Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

Busby Berkeley's GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 takes the "Let's put on a show!" concept to a high-end summer resort, where Dick Powell, Gloria Stuart, and a cast of thousands -- or at least hundreds -- appear in a charity fundraising production.

Powell plays Dick Curtis, a medical student who spends his summers working as a clerk at the resort. Dick is hired by wealthy Matilda Prentiss (Alice Brady) to serve as a "safe" escort for her daughter Ann (Stuart), who is supposed to marry repulsive millionaire Mosely Thorpe (Hugh Herbert) at the end of the summer. Of course, Dick and Ann fall in love. All is neatly resolved by the end of the big summer musical production.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 continued Warner Bros.' string of unique Busby Berkeley musicals, which began in 1933 with GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, 42ND STREET, and FOOTLIGHT PARADE and continued in 1934 with DAMES.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 is not on a par with the earlier Berkeley films, particularly the amazing trio released in 1933, but it boasts two stunning sequences which rank among Berkeley's finest work. The first number, "The Words Are In My Heart," features white-gowned girls at white pianos, which swirl and move into patterns with great precision. The way the pianos slide so gracefully into place is impressive. You can see men's legs under the pianos; it must have been uncomfortable to be hunched over pulling a piano along, but the effect was certainly worth it.

The other big number is set to the Academy Award winning Warren-Dubin song "Lullaby of Broadway." The song is sung by Wini Shaw, whose face at first is a mere dot on a black screen. Gradually the camera pulls up so close the viewer can just about see her tonsils, and then the camera goes inside her head as the number continues. The precision dancing by the huge chorus in the vast nightclub set is awe-inspiring -- one of those classic movie moments that caused me to sigh "Wow!" out loud -- and ultimately builds to a shocking conclusion. This impressive sequence is worth watching a second time after the movie ends in order to take in more of the details. It's a true Berkeley masterpiece.

Although Powell gets to sing "The Words Are in My Heart" and "I'm Goin' Shoppin' With You" earlier in the film, the movie is top-heavy with "humor" and light on music. Alice Brady is mildly amusing as the penny-pinching millionairess whose constant refrain is "Hmmmmmm" as she contemplates financial matters. However, I've never been able to understand why tiresome Hugh Herbert was cast in so many films; his storyline with Glenda Farrell is a complete distraction from the rest of the movie. Adolphe Menjou is similarly loud and over the top in this one.

In short, the movie could have used a lot more music and screen time featuring its energetic young cast members, including vivacious Dorothy Dare, and a lot less time watching Herbert, Menjou, and others plodding through forced comedy.

Lovely Gloria Stuart turned 99 last Independence Day. She was off the screen for nearly three decades, from the mid-'40s to the mid-'70s; her work in the '70s included two outstanding 1979 Lindsay Wagner TV-movies, THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF DR. MEG LAUREL and THE TWO WORLDS OF JENNIE LOGAN. Modern movie fans know Stuart from her Oscar-nominated turn in TITANIC (1997), in which she played Kate Winslet's character as an old lady.

Dick Powell went on to make several more musicals with Berkeley including HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (1937). I plan on catching up with more of their films in the weeks or months to come.

Virginia Grey, who moved to MGM shortly after this picture, can be glimpsed among the chorus girls. The cast also includes Grant Mitchell, Frank McHugh, Joseph Cawthorn, E.E. Clive, and Charles Coleman.

This movie was shot in black and white and runs 98 minutes.

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 is available on DVD as a single-title release or as part of Volume 1 of the Busby Berkeley Collection.

It has also been released on VHS.

This movie can be seen on cable on Turner Classic Movies, where it next airs on December 27, 2009. The trailer is at the TCM site here.

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