranean, and repressed in Hollywood under the Code leaps out exposed, on the surface, and unbound in Hollywood before the Code.
From July 1934 until the Code’s power began to wane in the mid- to late 1950s, with the final blow coming in 1968’s film ratings system, “Remember My Forgotten Man” would have been absolutely unthinkable. But between 1930 and 1934, protest songs like this were rife in Hollywood films, whether or not they were actual songs. The sheer injustice of the interwar years and the Great Depression were a favorite topic in pre-Code Hollywood, and such questioning of authority was explicitly forbidden once the Code was enforced.
Of course, “Remember” is just the last seven minutes of the film. Don’t worry: there’s the kind of fun, salacious stuff you expect in pre-Code movies too. For instance: Carol’s side boob.
For another instance: Fay Fortune, the Rogers character, musing on a particularly appealing dress, “If Barney could see me in clothes…” before being interrupted by Trixie: “He wouldn’t recognize you.” Another: a stagehand openly slaps a chorine on her derriere, and she doesn’t seem to object a bit. Another: ALL of “Pettin’ in the Park”. Another: Trixie masterminding a plot to make J. Lawrence think he got drunk and ravished Carol. Another: quite a bit of funny business about Trixie calling Mr. Peabody “Fanny.” And finally, probably my favorite: J. Lawrence threatening Carol that every time she says “cheap and vulgar,” he’s going to kiss her. She proceeds to cry, “Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar! Cheap and vulgar!”
All in all: it’s a blast. Even Keeler’s wooden acting, hoofy dancing, and expressionless singing are delightful in their way; good old Ruby, you always know you’ll get someone cute as a button and about as talented. There are a few more Busby Berkeley Warner Bros. musicals coming up, and I’m looking forward to them like a kid on Christmas Eve.