Thursday, October 2, 2008

Women on the Verge

Mr. Muscato has been traveling this week, so I've been spending my evenings revisiting some old favorite pictures (there are only so many he'll put up with, and God knows he puts up with enough else that I don't say a word).

In any case, last night at the Living Room Rivoli, I took in Gold Diggers of 1933.

It's one of those movies I'm still surprised to be able to see any time I take out the DVD. It was very late to video, and I first encountered it back on 57th Street at the Biograph, one of the last really first-rate art houses in New York - a theatre large and lavish enough that it approximated what it might have been like to go to the movies in 1933.

It's a pretty amazing film - definitely worth a look if it's been a while since you've seen it. It's set, no surprise, in the world of Warner' Broadway backstagers, but it has a genuine edge: the one-two punch of Depression and Prohibition, both fairly explicitly addressed, makes it seem far harder-boiled than I remembered. It's about people who are just this side of hungry and making the best of it, even if it means a little casual theft, flashing a little more than ankle to get a job in the chorus, or taking a rube for the ride of his life.

It uses many of the usual thirties bits (the eccentric producer, the lovestruck juvenile-with-a-secret, Ruby Keeler's patented wide-eyed baby act, et al), but adds its own fillips. The optimism of the opening "We're in the Money" number is immediately undercut when bailiffs arrive to seize the sets and costumes, throwing our heroines out of work and setting the plot in motion.

Aline MacMahon's gold digger, a comic actress looking for her next break, is genuinely predatory, and may or may not be redeemed by genuine affection for her mark at the end. She and Ginger Rogers spar over said mark with real viciousness (and a swift kick under a nightclub table). The girls have among them only enough good clothes for one to run after a producer who may or may not have some jobs to hand out. Even Ruby Keeler gets a petulant moment or two, as well as very clearly understanding - and enjoying - the subtext built right into any number called "Pettin' in the Park."

But most of all, it has "My Forgotten Man." This is the musical number as sociology, a truly chilling combination of spectacle and politics that decries the lot of the working men (and the women who loved them) betrayed by the country's economic collapse. It's like an inversion of the earlier numbers, with flirting couples and lighthearted tap dancing replaced by vignettes of humiliation and poverty and the marching of men in breadlines and off to war.

The song builds from a quiet start, first in recitative delivered by a stock "girl of the streets" type, leaning against her lamppost. Then it's taken up as a blues wail, a song of pain and want (sung, it turns out, by one Emma Moten, who later went on to be Gershwin's chosen Bess and a prominent civil-rights activist*). Finally, it's shouted by a mostly male chorus, accompanied by scenes that startlingly combine the stagy - it's a number in a show, after all, so we see the turntable and other stage machinery - and realistic, including battle casualties with more realistically gory injuries than any actual war movie of the era. It's a slap-in-the-face reminder of how difficult and dangerous the early 30s really were, and it's the last thing we see, for the plot gets tidied out of the way so thoroughly we don't even get a last glimpse of the (now successful, employed, married) characters.

In the middle of both the golddigging plot and this climactic number is Joan Blondell, who is as always an unalloyed pleasure.

She's the human face of golddigging, a girl perfectly capable of making her way in the world, but whose sense of self is unshakable enough to know she has a price, and it's more than she's being offered by the stage-door Johnnys and predatory Brahmins she's met on Broadway.

In any case, it's a good night at the movies. What do you suppose Hollywood will make of this emerging global financial meltdown?

* The numbers of the show-within-a-show are surprisingly diverse: "Pettin' in the Park" takes in a rainbow of flirting couples, and "My Forgotten Man" has players who would look more at home in Dorothea Lange's Depression photos than a Broadway revue. The actual Great White Way was less inclusive; the first integrated cast was still a decade in the future in 1933.

No comments:

Post a Comment