My scattershot views of a pop art—its twists, curves, and sensual appeal
Friday, June 7, 2019
Dollar for dollar. Ginger Rogers
Ruby Keeler, bless her heart. It’s tough to say which skill of hers is clumsier—her hoofing or her acting. But no matter, because her real expertise in Mervyn LeRoy’s entertainingly dumb-ass Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is mooning 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.
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 created and photographed 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 soft, 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 (singing “We’re in the Money” in pig Latin), and the excellent Joan Blondell, with her bee-stung pucker, adds fizz to this sparkling champagne. And there’s poor Ruby Keeler, amateurishly puffing her way through a pair of good songs with Dick Powell, but even her inability to keep up with the studio orchestra seems bizarrely right; as she manages to do in many of her movies, this klutzburger wins the audience over. You’re both flabbergasted 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, Gold Diggers of 1933 must have sent audiences out feeling buzzy and lighthearted. In its uniquely American energy and its punchy, sexy tomfoolery, Gold Diggers is emblematic of Hollywood’s life-affirming inclination, at a time of pervasive hardship, to good-naturedly remember the nation’s forgotten men.