Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933): Mervyn LeRoy’s Lavish, Depression-Era Musical

A seminal musical of the early Depression era, and a must-see for fans of the musical genre, The Gold Diggers of 1933 represents the surreal work of Busby Berkeley, and the infinitely charming, if clunky dancer Ruby Keeler.

The second talkie version of Avery Hopwood’s popular “The Golddiggers of Broadway,” Mervyn LeRoy’s “Gold Diggers of 1933” is the second of three Warner musicals, defined by the eccentric genius of choreographer Busby Berkeley, who later became a director at MGM.

The plot concerns a trio of showgirls, played by the brassy Joan Blondell, the naïve Ruby Keeler, and the more serious Aline McMahon, as they struggle to get backing for a new show planned by producer Ned Sparks.

Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), an incognito rich songwriter, posing as penniless, offers to put up the money, a plan that upsets his older brother Warren William, who despises showbiz and its crazy denizens.

Attempting to buy off the girls, William is placed in a compromising position by Joan Blondell, and at the end, finds himself forced and compelled to bankroll the musical himself.

Scholars of the musical genre have pointed out the impact the Depression era, in which they were made, and the various ironies involved, such as the discrepancy between the mood of the songs and the plot.

The picture famously begins with dozens of chorus girls (led by Ginger Rogers, who was also in “42nd Street,” and before becoming a major star) happily belting the melodic tune, “We’re In the Money,” in pig Latin.

This rehearsal number is interrupted when the
villains,” the finance men, claim the sets and props from the impoverished troupe.

At the end, the troupe stages a thematically downbeat yet visually imaginative “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”-style production number, “Remember My Forgotten Man.”

Other Busby Berkeley production numbers, which are the movie’s highlights, include “Pettin’ in the Park,” with dwarf Billy Barty, dressed as a baby, offers Dick Powell a can opener to undo Ruby Keeler’s armor suit, and neon-lighted dancers forming a gigantic violin in “The Shadow Waltz,” co- written by the busy and prolific Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

You can spot Busby Berkeley himself in a bit part as the backstage call boy, who yells, “Everybody on stage for the ‘Forgotten Man’ number.'”


Oscar Nominations: 1

Sound Recording: Nathan Levinson

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner was Harold C. Lewis for “A Farewell to Arms.”  Nathan Levinson might have split his votes for in the same year he was also nominated for two other prestige films, “42nd Street” and “I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.”

Narrative Structure (Plot and Songs/Dances)

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell (they made 7 films together).

The “gold diggers” are a quartet of aspiring actresses: Polly (Ruby Keeler), an ingenue; Carol (Joan Blondell), a torch singer; Trixie (Aline MacMahon), a comedian; and Fay (Ginger Rogers), a glamour puss.

Made in 1933, during the Great Depression, the musical contains numerous direct references to it.

First Scene:

It begins with a rehearsal for a stage show, which is interrupted by the producer’s creditors, who close down the show because of unpaid bills.

At the apartment shared by three of the four actresses (Polly, Carol, and Trixie), producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is in despair because he has the talent to put on a show–except money.

He hears Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), the girls’ neighbor and Polly’s boyfriend, playing the piano. A brilliant songwriter and singer who not only wrote the music for a show, Brad offers Hopkins $15,000 in cash to back the production. They all think he is kidding, but he insists he’s serious–he offers to back the show, but refuses to perform in it, despite his talent and voice.

Brad brings money and the show goes into production, but the girls suspect he’ criminal since he is cagey about his past and will not appear in the show, though he is more talented than the aging juvenile lead (Clarence Nordstrom).

It turns out that Brad is a millionaire’s son whose family does not approve of his connection to the theatre. On opening night, the juvenile cannot perform (due to lumbago), and Brad is forced to replace him.

The publicity causes Brad’s brother J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and family lawyer Faneuil H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) to discover what he is doing. They go to N.Y. to “save” him from being seduced by a “gold digger.”

Lawrence mistakenly identifies Carol as Polly, and his effort to dissuade the “cheap and vulgar” showgirl from marrying Brad by buying her off annoys her. Carol plays along, but the two fall in love.

Meanwhile, Trixie targets “Fanny” the lawyer as the rich sap ripe for exploitation. When Lawrence finds out that Brad and Polly have wed, he threatens to annul the marriage, but relents under pressure from Carol.

In the end, Trixie marries Faneuil, and the “gold diggers” (except for Fay) end up with wealthy men.


Berkeley’s “Waltz of the Shadows” number, from the trailer

“We’re in the money” production number

From the 1933 trailer: