In Hollywood's most successful collaborative era, sometimes the best things happened by accident. Gold Diggers of 1933 was set to be a routine backstage romantic comedy, but after the runaway success of 42nd street with its spectacular dance numbers choreographed by Busby Berkely, studio heads decided to make a few changes and shoehorn in some Berkely routines. What should have been a mess, turned out to be a masterpiece. You see, it happened by accident, but not without overwhelming creative genius from all corners.
First of all let's disregard Berkely for a moment and consider the bones of the picture. This was a golden age for Warner Brothers, and even their potboilers tended to be meaty offerings. The broad plot may be a simple comedy of errors, but the minutiae and the dialogue are unashamedly frank about the depression, then at its very worst point. The fact that the comic escapades are backed by very real and harsh truths gives an unexpected layer of poignancy to the proceedings. Yes, the man-baiting escapades of three money-hungry chorus girls makes for riotous entertainment, but we are never allowed to forget how they became money-hungry.
The director is Mervyn LeRoy, who despite his youth was one of the most competent and professional filmmakers on the Warners payroll. He directs Gold Diggers with pace and punch, never allowing the action to slow down and become dull, but still keeping everything in clarity. A neat little trick of his is using depth to keep certain characters on display. For example, in the scene where Don Gordon (the perpetual juvenile lead) is doubled up with lumbago, Gordon and Ned Sparks are in the foreground, but Dick Powell is prominently placed in the background. Gordon is the most important character at that precise moment, so it is logical to have him up front, but Powell is more important in the long run as he will soon replace Gordon, so it is necessary for us to remember him at that time.
The cast is one to die for, or at the very least, go to prison for. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are ostensibly the leads, but the show really belongs to Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon. Powell was a great singer, and Keeler a wonderful dancer, but neither of them could act well. And thankfully, while they are prominent in the song and dance numbers, they are really supporting players in the drama. Blondell was prolific in both musicals and melodramas of this time, but tended to play "best friend" type roles rather than leading ladies. Gold Diggers is her chance to shine, and show what a terrific actress she is. She plays things at a fairly muted level, but there is a lot of emotion going on under the surface. When she appears in the Forgotten Man number she not only becomes a singer, she carries on being an actress. MacMahon at first looks a little out of place amongst all the sweet and delicate chorines, but as soon as she gets to work her magic on Guy Kibbee she dominates the screen and you know exactly why she was cast. A young Ginger Rogers is here too, still getting villainous roles thanks to her mean-looking face, but nevertheless proving herself to be a superb performer. Ned Sparks gives perhaps his deepest and most heartfelt performance, without ever once breaking out of his trademark character. Amid all these sparkling jewels, there are some memorable bit parts by the likes Ferdinand Gottschalk and Sterling Holloway, yet more pearls in the Gold Diggers crown.
And at last we come to the music. Of course, the melodies of Harry Warren are simply divine, the lyrics of Al Dubin cheeky and incisive as ever, and the choreography of Busby Berkely absolutely breathtaking, but it's how the whole thing is fitted together that puts Gold Diggers so far ahead of its peers. Most of the Berkely musicals "stacked" the numbers - that is, put them all together at the end as a grand finale. That worked fine for 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, but for Gold Diggers of 1933 the structure is geared to awesome effect. We open with "We're in the Money", a lively slice of irony casually wishing the depression away. "Pettin' in the Park" gives us a little comical boost in the middle of the picture. "Shadow Waltz" is pure Berkely indulgence, lovely to look at but with nothing that will unbalance the end of the picture emotionally. And finally, "Remember My Forgotten Man" drops us right into the realities of the depression. It is a bitter counterpoint to "We're in the Money" and its impact is utterly devastating.
Gold Diggers of 1933 is not only the finest of the Busby Berkely musicals, not only the pinnacle of Warner Brothers' pre-code licentiousness, it is the very heart of depression-era America. "Can't you hear that wailing?" Ned Sparks asks us, as Dick Powell hammers out a rough version of "Forgotten Man". You'll hear it alright.