Monday, January 30, 2017


Over the weekend, exhausted by creative setbacks and the nonstop barrage of depressing news coming out of my TV, radio and phone, I sat down with my father-in-law in front of a sparkling HD print (transfer? restoration? unsure of the proper terminology here) of Gold Diggers of 1933 which was recently procured by my DVR from TCM. My interest in/hunger for anything Busby Berkeley was tweaked by the taste we got on New Year’s Eve via the compilation doc That's Dancing, and I hadn’t seen GD33 in perhaps 30 years. As I watched it I began to really understand what had always been somewhat academic before, that audiences in the ‘30s used to flock to extravagant spectacles like this as a way of taking a 90-minute retreat from the oppressive reality they faced the other 1350 minutes of the day, because that was exactly how it was functioning for me in the moment.

Yet for being an ostensible bit of fluff, the movie is still surprising in the way it jumbles fantasy with sobering social consciousness right out of the gate. Berkeley’s staging of “We’re in the Money,” featuring a young and sassy Ginger Rogers knocking out the tune amid images of glittering lucre and the usual lavish extravagance of a typical Berkeley production number, immediately reminds the audience of the movie’s historical context, situated as it was four years into the approximately ten-year run of the Great Depression, and that teeming coffers of cash were the last thing they had at their disposal. Audiences in 1933 wouldn’t have needed reminding, of course, and that’s what striking about this “frivolous” entertainment, that it openly acknowledges and engages with the troubles of the world while conjuring a sublime bubble of escapism at the same time. (This thematic refusal to shy away from real life is, of course, a hallmark of Berkeley’s work across the board.)

That the movie ends not with optimistic affirmation and a neat tying-up of the its various romantic entanglements, but instead with its Broadway show’s big finale, “The Forgotten Man,” a spectacle dedicated to the dirt-scratching trials of a citizenry, faithful in the previous war, but bedeviled and brought down by economic disaster, might be even more remarkable—the number is powerful, of course, weightier than the content of the rest of the show staged by cranky producer Ned Sparks, and it amounts to a curiously solemn note on which to wrap up such an otherwise effervescent picture, hardly one to inspire much happy whistling as audiences headed back out to their considerably less sparkling lives. 

Even so, in presumably much the same way as audiences in 1933 must have embraced it, I somehow found encouragement to be taken from seeing Gold Diggers of 1933 this weekend which went beyond the emotional bump to be gleaned from its glittering charm, sassy performances and eye-popping staging, and this at a time when we’re not four years into a national crisis but, relatively speaking, more like four minutes into one. Busby Berkeley’s audiences, who would face the specter of Hitler once they got some dough back in their pockets, managed to appreciate a dose of social reality mixed in with their singing-and-dancing fantasias. This was what movies could do a little over 30 years after they were born. Eighty-some years later I’m left to wonder, with generous doses of optimistic anticipation in counteraction with the inevitable dread, how our great popular artists, the ones we know already and the ones who will hopefully emerge, will address or otherwise synthesize the realities of our suddenly up-ended world in the enlightened age of Trump. 


And while we're talking about Gold Diggers of 1933  and satanic influence (we were, weren't we?), please be gratefully reminded of this flat-out brilliant piece by Richard Harland Smith on why the obvious sequel to that Busby Berkeley classic is not Gold Diggers of 1935 but instead... The Exorcist. As Richard puts it, "To say that a message was not intended is not to say that a message was not received."


1 comment:

wwolfe said...

"Hell or High Water" seems to me to be the first Trump era movie. Yes, it predated his election by a few months, but I doubt that any movie will do a better job of showing some of the emotional landscape that produced our Mussolini.