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Increasingly surreal Busby Berkeley numbers with a depression era narrative attached 4 Stars

Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 provides scintillating pre-Code entertainment with Busby Berkeley offering ever-more flamboyant stagings for his musical imagination and a clutch of songs which have all become standards.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Released: 27 May 1933
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 97 min
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon
Writer(s): Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour, David Boehm
Plot: A wealthy composer rescues unemployed Broadway performers with a new play, but insists on remaining anonymous.
IMDB rating: 7.7
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 38 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 02/08/2022
MSRP: $21.99

The Production: 4/5

After the smashing and unexpected success of 42nd Street (after musicals had been out of style and big money losers for the past three years), Warner Bros. delivered an immediate follow-up using much of the same team that had made the earlier film such a success. Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 featured another handful of catchy tunes, an appealing cross-section of the studio’s stable of talent, and the kaleidoscopic staging of musical extravaganzas by Busby Berkeley all wrapped around another backstage story but one that emphasized the depression far more than 42nd Street had done. The result was another big hit and a film whose production numbers joined the increasing collection of out-of-this-world musical spectacles that the studio and its director-choreographer would become known for.

With the depression taking a large and disheartening bite out of all areas of show business, producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) has his latest show shut down two days before opening due to his inability to pay his bills. The company is disconsolate but not Barney who is convinced he could have a hit if only he could find an angel to back his show. One appears in the person of songwriter Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) who puts up $15K on the promise of anonymity and Barney’s word that Brad’s girl friend Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler) will be featured in the new enterprise. On opening night, the juvenile lead can’t go on necessitating Brad’s taking his place where his identity inevitably becomes known: he’s the youngest son of an uptight Boston Back Bay family who can’t possibly risk any member of the family being associated with show business. Hearing that Brad’s brother Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and the family lawyer Faneul H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) plan to close the show and disinherit Brad, Polly’s showgirl friends Carol King (Joan Blondell) and Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon) get to work on the snobbish duo determined to distract the men from interfering with the show or Brad’s love life.

Screenwriters Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour, David Boehm, and Ben Markson use the same “unknown replaces the star” narrative hook that 42nd Street used to get their major plot rolling here, but then they go off in another direction with the extended narrative of the two showgirls playing the two elitists for saps to teach them a lesson. The most important part of the plot, however, revolves around the effect the depression is having on these downcast show people with the theme built into even a couple of production numbers in the show. It gets off to a lively start with Ginger Rogers (who drifts strangely in and out of the movie) warbling the depression lifting “We’re in the Money” (the tune, like all of the others, by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) while the Busby Berkeley showgirls dressed in coins do rhythmic posing and pattern prancing but never any real choreography. As with most of Berkeley’s work, we begin these numbers with on-stage settings which could convincingly be placed on a Broadway proscenium but by the end, we’re into Never Land with production numbers uninhibited by time and space. Two other upbeat numbers which begin with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler vocalizing likewise allow Berkeley to use the pre-Code esthetic to hint at naughtiness: in “Pettin’ in the Park” (with a lascivious baby played by little person Billy Barty up to lots of mischief amid a barrage of couples necking) and “Shadow Waltz” with his chorus girls sporting neon-fringed bows and violins and twirling in ever sweeping patterns until the violins themselves achieve a surreal design.  But he saves his knockout punch for the end: “Remember My Forgotten Man” which offers in Joan Blondell’s haunting recitation (her final burst of singing was dubbed by Jeane Cowann) and Berkeley’s increasingly elaborate and dark-toned staging a scolding look at the way veterans who are homeless, injured, and even crippled have been tossed aside by the country they fought for struggling to keep heads up during the depression. It’s a rather bleak but unforgettable way to end an otherwise frivolous musical comedy but one which places the movie into a sphere all its own.

As before, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler make a fine pair of innocent lovebirds. Powell does much more singing in this one than Keeler does (thank goodness as her vocal gifts leave something to be desired), and her dancing is pretty much confined to one bit of soft shoe dance around him (still a bit stiff-legged but a little less clunky than in 42nd Street). Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon are the gold diggers of the title, actually out to teach the elites a lesson in humility, and they’re both good with MacMahon earning extra points for her comic actions and reactions. Warren William and Guy Kibbee make good victims for the ladies while Ned Sparks takes his monotone wailing to new heights of funny despair. Popping around on the fringes of the movie are Sterling Holloway as a delivery boy, Eric Blore as a stuffy club member, Charles Lane as a gossipy reporter, W.C. Fields cohort Tammany Young as a bootlegger, and even Busby Berkeley who zips in as a backstage call boy.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The picture quality is absolutely pristine with startling sharpness and a grayscale that offers exceptional black levels and beautifully bright whites. The movie has been divided into 33 chapters.

Audio: 5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix has the fidelity of early sound recording, but problems from the era such as hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter have been practically eliminated. (I thought I might have heard a tiny bit of attenuated hiss at one brief moment, but it was so fleeting that it really isn’t worth bothering with.) Dialogue and song lyrics have been well recorded (and it appears a great deal of the solo singing seems to have been done live) and have been mixed with the music and the sound effects with great aplomb.

Special Features: 3.5/5

Gold Diggers: F.D.R.’s New Deal (15:36, SD): featurette on the importance and impact of the film and especially Busby Berkeley’s work on it. Breaking it down are film historians Rick Jewell, Martin Rubin, John Kendrick, Larry Billman, Richard Barrios, and Mary Ann Kellogg, choreographer Randy Skinner, and directors John Landis and John Waters.

Animated Shorts (all titles based on songs from the film) (HD): We’re in the Money (6:46), Pettin’ in the Park (7:00), I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song (6:43).

Vintage Live Action Shorts (SD): Rambling ‘Round Radio Row (9:11), 42nd Street Special (5:45), Seasoned Greetings with Lita Grey Chaplin and the young Sammy Davis Jr. (19:47)

Theatrical Trailer (2:41, HD)

Song Selection Menu: instant access to ten musical moments in the movie.

Overall: 4/5

Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 provides scintillating pre-Code entertainment with Busby Berkeley offering ever-more flamboyant stagings for his musical imagination and a clutch of songs which have all become standards. The Blu-ray disc from Warner Archive is a beauty to behold! Recommended!

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Matt Hough

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roxy1927

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vincent parisi
Well that's great to hear because the picture above looks worse than a 16MM print at Theater 80 St Marks.
 

Joel Arndt

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Just finished watching this and it looks fantastic for an almost 90 year old film. One question, I don't recall ever seeing a full rendition of the song I've Got to Sing a Torch Song that Dick Powell sings in this even though it's used a lot as underscoring. Is this newly found footage that was used for the restoration? I'll have to dig for my DVD.
 

benbess

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Watched this last night, and as mentioned the pq is great for a movie from 1933.

As Matt Hough writes in his perceptive review above:

"As with most of Berkeley’s work, we begin these numbers with on-stage settings which could convincingly be placed on a Broadway proscenium but by the end, we’re into Never Land with production numbers uninhibited by time and space....he saves his knockout punch for the end: “Remember My Forgotten Man” which offers in Joan Blondell’s haunting recitation (her final burst of singing was dubbed by Jeane Cowann) and Berkeley’s increasingly elaborate and dark-toned staging a scolding look at the way veterans who are homeless, injured, and even crippled have been tossed aside by the country they fought for struggling to keep heads up during the depression. It’s a rather bleak but unforgettable way to end an otherwise frivolous musical comedy but one which places the movie into a sphere all its own....Ned Sparks takes his monotone wailing to new heights of funny despair."

It's been many years since I saw this movie, and the Berkeley numbers as analyzed above are really remarkable. And Ned Sparks is really funny, and gets at one of the more admirable elements of show biz. The "gold digging" parts were a little uncomfortable from my pov when it came to the mis-matched pairing of "Trixie" and "Peabody," but overall the comedy was good, and Joan Blondell is a delight. I hadn't seen any of these early cartoons that were put on as extras before, and the parodies of early 30s celebrities in the last cartoon were funny.

Gold_Diggers_of_1933_(half-sheet_poster).jpeg
diggers.jpeg
videodisc gold.jpeg
 

Will Krupp

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Just finished watching this and it looks fantastic for an almost 90 year old film. One question, I don't recall ever seeing a full rendition of the song I've Got to Sing a Torch Song that Dick Powell sings in this even though it's used a lot as underscoring. Is this newly found footage that was used for the restoration? I'll have to dig for my DVD.

Heya, bub!! I just checked the old DVD to be sure and they're identical as regards "Torch Song." The sequence at the piano runs about 1:30 on both. You can be forgiven for not remembering it because it may be the least memorable one minute/30 seconds of the whole fill-um!
 

Joel Arndt

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Heya, bub!! I just checked the old DVD to be sure and they're identical as regards "Torch Song." The sequence at the piano runs about 1:30 on both. You can be forgiven for not remembering it because it may be the least memorable one minute/30 seconds of the whole fill-um!
Will, thanks for doing the research for me. It's been years since I watched the DVD and this Blu-ray is a thing of beauty.
 

winstoncarolina

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Blondell never got enough credit. Compare her work in "Gold Diggers" and "Nightmare Alley!" I was fortunate enough to have seen her on stage in the late 1950s or early 1960s in a touring production of William Inge's "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and shared a moment with her as she kindly autographed my theater program.
 

benbess

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Blondell never got enough credit. Compare her work in "Gold Diggers" and "Nightmare Alley!" I was fortunate enough to have seen her on stage in the late 1950s or early 1960s in a touring production of William Inge's "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and shared a moment with her as she kindly autographed my theater program.

Thanks for sharing that story. I agree. Also really liked Blondell in Grease, which I guess was one of her last roles. If by any chance you have any more details to share of your brief meeting with Blondell, please let us know.
 

Matt Hough

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Blondell never got enough credit. Compare her work in "Gold Diggers" and "Nightmare Alley!" I was fortunate enough to have seen her on stage in the late 1950s or early 1960s in a touring production of William Inge's "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and shared a moment with her as she kindly autographed my theater program.
She should have gotten an Oscar nomination for Nightmare Alley. She's fantastic in that.
 

alistairKerr

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Just finished watching this and it looks fantastic for an almost 90 year old film. One question, I don't recall ever seeing a full rendition of the song I've Got to Sing a Torch Song that Dick Powell sings in this even though it's used a lot as underscoring. Is this newly found footage that was used for the restoration? I'll have to dig for my DVD.
It was planned (and the song was pre-recorded) for the song to be performed by Ginger Rogers in the film. Not sure if it was ever filmed but the pre-recording disc exists and is featured on the Rhino 2 CD Busby Berkeley set. It would - for me - have been the icing on the cake regarding this terrific film.
 

Joel Arndt

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It was planned (and the song was pre-recorded) for the song to be performed by Ginger Rogers in the film. Not sure if it was ever filmed but the pre-recording disc exists and is featured on the Rhino 2 CD Busby Berkeley set. It would - for me - have been the icing on the cake regarding this terrific film.
That's right. I own that Berkeley CD set as well and that's why I thought there wasn't a full rendition of the song in the film. Agreed, would've been nice if Ginger's version had been included as well.
 

warnerbro

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It looks miraculous. And what a great movie. It seems so fresh and new. And Joan Blondell is so good in this. With this new print you can see that the girls really are fully naked in the Billy Barty scene.