[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

The period between the introduction of talking pictures in the late 1920s and the imposition of the censorship codes in 1934 is now known as the pre-Code era of Hollywood. Pre-Code films are characterized by a permissiveness in their depiction of sex and violence, but also by their subversive outlook towards several social issues. Made towards the end of this period, the Warner production Gold Diggers of 1933, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is a racy backstage musical rife with the kind of elements that the Hays censor office will veto in the following years: women in underwear and skimpy stage costumes, or as sexy silhouettes changing clothes, their bums slapped my men, dialogue with double entendre and a scenario that’s gleefully amoral. But it’s also a story about four independent women who are more worried about work and money than their romantic relationships with men. In its own way, Gold Diggers embodies a strain of Hollywood’s response to the Great Depression during which it was made.

The film opens with a peppy number called “We’re in the money”, in which women wearing costumes made of fake coins belt out a cheerful denial of the economic crisis: “Ol’ Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong! We never see a headline ’bout a bread line today.” Reality soon hits back as the police barge into the rehearsal and confiscate every little prop in exchange for outstanding loans. The show is closed even before it opens and the four leading ladies of the film—Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and Fay (Ginger Rogers)—find themselves out of a job and penniless. The upbeat music sequence gives way to an overhead shot of three of them sharing a bed. Trixie steals a bottle of milk for breakfast as Polly swoons to a song their neighbour Brad (Dick Powell), a struggling pianist, croons. Romance is one of the things that Gold Diggers will furnish an antidote to financial problems.

To their pleasant surprise, the women learn that their old producer, Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks), is putting up a new show and willing to cast them in it. The cigar-chewing Hopkins says that it’ll be a show about the Depression, that the girls will all have meaty roles and that even Brad, whose tunes he loves, will work as the music composer. Only problem: there’s no money for the show. Conveniently enough, Brad secretly happens to be a Boston Brahmin, heir to a New England banking empire. He sponsors the show, which causes suspicion among the actresses that he’s mixed up in a crime syndicate. Lawrence (Warren William), Brad’s uptight brother, is against Brad getting into show business and marrying Polly. He tries to buy Polly away, but ends up mistaking Carol for Polly. This prompts Carol and Trixie to take Lawrence and his lawyer for a ride, have them pay for their indulgences and even make them fall in love with them.

For a film that was made at a time when the wider public was wary of bankers and fat cats in general, Gold Diggers shows no resentment against the institutional power that Brad stands for. All anxiety about the Depression dissolves into a lukewarm comedy involving bumbling billionaires, shrewd showgirls and a cloying true romance. The film confirms Lawrence’s perception of showgirls as gold diggers all the way till the end, when their machinations are justified by profession of love. For the girls, on the other hand, the rich men represent a ticket out of the poverty permeating their lives. Like Hopkins’ show, Gold Diggers monetizes the Great Depression, but it offers hope and cheerfulness as the guiding response to economic problems. Like other contemporary backstage musicals, Gold Diggers is about people in need helping each other out. In its narrative of creative folks coming together to produce something beautiful amidst gloom and hardship, the films functions as an expression of the optimism that characterized the New Deal era.

The narrative, though, is little more than an excuse for Gold Diggers to chain together its main draws: the four musical sequences directed by legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Trained as a military choreographer, Berkeley had an unmistakeable style that directly or indirectly influenced scores of choreographer-filmmakers across the world, including Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker and Prabhu Deva. His orchestra of human bodies often involves an army of young men and women marshalled into striking geometric or organic patterns, supported by disproportionate, flamboyant props and stage design. Individual performers in these pieces are subsumed into a larger scheme made of repeating motifs, captured by a gliding, craning camera, which regularly pulls back or hovers above to record these formations.

The opening number, “We’re in the Money”, employs the dollar coin as a theme for costumes as well as décor. At one point, the girls on stage stand in an arc and execute a perfect Mexican wave with the coin-shaped placard they carry. The next set-piece, “Pettin’ in the Park”, occurs in the middle of the film and showcases a parade of couples romancing in various settings. The visual thrill stems from the repetition of similar-looking couples engaged in the same activity in sync. Even more characteristic is the third number, “The Shadow Waltz”, a breezy love song where a chorus of women, spruced up in petal-like dresses, plays violins bordered by neon lights. The stage lights go off at one point, and all we see are the neon violins, which in turn come together to form a larger neon violin. The sequence is a total work of art in which the sinuous music, lighting, costume, actor and camera movement all follow the central floral theme.

It is, however, the final musical number that the entire film builds up to. “Remember My Forgotten Man” is one of the high points of Golden-era Hollywood. The six-minute-long sequence depicts the plight of war veterans reduced to picking up cigarette butts, sleeping on street corners and standing in breadlines. Guided by Carol’s anguished lament for the “forgotten man”, the number brings into perfect fusion Berkeley’s penchant for repetition and political ideas of the time: a parade of hardy faces of lonely women waiting, followed by a scene of soldiers marching as a platoon which gives way to the same set of anonymous men standing in food queues, passing a single cigarette between them and pulling their coats in the cold—all set to a haunting, rhythmic, dirge-like musical score.

The musical sequences in Gold Diggers are presented as on-stage numbers, but it’s plain that they could’ve been conceived only for a film audience. The volume of actors, the scale of the stage, the spatial relations between people and the attention to minute performance details are unreal for a stage musical. Berkeley’s baroque stylization of the sequences is in contrast with the muscular aesthetic of the rest of the film. The narrative passages are kinetic and derive their nervous energy less from camera movement and editing than from frenzied actor movement and snappy dialogue delivery in which one line almost overlaps with another. There’s a two-minute-long shot with Warren William and Joan Blondell in which they fight and profess love, while a framed cheque hangs between them on a wall. Above all, it’s the four lead actresses who lend Gold Diggers its enduring vitality and charm.


[Originally published at Firstpost]