Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers, Warren William (98 min.)

plus: notes on 2 early musical shorts shown at 2001 NCMA screening Sissle and Blake’s Snappy Songs (1923) and The Opry House (1929).

Sex, money, power. What could be clearer than the opening shot of the movie, with chorus girls scantily clad in coins? What does a girl have to do to get a decent meal? And, how far can a good girl go before she becomes a bad girl?

The Gold Diggers was a hit play in 1919, running a year and a half on Broadway. A silent version was made in 1923 and the first talking “Gold Diggers” movie was made in the crash year of 1929. The Vitaphone discs with the soundtrack exist, including the hit song, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” but only the last reel of film. There are still modern gold diggers of course. But, they were more common when casual sex was less common. In one of her memoirs, Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, told of a conversation she had with a young friend during the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1970s. “You mean, you could get a diamond bracelet just for doing that?” said a young woman who did what an earlier generation might have called, “giving it away.”

Gold Diggers of 1933 had two directors, Mervyn LeRoy for the plot and Busby Berkeley for the musical numbers. The backstage “putting on a show” story was not integrated into the action, and the songs could have been cut out completely without harming the continuity, although the film would have been a lot poorer for it. At RKO, the Astaire-Rogers musicals would soon change the landscape, but not yet. While Berkeley’s dance extravaganzas of the early 1930s would seem to be impossible anywhere but on the movie screen, they in fact did have origins dating back to 19th century stage spectacles. They evolved from the revues that had been popular on Broadway in the teens and twenties. Revues were not a series of completely unrelated acts, like in a vaudeville show, but a series of musical and comedy specialties structured around a loosely defining theme. This theme, in many cases, may only have been the decorative display of the female body. There were intimations of his movie style in chorus numbers Berkeley did on stage, where showgirls became factory assembly lines or airplanes. There were no overhead views, but he used stairs and platforms to alter the space on stage, and in Earl Carroll Vanities of 1928 he used an optical device called the “Vanities Votaphonevitotone” to project enlargements of one chorus girl’s face at a time on a screen.

Busby Berkeley and Dancers

Berkeley’s giddy, girly kaleidoscopes in his great early Warner Brothers period, from 42nd Street in 1933 to The Gold Diggers of 1935 had an art deco geometry that other dance numbers simply didn’t. There was a tension between innocence and vulgarity, a fragmenting of the female body that only he could imagine on the screen. He made the camera a participant in his dance routines, not just a spectator, from the earliest work he did in Hollywood for Eddie Cantor in Whoopee. Berkeley had a unique advantage at Warner Brothers, in that he was not required to showcase a particular musical star, but worked with an ensemble, since it was the chorus that seemed particularly to inspire him. He loved shiny black floors and dancers in white, he loved girls’ faces and other parts of their bodies, too. These numbers were rehearsed and rehearsed until they were perfect. With dancers under contract and no union to restrict rehearsal hours, the girls were drilled relentlessly until they were perfect.  These numbers do not have a lot of edits.  They run straight throughwith only a handful of cuts.

Ruby Keeler’s tap dancing does not have the lightness of many of her contemporaries.  She came from a tradition where, rather than having taps on the toe and heel of your shoes, the whole sole of the shoe was wooden, so you had to stomp on the flat of your foot to make the tap sound. This is why her clunky technique is the opposite of Fred Astaire’s suavity. (I must add, that at the 2001 NCMA screening, I was chastised after the show by several audience members for criticizing Ruby’s dancing!) She came to Hollywood as Al Jolson’s wife, he of course the great Broadway star who sang and spoke in the film that started the talkie revolution, The Jazz Singer. Then, in best Star is Born fashion, as his celebrity dimmed she became more and more famous. She once told an interviewer after their divorce, “Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer who ever lived. He told me so every day.”

A proud and happy man is Al Jolson. When he is interviewed he can talk of nothing but Ruby, his brilliant wife

Warner Brothers was, according to J. Hoberman, “the purveyor of brash, racy, cynical, up-to-date movies populated by fast-talking wise guys;” this goes for musicals and gangster films alike. Mike Mashon, the Curator at the Library of Congress who helped me arrange this 2001 series, and I both have a weakness for Pre-code WB pictures: there’s nothing like ’em. You’ll see some of my favorite members of the stock company here, actors whose images were so defined, the script department just wrote in “Guy Kibbee” or “Ned Sparks” instead of the character names.

…Guy Kibbee…

or, Ned Sparks…both with Joan Blondell. (Note: framed on the wall is a famous Harrison Fisher suite of paintings, dating from about 1910, depicting courtship and marriage)

Back in the harness of Hollywood, Joan’s vaude-vacation is over. Her clipping bureau, if she has one, must have flooded her with “Gold Digger” compliments, and now “Goodbye Again” is also a wow. As a steno, Joan teaches Warren William a system that Isaac Pitman never dreamed of, but it will be recognized in some of our best offices. Joan’s “Forgotten Man” is becoming the catch phrase of the season.

Dress like a movie star (if you can sew). But, I doubt this is an Orry-Kelly design.

Aline MacMahon’s tart delivery enlivens many 30s WB films. She’s fabulous as a retired gangster’s moll, dressed in overalls and running a desert service station in Heat Lightning.  She was born in 1899 in McKeesport PA, but her family moved to NYC when she was three, her father got a job on the NY stock exchange.  An only child, she was much loved and given lessons in singing, dancing, elocution and violin.  She went to Barnard College and immediately joined the dramatic society.  When she graduated, she began acting on the Broadway stage.  Her breakthrough part was in the Kaufman and Hart play about the dawn of the talkies, Once in a Lifetime.  Although she was passed over for the film version, Moss Hart himself cast her in the Los Angeles company.  On opening night, just about every director and producer in Hollywood was there.  The next day, Mervyn LeRoy offered her a part in the film he was directing, Five Star Final. She signed a contract with WB for four films a year, two in the summer and two in the winter.  Eventually frustrated with the parts she was playing, she asked out of her contract, and for once, (after a “friendly fight”) the studio agreed, releasing her in 1935.  I was astonished to discover that her husband, Clarence S. Stein, was a visionary city planner, who designed the community in which my daughter is now living, Sunnyside, Queens, NY.

You can’t screen Pre-Code classics without a generous helping of Warren William.  We saw him in Skyscraper Souls in his usual role as heartless seducer, but here, we have the comic version of his wealthy plutocrat.  Warren William Kretch was born in Aitkin, Minnesota, in 1894.  His father was a publisher of the local newspaper, but Warren wasn’t much of a scholar, he didn’t graduate high school until he was 21.  He enlisted in the army during WWI, and while serving in an artillery unit in France, volunteered to appear in a YMCA show.  He decided that acting was for him.  He acted on stage, and in a few silent films, along the way marrying actress Helen Nelson, to whom he remained married the rest of his life.  He worked hard at his craft for twelve years, with intermittent success, but in 1931, John Barrymore left Warner Brothers, and William was hired because he resembled him, as a replacement for the studio’s valuable star.  He was typecast right away as a (usually) heartless rich man, which he continued to play with relish throughout the early 1930s.  Later in the 1930s, he played detectives in B movie series, Perry Mason, Philo Vance, The Lone Wolf, and then other supporting roles.  At home he was a keen gardener, and an inventor, devising gadgets like a solar water heater so he could give his beloved dogs warm baths.  He died in 1948, only 54 years old, of multiple myeloma, a bone marrow disease.

Orry Kelly designed the costumes for this film. He may not be as famous as Adrian or Edith Head, but the gorgeous gowns here have been an inspiration to me since I first saw this movie on tv as a teenager. Everyone else was wearing miniskirts, but I wanted the bias plaid tunic ensemble that Aline MacMahon wears in this film. Here is a fabulous montage that somebody else made from screen caps:

But not the tunic dress I fell in love with!

Warner Brothers publicity made a big deal of the complexity and expense of the grandiose musical numbers. Berkeley was famous for an overhead shot that was a wow on-screen, but of course, impossible in a theater. James Sanders notes in Celluloid Skyline, “One story has (Darryl) Zanuck coming onto the stage during the production (of 42nd Street) and finding the director in the rafters, looking at the stage floor. ‘What the hell are you doing up there?’ Zanuck shouted. ‘You can’t take the audience up there!’ ‘I know,’ Berkeley replied, ‘but I’d like to. It’s awful pretty up here.'” For Gold Diggers of 1933, he designed a crane that ran on dual tracks; it went both up and down as well as gliding back and forth. Sixty feet off the ground seemed not quite high enough,and he had holes cut in the studio roof to take his camera still higher.

Mervyn LeRoy, the great director of “Gold Diggers of 1933” with Doris Warner–the boss’s daughter!

Fifty-four girls sang “We’re in the Money,” their costumes consisted of 54,000 “silver” coins, which were replicated in chocolate and foil for advertising give-aways. Ginger Rogers, supposedly goofing around during the interminable rehearsals, sang a chorus in pig-latin, and director LeRoy incorporated it into the final version.

“The Shadow Waltz” was one of Berkeley’s signature extravaganzas featuring swirling chorines sawing away on neon violins. They wore hoop skirts incorporating 2000 yards of lightweight china silk, “Seventy-five women worked eight days to make these costumes and at the last minute, two milliners sat up all night to create 54 silver wigs of metallic cloth with little sequin tendrils in front giving the appearance of curls.” One of the dancers said in an interview that the interaction between the neon violins and the metallic wigs caused a constant crackling of little electric shocks around their heads. This number almost became a disaster when an earthquake occurred during the filming, the ramp swayed and some of the dancers were nearly electrocuted. The filming was as intense as rehearsal, in one instance a 7:30 am call ended 24 hours later.

On set repairs.

Rehearsal photo taken on the “Shadow Waltz” set. Art Director Anton Grot points to his model with a pencil, as director LeRoy and Berkeley look on.

A neon violin from an exhibition at the Smithsonian

Gold Diggers of 1933 was filmed during the lowest economic point in American history, and was a film that reflected Depression reality. These gold diggers care less about jewelry than where their next meal was coming from. “Remember My Forgotten Man” (sung by an unbilled Etta Moten; George Gershwin wrote “Bess” in Porgy and Bess for her) evokes general dispair, but also specifically the Bonus Army. These were WWI Veterans who came to Washington to ask for the veterans’ bonuses they were owed, and when Congress voted down the request they were forcibly dispersed by the troops ordered out by President Hoover, an action that doomed his presidency. The Gold Diggers of 1933 embraces newly elected FDR’s New Deal, and in the pairing of innocents Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler looks forward to economic and spiritual rebirth.


Shown with: A De Forest Phonofilm (1923) Sissle and Blake’s Snappy Songs (7 min.) starring Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Engineers tinkered with sound starting almost from the beginning of cinema; Lee De Forest was one of the most successful.. His sound on film technique had trouble with perfect synchronization and the quality was variable, but with improvements would eventually become the industry standard. In 1923, De Forest gathered 9 of vaudeville’s top headliners, including Sissle and Blake, Weber and Fields and Eddie Cantor to stand in front of his cutting edge technology and record their specialties for posterity. All the shorts were shown as a single program on April 15, 1923. He continued recording vaudeville stars, operas, minstrel shows, and political speeches in the 1920s. The tuxedo clad Sissle and Blake sing three songs, including one of their signature tunes, “Affectionate Dan” and “All God’s Chillun’ Got Shoes.” The sound on the print we showed was very rough, but appropriately conveyed the experimental nature of the Phonofilm technique.

Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle wrote the first all-Black show on Broadway, Shuffle Along (1921). They wrote many standards, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” Blake, who died a few days after his self-proclaimed 100th birthday in 1983 (he was actually born in 1887) reminisced for author Al Rose’s biography, “Now, this was the first time we worked in front of a camera, and in those days they couldn’t move the camera around on wheels, or turn it every way, so naturally, it couldn’t follow you. That didn’t bother me too much because I’m sittin’ at the piano anyway, I ain’t goin’ nowhere. But Sissle, he’s all over the stage, see. If he has to stand still and sing, it’s just real hard for him to do that. He’s an actor and that cramps his style. So when you see the film–and if you know how he is the rest of the time– you can see he’s not up to his best. Another thing, If you play to a theater audience, you have to learn to do a stage smile. Now that means you show your teeth. The audience is too far away to see if you’re laughin’ or cryin’ or if you really look sad. But if those people out there see teeth, they’re satisfied. Now, if you do the stage smile and the camera is eight feet away, then when the films come out your stage smile looks like a Halloween mask. The audience can see you’re not happy at all if you’re not. You can’t hide nothin’ from that camera. So me and Sissle don’t look natural in that film. We sound real good. There ain’t nothin’ fake about the sound. At the time I didn’t think too much about the whole thing, but then as time went on, I realized that we made show-business history that day. The first Negro act in talking pictures! The first film music!”

And, The Opry House (9 min) (1929) with Lew Hearn, Doris Walker and the Mound City Blue Blowers, including Red McKenzie and Eddie Lang. Vitaphone was the trademark of the Warner Brothers sound system. The sound was recorded on 78s that were synchronized with the film; a record player was attached with a belt to the projectors. The Gold Diggers of 1933 still says “Vitaphone” but the sound is recorded on the film, the disc system scrapped as unwieldy.

I love the low tech of these early talkies. This one showcases many of these qualities. One take, and keep the camera rolling, even if somebody fluffs their lines. Don’t move off your mark, or the mikes won’t be able to record you. But, best of all, real music, sweet and hot, no playbacks and lipsyncing, for a real taste of 1929. The Mound City Blue Blowers were formed in 1924, and had lots of different personnel over the years. This incarnation has guitarist Eddie Lang, who virtually invented the guitar as a jazz instrument. Lang was a boyhood friend of violinist Joe Venuti, and they often played together. Lang died just 4 years after this film, aged 31, the victim of a botched tonsillectomy. He was in a couple of features, and another Vitaphone short; but this could be his longest time on camera, although he just plays rhythm with no solos. The audience loved Red McKenzie’s comb-tissue and tin can playing, and the goofy guy who plays a suitcase with a pair of whisk brooms.

This short has been restored by the Library of Congress and the Vitaphone Project at UCLA. LOC has the film, and UCLA the discs for many early shorts, and the Vitaphone Project is slowly reuniting them. They are searching for missing elements, so, if you have those big, 16″ Vitaphone discs in your collection, the Vitaphone Project wants to hear from you. One of my correspondents, Bill Edwards of notes that they are not 78 RPM as I always thought: “Vitaphone discs were not 78 RPM (the common format of the day) as even a 12″ or 16” disc would not have the necessary 11 minute capacity for a reel. They were actually among the earliest 33 1/3 RPM discs, although acetate or shellac, and not polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), as that would not come until the late 1940s. Indeed, if you listen to any of the Vitaphone shorts on disc three of The Jazz Singer set, you can hear the timing of the whoosh at a single point on some of them, which will further confirm that speed. They simply used a wider groove for better dynamic range than the average 78 RPM record of the time…It makes sense that even a larger record would not have the 11 minute capacity at 78 and maintain the horizontal bandwidth necessary in the groove to send loud enough tones to the amplifier to make for better reproduction and go that long. A 10″ record at 78 has perhaps 4:30 practical length, but 2:50 at Vitaphone groove sizes, and a 12″ about 5:30, but only 4:00 at Vitaphone size. Even increasing to 16″ would not give enough time.


(Photo of Ned Sparks and Joan Blondell from Moviediva’s collection. Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers and Ruby Keeler from the December 1965 Films in Review, and Berkeley and his chorines from the October, 1973 Films in Review. “Shadow Waltz” photo from John Springer’s All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing. Ruby and Al, Joan and Warren, Mervyn and Doris from September, 1933 Silver Screen, neon violin from exhibition catalogue, Hollywood: Legend and Reality edited by Michael Webb, “Shadow Waltz” rehearsal photo from the Museum of Modern Art Stills Department.)

c.Moviediva2001(RevisedMay2003, January2008, June2019)