Sunday, July 5, 2020

Busby Berkeley: Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong


Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Written by Erwin S. Gelsey, James Seymour, Ben Markson, and David Boehm

Spoiler alert: moderate

It's nuts to think how quickly Hollywood in its Golden Age could exploit a trend: not quite three months separated Warners' genre-reviving musical hit 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, the follow-up that confirmed that 42nd Street's success, and its choreographer's success, wasn't any one-off fluke.  It helps, of course, that it was in pre-production already, though it isn't entirely clear to me how much changed between March and May.  It's known Gold Diggers '33 was reconceived as an actual musical, though since it had already been a backstage drama, "adding musical numbers to the movie about putting on a musical show" doesn't strike me as the heaviest possible lift.  It had, however, borne the title High Life at one point, suggesting it was not originally intended as a retread of one of Warners' biggest musical hits of the 1920s, The Gold Diggers of Broadway; but if it wasn't, then it was rebuilt from the ground up to reflect the substance of its brand name, since in terms of plot Gold Diggers '33 is a straight-up remake—or a new adaptation of the 1919 play The Gold Diggers, if you'd prefer that.

If The Gold Diggers of Broadway were not a lost film (about ten minutes of footage survive), or if I'd been alive in the early 30s to see both, it's possible that I could be more irritated to watch a blatant remake of a movie not even four years old yet, reconfigured to act almost identically to a movie not even a quarter-year old yet.  (Then again, that's presentism talking: I have no doubt at all that I would appreciate point-by-point remakes of things much more readily if I lived in an age where home video wasn't even available to millionaires.)  It's a hypothetical anyway, and doesn't change the context in which I actually saw Gold Diggers '33, which is that of a Busby Berkeley retrospective.  In that context, Gold Diggers '33 is a film that took the lessons from everything its studio and choreographer had done on 42nd Street, and then, in almost every single respect, did them better.

For starters, Gold Diggers '33 does not wait over an hour to finally become a damn Busby Berkeley musical; this time, the Berkeley musical begins immediately.  Likewise, for what might be the first time (and, hell, might be the last), one of Berkeley's musical numbers has any kind of noticeable connection to the story we're being told: this first number is "The Gold Diggers' Song" (aka "We're In the Money," the only title anybody ever calls it by), delivered to us by Ginger Rogers in an eye-catching outfit made of coins; this also represents an improvement for songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin, at least in the sense that the first genuinely catchy tune in their soundtrack doesn't come in the last five minutes.  (It is, however, by far the catchiest, which I guess means there's nowhere to go but down; and while it's disarmingly bizarre, I question the wisdom of Berkeley's decision to incorporate a Pig Latin verse in an assaultive close-up, just because he thought Rogers doing it on set was funny.)  Anyway, as Rogers explains, this whole "Great Depression" mess is over now, so here's some babes in weird skimpy costumes worshipping Mammon as represented by some monumental dimes.

It's a fun number, providing an opportunity for a really iconic example of Berkeley's "parade of faces" technique, the dancers using the big coins they carry as fan-like props to play peek-a-boo with coquettish glee, and it's worth noting how much I like this: on one hand, it's a pleasure for the audience, or at least some major segment of the audience, inviting you to scope a vertigo-inducing variety of hot women; on the other hand, it's one of the most lovely gestures a cinematic choreographer could make, allowing a bunch of nobody chorus girls who would only have been consigned to fuzzy anonymity on the stage a chance to be a star, even if just for a second or two.  It's easy to imagine one of them in the audience for Gold Diggers '33, or another Berkeley musical, watching their own face, tall as a building, shining back at them; it's questionable whether any would have lived long enough, but I really like to imagine one seeing it on DVD seventy years down the line, and remembering their youthful beauty, and that once they were a small part, but an important part, of something amazingly cool that people would never forget.

It's also quite silly, and even a little charmingly clumsy, since at the beginning you can see Rogers start to run around behind the camera so she'll be there at the end of the line after it's done panning from face to face, but whatever, the idea's gorgeous.  It is, finally, all in service of a damnable lie, and it gets cut short because this production ran out of money weeks ago, and the sheriff's posse has arrived to haul off everything not nailed down (and some things that probably were nailed down) to satisfy impresario Barney Hopkins' (Ned Sparks') angry creditors.  Months pass, and our heroines—roommates Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), Carol King (Joan Blondell), and Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon)—haven't gotten any showbiz job since, and have been reduced to stealing their neighbor's milk because they are literally starving.

But Barney is, as it turns out, putting a new show together, and would be thrilled to reunite the band—except for the little issue of money.  (My interpretation is that this movie is about money.)  However, the across-the-way neighbor that Polly's been crushing on for weeks, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell)—himself a songwriter, and, according to Barney, a good one——having been offered a job on Barney's show, would also be happy to finance it, and, while they all think he's playing an asshole joke, he does indeed show up the next morning at Barney's office with $15,000 in cash.  His only condition is that his name or face not be advertised, which bums Barney out because Barney wants his new angel to play the lead.  Complications ensue, forcing Brad into the limelight anyway, whereupon it turns out he isn't the bank robber Polly assumed he was (!), but a member of a very conversative, very wealthy family, whose older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and attorney Fanueil Peabody (Guy Kibbee) are appalled by Brad's choice of career, and even moreso by his choice of women.  Lawrence and Peabody thus descend upon our heroines, intent on disrupting Brad's relationship by bribe—or, if it comes down to it, seduction—but they misidentify Carol as Polly, and Carol, piqued by Lawrence's obscene snobbishness, plays along out of spite, whilst Trixie sees their mistake as a prime opportunity to bilk these idiots out of at least a little bit of their ill-gotten wealth.

It's maybe even more predictable as a romantic farce than 42nd Street was as a backstage drama, but Gold Diggers '33, leaning into its avowedly-contrived premise and bedroom comedy antics, is also more fun.  It is, however, a little clumsier in its storytelling: if it's at least less modular-feeling than its production history would dictate, it's far from flawlessly-polished.  It winds up genuinely flop-sweaty by the time it reaches its conclusion, with Lawrence trapped in an antagonistic role so direly hypocritical and sputteringly incoherent that it's almost legitimately confusing; and even before this, character beats of seemingly critical importance are relayed in dialogue, after the fact—it's hard to say precisely when Polly and Brad declare their love, or when Lawrence's affection for Carol becomes dominant over his revulsion, because they do not occur onscreen.  They're simply facts that the film assures us it has already established.  It hurts it less than should, honestly, but even that's just because the cliches are so forceful that even a full missing reel's worth of character development can't actually deprive us of the information we need to understand what's happening.

But it's typically well-crafted at the level of scene, and, as with 42nd Street, you get a certain warm feeling of niceness, even though in this movie people are grifting each other and attempting to dictate whom they fuck, all while staring down the abyss of Gilded Age class divide, which makes it all the more remarkable that it manages such an easy effervescence.  The studio players probably help: there's a lot of overlap in cast between this and 42nd Street (Keeler and Powell are practically playing the exact same characters), and the actors' familiarity with each others' rhythms plainly comes through in each performance.  (My favorite in both is probably Sparks, whose interesting face and mannerisms always steal the scene, though unfortunately he somewhat disappears about halfway through this film.)  Still, it's not like the romantic comedy is the main draw, even if it is largely successful.

Nope, that's still Berkeley, and Gold Diggers '33 paces its Berkeley numbers so much better it's kind of odd to think that 42nd Street thought smashing them all together at the end was the best way to do it.  Following "We're In the Money," at the midpoint we get "Pettin' In the Park," which is the appealingly weird sexy number, and goes through a few permutations as it gradually leaves the diegetic reality of the stage, including a bit with cops on rollerskates for some reason.  Beginning as a a love duet between Powell and Keeler (which I think we're supposed to accept as forwarding their romantic plot, though this seems like doing too much work on this screenplay's behalf), it sprawls outward toward a kind of sexual universality, visiting all sorts of couples in a way that, in 1933, I am certain was intended to be nice even if, to us here in 2020, it makes it uncomfortably obvious how permissible it was in 1933 to imply even the slightest hint of miscegenation, that is, not permissible whatsoever.  Ultimately, however, it arrives at Berkeley's classic jam, that is, art deco-inflected softcore porn:

So behold an army of legs with women attached (and their men attached to them), sprawled across the elegant-looking park set, soon thereafter getting rained on and thus inclined to disrobe in a giant diorama behind an enormous sheet through which are visible a couple dozen very detailed silhouettes.  Our host for this strange id journey has been dwarf actor Billy Barty as a baby (whose smooth looks are unnervingly convincing as an actual child, just one with adult eyes).  No points for guessing the symbolism there, of course; and now, Barty pulls up the screen with a loving closeup of his shit-eating grin.  Unfortunately, the ladies have armored themselves with metal chastity swimsuits; but all is not lost, because Barty has a can opener.  It's fucked; it's great; I love it.

More famous, and less crude, is the two-part finale (though it's separated by a plot scene, which is good, because otherwise its parts would come off even more disjointed than they already do).  The first part, "The Waltz of the Shadows," sees Berkeley expanding his art even further than he had with editing in 42nd Street, now adding the architectural component—and the exploitation of 3-D space—that would continue to define his most awe-inspiring choreography.  Here we have 60 dancers in ovoid spacewoman dresses spinning about atop and around an enormous piece of abstract sculpture that looks more like a rendition of mathematical brane theory than any plausible real-life construction.  This soon gives way to that other Berkeley preoccupation, lights swimming in darkness, and while he'd return to the same idea more vividly with The Gang's All Here, I'm not convinced he did it with more otherwordly grace: the kaleidoscopic arrangement this time is effected by neon-fitted violins, often the only visible things whatsoever in the frame.  They make shapes; sometimes they light the women holding them.*  It's mesmerizing stuff; the use of reflections in water to create a kind of splitscreen, meanwhile, is downright jaw-dropping.

And this brings us to the actual sendoff, and as strange as everything else has been, it has felt all of a piece in tone.  "Remember My Forgotten Man" absolutely does not, and it's a lot more like a record scratch—not unlike if Trolls World Tour had decided to close out with a number called "You're Watching This At Home Because Coronavirus Has Devastated The World Economy and, Furthermore, Black Lives Matter."  Inspired by the Franklin Roosevelt phrase, "Forgotten Man" is the truth beneath the lie the film would've preferred to tell with "We're In the Money."  That is to say, it gets political, not with the light farcical touch that the rest of the movie has employed, but with genuine sadness, then rage, and it sees Berkeley translating the then-recent march of the Bonus Army on Washington through his geometric filmcraft, almost explicitly condemning the Hoover Administration for its treatment of veterans in particular and its bungled response to the Depression in general.  I do not know if I love it: it starts weakly, with Blondell spending a lot of time singing feelings at us about the Depression on a lonely, mildly-expressionist street in a slum, and it's practically inert until it arrives at a multitude of soldiers marching endlessly on treadmills.  It gets good, however, with the Metropolisesque special effects that bring home the fury and specifically-sexual dislocation wrought by the Depression, which has, in the film's view, made relationships between men and women almost impossible, to the misery of both.

It's a deeply off-kilter (maybe even objectively "wrong") way to end a movie that right up till the last five minutes has been pure joy, but audiences did not seem to mind: Gold Diggers of 1933 was a huge hit, tied for no. 2 at the American box office (42nd Street being no. 5).  It is, in any event, hard not to respect a movie that swerves this hard into passion at the end, and you can't quite say it's not fair of it—after all, it's been playing with disaffection this whole time, and it does well to undercut a movie whose plot does boil down to "a happy ending for a poor woman is fucking rich."  So maybe I do love it; as for the movie it's part of, I'd dare anyone not to love that.

Score: 9/10

*It also occasioned a few minor shocks from poorly-insulated wires.  I know this, because in one of the most egregious DVD extra fails I've ever seen, somebody thought it would be okay to have child-killer John Landis discuss set safety like this subject was a joke to him.

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