Sunday 7 January 2007

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I seem to be seeing a lot of Mervyn LeRoy movies lately. It became obvious early on in my cinematic explorations that Warner Brothers released a lot of movies in the thirties but didn't have too many directors to make them. The same names kept cropping up again and again: Roy Del Ruth, Archie Mayo, Lloyd Bacon and Mervyn LeRoy. LeRoy had been their boy wonder as far back as the late twenties, making cheap yet profitable pictures and he made a lot of of big hits from the thirties. All I know is that those I've seen from this decade are of a much higher quality, as a general rule, than those of, say Lloyd Bacon who made quite a few duds.

This is a musical, completely unrelated to the biggest Warner Brothers hit of this era, 1929's Gold Diggers of Broadway, which must be one of the most important lost films of them all. It's the second talkie to be made in Technicolor and the highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind took that title a decade later in 1939. As the follow up to the successful 42nd Street, it's also a musical full of Harry Warren and Al Dubin songs, including We're in the Money, which opens the film sung in the unorthodox voice of Ginger Rogers and accompanied by some seriously outre costumes. They're seemingly constructed out of fake coinage, draped around scantily clad chorus girls with large coins hanging over private parts that don't seem to be covered by anything else.

This production gets closed down before it opens, because producer Barney Hopkins runs out of money, but when the next one gets financed and we see a full production number, it's completely obvious that it's Busby Berkeley running the choreography. We see girls, scantily clad to start with, getting soaked and then stripping naked in silhouette behind screens; mischievous roller skating baby Billy Barty, a girl in a tin costume falling prey to a can opener, you name it. We certainly don't get any good idea of how big the set actually is because the camera moves all over the place and never seems to run out of room.

There are major early Warner Brothers names here too, though only one is duplicated from Page Miss Glory: Dick Powell, who is very different here from the daffy pilot in that film as Robert Treat Bradford, a rich Boston blue blood slumming it by writing music and financing and appearing in a musical. Most of the rest are women: Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Powell's frequent musical partner, Ruby Keeler. The lead is nominally Warren William but he doesn't even appear until halfway through the film. He's Powell's elder brother and trustee to his estate, a little less precode than usual, who gets rather upset at the thought of a Bradford being associated with a showgirl. He turns up to attempt to stop it all with a more distinguished Guy Kibbee than usual in tow.

I've never been a big fan of either Dick Powell and especially Ruby Keeler, though they were both hugely talented and they do exactly what is required here. I'm much more a fan of Ginger Rogers, who, as she famously said, did everything Fred Astaire did, backwards and in high heels. She doesn't have a huge part here but she's as great as I'm discovering she always is, even when she isn't singing in pig Latin. She plays very well off Aline MacMahon, who is a peach of a gold digger here. Joan Blondell has become my image of the gangster's moll, from all those Warner Brothers gangster movies with Cagney and Robinson. And for all my lack of appreciation for musicals in general, I'm finding that Busby Berkeley's production numbers, with all their completely insane logic, are exactly the sort of production numbers I enjoy. I wonder if he influenced Dr Seuss, or was it the other way around? This one's better than 42nd Street, for sure, though that was a great film in itself, and it may even approach the heights of Footlight Parade.

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