One is a (seemingly) wholesome and widely beloved classic Warner Brothers’ movie musical, featuring visually dazzling song and dance numbers choreographed by the now-legendary Busby Berkeley. The other is a crass and tacky soft core MGM porn show whose title became a punch-line even before its release.
On closer inspection however, 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995) have a lot more in common than one may suspect. To paraphrase Truman Capote, it’s like the two movies grew up together in the same house and one day 42nd Street got up and strutted out the front door, while Showgirls sneaked out the back.
Although only one takes place in Vegas, both films were a gamble.
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the pandemic themed HBO Max movie Locked Down in which writer John Jurgensen posed the question: does anyone want to see on screen what they experience every day? After all, as Jurgensen points out, Covid-19 themed productions such as the TV Show Connecting…and the movie Songbird both flopped with audiences and critics alike.
“Man, I can’t wait to watch all these movies being made about the pandemic – said no one ever!” my friend Natasha recently texted me. “Maybe a movie about dogs in the pandemic would be more interesting.”
Both the conversation with my friend and Jurgensen’s article got me thinking about all those movies made during another crisis: namely the Pre-Code films created during the early years of the Great Depression.
But weren’t Depression-era movies all about glitzy escapism, you may ask and you’d be partly right: the most enduring films of the 1930s are the flashy musicals, the screwball comedies and the Universal monster flicks. However a closer look at these films reveal more grit than glitter: after all, remember that it was a stolen apple that led the impoverished waif Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to Skull Island in King Kong (1933), arguably the most famous of all Pre-Code movies.
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” you cried,
But Norma, now that’s all we got:
Talking heads, ephemeral shadows
Locked behind a screen
And I can’t get a connection.
Yes Miss Desmond, the parade has indeed passed us by;
It’s been a week but I can still hear the stomping of the boots in my ears,
My hope waving good-bye to a tardy Santa Claus,
I am forbidden to touch.
– Heather Babcock, March 2020
Note: This is not a political poem. I wrote this Sunday morning as a way to work through the anxiety and fear that I have been experiencing due to the Covid-19 shutdowns. I thought that Norma Desmond – the fictional silent film star from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a woman who is described by her younger lover as “waving to a parade that had long passed her by”- was a good symbol for the way that I am feeling right now. The difference is that Norma mourned the passing of silence while I miss the noise.
We are all experiencing the loss right now of our regular day-to-day way of living. As with any loss, many of us are experiencing the stages of grief, which include shock, denial, bargaining and depression. I always thought of myself as an introvert but this crisis has shown me how important human interaction is: social distancing is necessary right now but it’s also very disheartening and, well, lonely.
During this time, I have found some comfort in movies made during Hollywood’s saucy Pre-Code period, which took place from 1930 to mid-1934, during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Although there are many excellent social dramas from this era – films such as Heroes for Sale (1933) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) – which, with their focus on income equality and corrupt bureaucracy remain relevant today, Hollywood was also pumping out loads of escapist fare meant to lend a little hope and cheer: two things I think we all could use right now.
“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!
As cuddly as a kitten and twice as sweet, Ruby Keeler (self-admittedly) wasn’t much of a singer – and perhaps she did look at her feet a little too much when she danced – but none of that mattered to Depression-era audiences who fell head over heels for the wide-eyed, leggy sweetheart of the Busby musicals made during Hollywood’s sassy Pre-Code era. With her natural charm and knack for playing naive yet plucky innocents, Ruby Keeler helped to boost American morale during the darkest days of the Great Depression.