Primarily thought of as a Busby Berkeley picture—owing to the inclusion of four of his most famous production numbers, including the overwhelming “Remember My Forgotten Man”—Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) was mostly directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and at the most interesting phase of his career, which is to say before he got mummified by MGM in the 1940s. This is LeRoy at his brashest and best from when he was a Warner Bros. director. As a result, what we have here is a fabulously fast-paced cynical comedy in which the straight parts of the movie are—for a change—nearly the equal in quality to the musical numbers. Considering the fact that the numbers include the most daring ones Berkeley ever did, that’s saying something. Saying something more is the fact that this is on the short list of movies I try on people who claim they don’t like “old” movies—and I’ve never seen it fail to win over an audience.
As might be guessed from its year, this is very much a film wedded to the Depression. Its plot is tied to it and so is its tone. In some ways—one of which I won’t reveal here, since the surprise of how its employed is part of its power—it’s one of the grimmest of all Depression films, outdistancing—in its own way—even LeRoy’s own I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). This isn’t in spite of the fact that Golddiggers is a comedy, but because of it.
The movie’s putting-on-show plot is driven by the Depression. When asked what the show is about, producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparls) says, “It’s all about the Depression,” which prompts Carol (Joan Blondell) to note, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Later, he outlines his concept of showing, “The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and the funny side of the Depression.” He continues, “I’ll make ‘em laugh at you starvin’ to death, honey. It’ll be the funniest thing you ever did,” assuring Trixie (Aline MacMahon). “Ever see me ride a pony?” asks Trixie. The problem with all this is that Barney doesn’t have any money, and getting that money is also part of the plot.
That aspect of the film leads to the film’s most effective comedy, since it allows for romances—between Carol and Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and between Trixie and Peabody (Guy Kibbee)—that are a hell of a lot more interesting and funny than those involving the juvenile leads, Brad (Dick Powell) and Polly (Ruby Keeler). In fact the film—even though it uses them to help drive the plot—is openly contemptuous of its silly juveniles. Just watch Barney’s facial expressions every time Polly says something annoyingly perky and optimistic.
None of this is to sell the film short as concerns its production numbers. Far from it. The numbers are among the best things Berkeley did. One of them, in fact, probably is the best thing he ever did. Certainly—in part because of how it’s used—it’s the bravest thing he ever did. However, it’s always worth noting when the non-musical parts of a musical are on even footing with the numbers. That is very much the case here. Asheville Film Society members who saw Imitation of Life (1934) will want to note the presence of Ned Sparks in this movie, since he’s playing essentially the same character they so enjoyed in the other film.