It is really hard to fathom and era where the Hays code did not exist, or has, subsequently, influenced what is allowed in mainstream film. Sure a lot of contemporary films through caution to the wind and deliver base jokes and bawdy humor with little concern for structure or delivery, yet this has not always been the case and in the earlier decades of film, particularly in the musical and comedy genres pushing the barriers of the moment before strict censorship, which led to punning and backdoor sexual innuendos that simply are too wise and informed to play well on contemporary audiences. This is one of many things that manages to make Gold Diggers of 1933 a standout work of cinema, one that is entirely a product of the escapist cinema of The Great Depression, while also being revolutionary and ahead of its time. While I have been on record as say that the success and watchability of most of these early thirties studio films is directly a result of Busby Berkeley's mesmerizing choreography and its sumptuously engaging cinematography, there is a rather watchable, albeit, simple story involved. Performers like Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell are electrifying, delivering a presence on celluloid that would not be replicated until Gene Kelly and and Debbie Reynolds took flight in the equally moving Singin' In The Rain. Again, what makes a work like Gold Diggers of 1933 stand out in comparison to its later variations on the genre is that these films are referencing, if not directly commenting on their predecessor. Between the singing in pig latin to prove that the sound was indeed synched to the image and stories of wild dreams of Broadway success, everything that has made the musical one of the staples of American cinema owes its success to this film, as well as 42nd Street which was released the same year. As I mentioned, Gold Diggers of 1933 in all its cinematic glory is rather indicative of the era, to some degree, because I have seen a lot of films, ones with decidedly dark endings, yet the manner with which this film executes itself results in that closing number being a stark contrast so lathered in a chiaroscuro madness as to result in being one of the darker closing sequences I have seen in film, standing right up there with Godzilla's death.
Gold Diggers of 1933 focuses on a group of aspiring Broadway performers, who happen to all be women, therefore, leading to their being colloquially known by society as a group of gold diggers. The group is led by the young and optimistic Polly (Ruby Keeler) who seems content with any role as long as she can live out her passion. Included in the mix is the comedically inclined Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and group's torch singer Carol (Joan Blondell), as well as the member by association Fay (Ginger Rogers) who is so fixated on her success that she has no qualms stepping on the toes of those around her. The group is disheartened when they discover that their recent Broadway revue has been cancelled due to lack of funds, almost entirely a result of the depression. The women, defeated, return to their New York flat, hungry and hoping they can shy away from having to pay rent for yet another month. It is not until Polly overhears the harmonic singing and piano playing from a complex across the street, where she discovers a songwriter named Brad (Dick Powell). His talent is blatant, and, indeed, quite infectious, so much so that the girls' manager Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) suggest that he serve as the sole songwriter for his upcoming revue. Brad is, at first, reluctant, due to the possibility of being seen publicly, but eventually agrees to the proposition on the grounds that Polly be allowed the female lead. Yet, the issue of money emerges, when Barney explains that he cannot fund the endeavor fully, at which point, Brad offers a considerable amount of money should there be no questions asked about how it was obtained. Blind with the possibilities the group agrees, although Trixie is rather suspicious and believes Brad to be a robber who has been making the rounds through the United States. During dress rehearsals Brad is continually critical of the male lead, at which point Barney suggest that he step in, but he is still hesitant for inexplicable reasons, but on opening night when the lead falls sick, Brad steps in to save the show and the financial stability of all involved. What unwinds is a series of revelations concerning Brad's coming from wealth and the "disgrace" of him lowering himself to the world of musical theater. Yet, through determination and a will to prove their value the girls and Brad trick his relatives into accepting their world by default, allowing for the show to succeed without any notable hitches. Yet, realizing the realities of war and depression in America the film closes with the sobering "Remember My Forgotten Man" as if to suggest escapism is a foolish and unhealthy endeavor.
While it would be more than feasible to talk about the censorship and degrees of escapism that are involved within this film, I am more drawn to consider the communal relationship involved with the "gold diggers" who navigate the narrative space of the work. I choose the word commune, because there is a decided embracing of their own otherness as a result of being feminine. Indeed, when Brad's relatives suggest that both Trixie and Carol are nothing more than lowly gold diggers who are attempting to use their looks and feminine charm to grab up men, they certainly react critically, but also use it as a moment to appropriate the situation into something that will allow them to advance by exploiting the foolish and ignorant assumptions of two white men. This is best evidenced in the hat buying scene, wherein both Trixie and Carol exploit the fears of the men for the dastardly doings of such lower-class women, while also using their sexuality to attain items. It is a communal action that results in their self-protection from the lechery of the men while also advancing their cause as career women. It should be noted that much of what ties the women together, aside from their gender is their equal lack in regards to economic privilege, indeed they share a communal space because it is a necessity in the high-end pricey neighborhoods of New York City. A layer of issues do emerge then when one considers Brad's entrance (invasion) of their communal space, while it might be assumed that he is doing so on a shared class oppression, the revelation that he is indeed quite wealthy betrays this notion considerably, although his acceptance of the women's struggles and his genuine admiration for the business and, more importantly, Polly, allow him some leeway to be a progressive character. In this reading of the community of women that are the "gold diggers" one must necessarily consider Trixie as a unique stand alone character. In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest her to be a lesbian character, one that desires the companionship of other women on a level far more than platonic. Indeed, masking the lesbian character in the comedic is not something unusual in media, another famous example being Sally Rogers from The Dick Van Dyke show, whose defeatist quest for a man took on layers of implications. Considering Trixie as a lesbian figure allows for a further explanation of her defensive attitude towards the women and their engagements to the outside world, especially when Polly expresses interest in Brad, as does it explain her detached attitude towards the advances of the elderly gentlemen caller she picks up later in the film.
Key Scene: All of the Shadow Waltz sequence, water dolly shots and neon violins alike.
This is a marvelous film, I intend to nab the entire Berkeley box set, although it is available as a stand alone DVD.