October 23, 2013

Show Biz

Ruby Keeler, bless her heart. It's tough to say which aspect of hers is clumsier—her hoofing or her acting. But no matter, because her real job in Mervyn LeRoy's entertainingly dumb-ass Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is to moon after Dick Powell. Powell's a young songwriter in a tenement room across the alley from Keeler and her girlfriends Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, and Aline MacMahon. The girls want to be in show biz, but it's the Depression and shows keep closing down because producers can't pay the rent.

Dollar for dollar. Ginger Rogers
The movie, an early thirties Warner Bros. classic that certainly deserves its status, goes in a million different directions: it's a cascade of daffy visual non sequiturs, thanks in large part to a series of libidinous musical numbers concocted and shot by Busby Berkeley. James Agee wrote about a 1944 Preston Sturges movie that it "raped the Hayes office in its sleep," and there's plenty of pre-Code monkey business going on in Gold Diggers, too. This is undoubtedly the most manic, vivacious Depression you've probably ever seen in movies, and it's framed in a silvery Art Deco production design. Ned Sparks is the irascible, put-upon producer with faith in Powell's talents, Ginger Rogers is a superb camera subject (in the opening number she sings "We're in the Money" in pig Latin), and the excellent Joan Blondell, with her bee-stung pucker, adds fizz to this crazy champagne. Poor Ruby Keeler huffs and puffs her way through a pair of good songs with Dick Powell, but even her inability to keep up with her surroundings seems bizarrely right, and, as she manages to do in many of her '30s movies, she wins over moviegoers despite being a klutzburger. You're both amazed and amused by her—when she says her lines, she crinkles her face with pride at having remembered them. Aline MacMahon plays the wisecracking pragmatist with many of the best punch lines (the same role that stars like Eve Arden and Paulette Goddard played a decade later).

A huge hit in 1933, the movie must have sent audiences out feeling buzzy and lighthearted. In its uniquely American energy and its punchy, sexy tomfoolery, Gold Diggers of 1933 is emblematic of Hollywood's life-affirming inclination, at a time of pervasive hardship, to good-naturedly remember the nation's forgotten men.

1 comment:

Penny from Heaven said...

Well, at least it beats Miley Vyrus.