“It’s the Depression, dearie.”
“We’re in the money!” Ginger Rogers sings during the opening of this extravagant musical, but when she starts warbling the song in Pig Latin, we know she’s just being tongue-in-cheek, particularly when the sheriff and his deputies interrupt the show to collect on the producer’s unpaid bills (“Ain’t you goin’ to at least give me car fare?” Ginger asks, as one of the sheriff’s men demands her costume). Because of course in 1933, most Americans weren’t “in the money” and most refreshingly neither are the “gold diggers” in this movie: the fetching trio of Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline MacMahon wake up in a flea bag hotel, scratching at bug bites and complaining of hunger pains. So what do you do in hard times? Well, if you’ve ever seen a 1930s movie, you know the answer to that question is “put on a show!” And with the incomparable Busby Berkeley choreographing, what a show it is! Busby works his innovative magic with the romantic “Shadow Waltz” (neon gowns and violins!) and the fun & naughty “Pettin’ in the Park” (keep an eye out for gorgeous Theresa Harris). After nearly 90 minutes of escapism though, the film explodes with the boot stomping finale “Remember my Forgotten Man” in which WW1 veterans, physically broken and emotionally battered, ask “We fought for USA, but where are we today?”
It is important to note that Gold Diggers of 1933 shares the same director as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): Mervyn LeRoy. You don’t have to dig too deep to find the nugget of social commentary lurking in the shadows of Gold Diggers of 1933’s party: there’s plenty of grit in this glitter.
“Yes,” the film seems to say to its intended Depression-era audience, “We know you need escapism and we will give it to you, but we will also respect you by acknowledging and validating that of which you need to escape from.”
This need for both human connection and fantasy is why we go to the movies.
It’s also why we create art.
Toronto readers note: Gold Diggers of 1933 is playing March 23rd, 2019 at the Revue theatre in 35mm!