Busby Berkeley's name is synonymous with the lavish musicals of the early sound era, and to such an extent that I've been familiar with Berkeley's brand and style as far back as I can remember, even though I've never actually seen one of his movies until now. While the many Berkeley homages that I've enjoyed over the last four decades — from Blazing Saddles through last year's Hail, Caesar! — have adequately hinted at his trademark extravagance, they still fall far short of both the brilliant sense of wonder that his choreography inspires and the delightfully weird sense of humor evident in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), a fantastically fun Depression-era musical comedy.
Struggling to find work in an industry steeped in a garish fantasy that no longer connects with the financially strapped public, a close-knit group of down-and-out showgirls desperately vy for roles in an ambitious new Broadway revue. Once their show is a success, they find themselves targeted as parasitic golddiggers by high society snobs who disapprove of a backstage romance involving one of their own. With a witty script based on a stage play that had already been successfully filmed multiple times, director Mervyn LeRoy guides a sparkling cast through a series of fun, funny and fabulous set-pieces. Joan Blondell vexes Warren William, Aline MacMahon runs riot over Guy Kibbee, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell bat eyes at each other, Ned Sparks barks through his cigar, Ginger Rogers sings in pig latin, Billy Barty ice skates in baby duds, a snowman has a threesome, chimpanzees kiss, and Sterling Holloway delivers a hat; even though the parade of craziness eventually makes way for a relatively calm screwball love plot, Gold Diggers of 1933 is so genuinely played by its cavalcade of stars that it even manages to tug a bit at the heartstrings.
Gold Diggers of 1933 features four major musical numbers, three of which are rich examples of the prodigious imagination for which Berkeley is legendary. The song that closes the film, "The Forgotten Man," is starkly dramatic, but no less rich, presenting an effectively pointed mirror image of the Depression-denial that opens the movie. Given all of the light comedy leading up to the finale, there's a slight twinge of anomaly to such a heavy epilogue, but it works thematically, even if only by a thread, and the performances are every bit as stunning as the standard set during the lighter, sillier and more romantic numbers.
Gold Diggers of 1933 was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Dan Kocher, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Fish_beauty. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #418 (93%) out of 5954 movies, and 10th out of 71 Pre-Code movies. On my chart, Gold Diggers of 1933 ranked at #464 (88%), where it's also 5th out of 12 movies from Pre-Code Hollywood.