For the follow-up to the wildly successful 42nd Street, Warner Bros. dusted off the basics of one of their first musical successes, the now mostly lost Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), and gave it a new Depression-era story—along with new songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin and, of course, four Busby Berkeley production numbers. The idea behind Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) naturally was to outdo 42nd Street—and it did. The slightly cheesy melodrama of the first Gold Diggers film is completely gone. In its place is a serviceable comedy about the scion, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), of a wealthy, conservative Boston family, whose involvement in a Broadway show brings down the family wrath in the person of his older brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William). Lawrence is determined at the very least to save his young sibling from the clutches of the supposedly gold-digging showgirl Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler). The plot gets complicated when the elder brother mistakes Carol King (Joan Blondell) for Polly and tries to woo her away from Brad—falling in love with her in the process. The dialogue is bright, cheeky and funny, and supporting players like Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee add to the delights.
Of course, the real draw are the Berkeley production numbers: “We’re in the Money,” “Pettin’ in the Park,” “The Shadow Waltz” and “Remember My Forgotten Man.” They’re all good—and occasionally a little perverse (especially “Pettin’ in the Park” with Billy Barty as a lecherous baby)—but the real eye-opener is the brilliant “Remember My Forgotten Man,” which brings the film down to earth with the grimmest depiction of the Depression imaginable. Beautifully sung by Blondell and the fantastic black blues singer Etta Motten (in one of her two film appearances), and Berkeley takes the number from the intimate into the spectacular. But it isn’t the usual spectacle. This is raw emotionalism that grabs the viewer and won’t let go, resulting in what may well be the single most powerful depiction of the Depression anyone ever dared to commit to film at the time.