We’re In The Money

(the second of three installments)

Movies were big business during the years of the Great Depression. So it follows that Hollywood must have been giving audiences something they really wanted in order to get them to part with their precious quarters. And a few hours’ escape from the hardships of daily life was probably just the salve those bruised souls needed.

But, as I mentioned in the last post, Gold Diggers of 1933 isn’t the sort of escape one would expect. This movie is surprisingly frank with its audience about their lives outside the movie theater. In fact, Gold Diggers is more a movie about the Depression than an escape from it. Just look at its opening number, “We’re In The Money.”

In the most entertaining ways, this movie is downright subversive in its relationship with its audience and in its subject matter. For starters, most movies — then and even now — make a clean break between the opening credits and the story proper. The opening functions like a door between the world of the audience and that of the movie. It tells us that we’re about to enter into that story, identifies the players we’ll see there, and asks us to suspend our disbelief until it tells us the movie’s over.

We don’t get any break or fade to black here. It isn’t clear from the clip, but the movie’s opening credits lead seamlessly into the first number with images of the cast appearing on that oversized coin just before it moves aside to reveal Ginger Rogers. It’s as if that wall between our two worlds were a little less solid.

Now about that opening number.

No one in 1933 — maybe the darkest year of the Depression — is supposed to take at face value that we’re really in the money. Ginger Rogers is practically winking at us when she sings:

We never see a headline
About a bread line today.
And when we see the landlord,
We can look that guy right in the eye.

Just by bringing up such specific references to the facts of Depression life, the song forces us to think about them. Insisting they’re no longer a problem — with Rogers’s wry smile and impromptu pig latin — telegraphs to the audience that we’re in on the joke.

Gold Diggers of 1933Best of all, the number never even gets to finish because the sheriff breaks up the show’s dress rehearsal to repossess the sets and costumes. This is not going to be the sort of feel-good story we might have expected. It may make us feel good, but for different reasons.

The dialogue is really sharp, in the hard-boiled way that would make people in The Show Business truly interesting if only they really had that kind of wit. And the quips from our heroines as the sheriff’s deputies try to take back their costumes are pure dame.

When one of the sheriff’s deputies grabs Aline MacMahon’s bustle as she climbs the stairs:

I beg your pardon!
Well we gotta take it back, actress.
Well that’s as far back as it goes.

Or when another grabs the cardboard coins covering Ginger Roger’s crotch and backside:

You could at least leave me car fare!

Just as important as any of the dialogue is the visual tone of the movie.

The Busby Berkeley CollectionWarner Bros. had hired Busby Berkeley to stage and direct the musical numbers in its previous backstage musical, 42nd Street. That movie revived the nearly dead genre and much of that was due to Berkeley’s contribution. In his hands, the camera took flight. Musical numbers gave only a casual nod to the conceit that they were supposed to take place on the stage of a theater. Berkeley set them free from the confines of plausibility as the walls of the theater dissolved to fill an entire sound stage with pure spectacle.

Next post: the movie’s big finale.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply