Conventional wisdom regards Busby Berkeley musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 as plot-free, escapist fluff. As usual, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. The class resentment and solidarity of Depression-era America are bred into Gold Diggers; they drive its story of four unemployed showgirls who gold dig their way to financial stability. Furthermore, the film is bookended by two politically trenchant musical numbers—the ironic “We’re in the Money” and plaintive “Remember My Forgotten Man”—that take the Depression by its horns.
In short, this isn’t just fluff. It’s a cry for help dressed up with showbiz panache. It’s class warfare as musical comedy. The war begins as two envoys of the upper class descend on the showgirls’ apartment to rescue their compatriot Brad, a trust fund baby working incognito as a songwriter. These envoys are played by Warren William, a smug, handsome staple of 1930s melodrama, and Guy Kibbee, his pompous, buffoonish counterpart. Before you can say “gullible,” they fall into the hands of two showgirls, who (through a series of intricate, seductive games) rope them into buying extravagant gifts and making marriage proposals.
One gold-digging tactic stands out as especially risqué and genuinely cruel. Trixie, the lanky trickster played by Aline MacMahon, transports the drunken Warren William into the bed of his paramour Carol (Joan Blondell). He awakes with a disorienting hangover and the misguided belief that, blue-blooded or not, he has fucked a chorus girl. Ashamed, he pays out $10,000 in blackmail money to Trixie. It’s the 99% sexually pranking the 1%—a Marxist wish fulfillment revenge fantasy.
And they get away with everything. Trixie, who had bragged about taking her mark “like Grant took Waterloo,” is never punished. She’s rewarded with a lifelong meal ticket. In the Gold Diggers America, poverty trumps pre-Depression notions of black and white morality. These girls are survivors and, if need be, sexual/economic mercenaries. Their gold-digging, played for laughs by the film’s impressive roster of comic performers, leaves a bitter aftertaste. All that unspoken despair and frustration rises to the surface in the film’s last few minutes, as the happy ending segues into “Remember My Forgotten Man.”
Berkeley’s musical numbers are typically renowned for their overblown, macroscopic staging. The “Forgotten Man” number, however, begins with the camera trained on Blondell’s face as she delivers a spoken word intro. “I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,” she mutters. “Until they came and took my man away.” It’s a poignant, proto-feminist* plea whose power is amplified by its visual simplicity, and Blondell gives a compact, heartbreaking mini-performance over the course of the song.
Then the number shifts into full-on Hollywood/Broadway grandeur: Berkeley recreates the soggy warfare of World War I, a ticker tape parade, and bread lines, all leading up to a vast Art Deco tableau of lower-class solidarity. All this, ostensibly on a real-life stage, with Blondell as its centerpiece, begging to have her man back. Then, audaciously, the movie ends. No more backstage shenanigans; just a tragic vision of the Great Depression.
It’s a vision with renewed relevance nearly 80 years later, thanks to the endemic greed of the financial sector. 2011 is uncannily similar to 1933, with the crowds of forgotten men and women, the extreme income inequality, and the well-funded reprisals against any attempt at protest. Some things, it seems, never change. In both Depression and Recession, the jobless masses lack the power that comes with money—but at least they’ve still got voices to sing out for economic justice and, just maybe, bodies to seduce it into reality.
*The song’s gender politics are admittedly complicated. I say “proto-feminist” because it’s from a woman’s POV and calls specific attention to the Depression’s effect on her. However, it also advances a heteronormative conception of women as dependent on the love and income of their husbands. Either way, it’s certainly powerful and worthy of further discussion.