In general I would argue musicals are an escape from reality. They don't show the world as we know it. My personal favorite musicals were the ones made in the 1930s and 40s. Several of the musicals from the 30s, which I enjoy, make little to no mention of the current social or political environment from which they emerged. "Top Hat" (1935) my pick for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best film, is a movie where everyone is wealthy, the characters fly to Europe, they face no real problems other than finding true love. But "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) is much different. Don't confuse what I am saying. I'm not saying the film doesn't have flights of fancy. I'm not saying it isn't good natured. But the movie acknowledges there is a Depression. The characters aren't wealthy, well, not all of them anyway. The Depression has hit them too.
By the time the film was made President Franklin Roosevelt had been sworn into office. His election of course signified "hope" and "change" (gee, where have I heard that before?). That may account for the film's opening musical number, "We're in the Money", sung by Ginger Rogers behind a very lavish art-deco set and somewhat risque costumes. The women are dressed up as dollar coins with see-through material. Besides that optimistic number the film does offer us a reality the audience can relate to on some level. This is a Hollywood musical so the picture couldn't be too bleak.
And because it is a Hollywood musical the film does have a happy message. The Depression won't last forever. These characters will find themselves "in the money". Though the ending is bittersweet. The characters are married and wealthy, but, America hadn't recovered. The film's finale has Joan Blondell sing "Remember My Forgotten Man", a song about how we treat our veterans during this economic crisis. It is a strong reminder that while movies can offer us some comfort they can't solve our problems.
I'm afraid though I'm making "The Gold Diggers of 1933" sound really heavy and depressing. It isn't. On the surface the film is a playful musical comedy. There is some cynicism and the political/social messages are subtle.
The film follows a group of chorus girls; Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and Fay (Ginger Rogers). Just like the rest of the country, they cannot find employment. Their last job was for producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks), but, his backers pulled out as the Sheriff has come to closed down production. Now the girls are out of work and luck.
Three of the girls; Polly, Trixie and Carol all live together and have fallen behind on the rent. Every theatre is shut down. No one seems to be putting on shows except when Fay calls them to inform them Barney is putting on a new shows and wants all the same people he had before. His big idea is a show about the Depression. After the girls get excited about the prospect of a new show, Barney lowers the boom on them. He says he has the show, the theatre and the cast but no money. He says all he needs is $15,000 and he can start rehearsals.
The girls' have a next door neighbor, a struggling musician, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell). While practicing a new song he has written Barney over hears him playing and decides he wants him to write the score for his show. And Brad agrees to put up the $15,000. But how? Who is Brad really and how can he come up with so much money when he seems to be living just like the girls. But somehow he gets the money and wins Polly's affections.
I really don't want to give too much of the plot. Brad's major secret is revealed as his brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and the family attorney Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) want to stop Brad from not only producing and acting in the show but to stop seeing Polly. Through a miscommunication J. Lawrence confuses Carol for Polly and demands she stop seeing his brother. But Trixie and Carol have a plan. Why not take these guys for all they are worth. Trixie sets her sights on Fanuel hoping to marry him for his money. That is probably the most cynical aspect of the movie. People don't marry for love but for money. When a woman is desperate she will in a way "sell herself" to a wealthy man.
Some have said the film was a remake of the very popular "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929) which was for 10 years one of the highest grossing films until "Gone With The Wind" (1939) knocked it out. Sadly that film is now considered lost so I don't know how much of it was used in this film. But the general idea does appear to be similar.
"The Gold Diggers of 1933" was also Warner Brothers way to capitalize on the success of "42nd Street" (1933), which I have just included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". That film was a big hit for Warner Brothers. It managed to win an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" losing to the screen adaptation of Noel Coward's "Cavalcade" (1933), which I have also reviewed. Many of the same people appear in both films; Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks. Plus both movies have a musical score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. In this movie we hear such songs as "We're in the Money", "Shadow Waltz", "Remember My Forgotten Man" and "Pettin' in the Park".
The "Pettin' in the Park" number is the most risque number in the film. It is extremely suggestive. Although the film as a whole is pretty suggestive. One moment has the ladies tricking a man into believing he slept with one of them as they demand he pay for it. One dialogue exchange has Fay modeling a new dress saying if "Barney could see her in clothes" while another lady interrupts "he wouldn't recognize you".
The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy. I read he was the original choice to directed "42nd Street" and having him direct this number would seem to confirm that. Since Warner Brothers couldn't get him for that one they wanted to get him for their next big musical. However I don't associate his name with the musical. He directed a pretty broad range of films from gangster movies, "Little Caesar" (1931) to drama, "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" (1932) to romance "Random Harvest" (1942), one of my all time favorite movies. Still he does a good job here. And credit must be given to Busby Berkeley for his work on the musical numbers.
From the entire cast it is Joan Blondell who is really the star of the movie. She wasn't a singer or dancer but did appear in several Warner Brothers musicals. She was in Dames (1934), "Colleen" (1936) and another "Gold Digger" movie, "The Gold Diggers of 1937" (1936) which co-star her husband Dick Powell (Powell also appeared in the other mentioned movies). Warren William is given top billing. He might be best known for his role in Cecil B. DeMille's "Cleopatra" (1934). Aline MacMahon was in another movie I reviewed, the Marlene Dietrich comedy "The Lady Is Willing" (1942). And of course I've discussed Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers in the past. Rogers would get her big break though when teamed with Fred Astaire the same year in "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), which I have also reviewed. And Keeler made her debut in "42nd Street" she a very good tap dancer who appeared in several movies with Dick Powell.
"The Gold Diggers of 1933" has one of the best musical scores I've heard in a movie. Fans of the classic American songbook will enjoy the movie just for the music. And classic movie fans and film buffs will enjoy it just because the movie is so good and entertaining. The movie has a lot of interesting ideas about love and society. It isn't a dumbed down musical. There is a commentary being made here. Whether or not you chose to pay attention to it is entirely up to you. But just be aware it is there. You can still enjoy the movie however because of the music.