As usual with films which have dates in the title, Gold Diggers of 1937 was actually made the previous year. It stars Joan Blondell, one of my favourite actresses, opposite her real-life husband of the time, Dick Powell. There is a lot of chemistry between them, not surprisingly, and I found that I warmed to Powell in this more than usual. Maybe I’m starting to get his appeal, which had previously been a mystery to me, or maybe it’s because his character in this one is easy to like – a bored, hard-up insurance salesman who dreams of making it as a singer.
Up to now, the only Busby Berkeley musicals I’d seen were his famous three from 1933. Coming to this later offering, I wondered if it would feel insipid compared to his pre-Code work. However, despite bearing that certificate at the start, the film still packs quite a punch – as well as being fun much of the time. It’s just a shame that it only has one massive musical number worked up in Berkeley’s trademark lavish style, with the film’s other songs being staged in a more modest way. (The subject matter of that one number, All’s Fair in Love and War, is pretty jaw-dropping, even by Berkeley’s own standards.) The songs themselves are great – written by the top teams Harry Warren and Al Dubin and Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg.
Berkeley and the main director for this film, Lloyd Bacon had already worked together on two of those 1933 smash hits, Footlight Parade and 42nd Street. Perhaps they both had pre-Code hearts, because there’s a moment of homage to the era early in the film, when two film posters are glimpsed on the front of a cinema. One advertises William Wellman’s 1932 programmer Love Is a Racket, while the other promotes a 1936 release, Public Enemy’s Wife – but the title of course recalls Wellman’s most famous pre-Code. (There’s a third film poster in the same scene, but I failed to spot the title.)
Love Is a Racket would have been a suitable title for this film, too. At the start, chorus girls Norma Perry (Joan Blondell), Genevieve Larkin (Glenda Farrell) and their co-stars find themselves out in the cold when their show is cancelled and they have to take the train home from Atlantic City to New York. On the same train are a batch of insurance salesmen heading home from the conference – and the showgirls immediately decide these men are their meal tickets, literally. The dancers sashay their way through the train carriage, picking up men on their way through, and trading their company for a hot meal.
Norma meets young salesman Rosmer Peck (Powell), and is tempted by his suggestion she should give up the stage for a regular job with the company where he works. She is soon working as a telephonist there – in between performing impromptu song and dance numbers with Rosmer, aka Ross.
Meanwhile, Genevieve – or Jen, as she is usually called – hooks up with the much older, raffish Morty Wethered (Osgood Perkins). She soon becomes involved with him and his equally disreputable pal, Tom Hugo (Charles D. Brown) in cooking up a nasty insurance scam. The two men work for a Broadway impresario, J J Hobart, who is planning to launch a new show – but doesn’t realise that he is broke, since his pals have been playing the stock market and lost all his dough. They decide to add a few more crimes to their ledger, by taking out a million-dollar insurance policy on the life of their hypochondriac boss, and then ensuring that he dies in time for them to collect the proceeds. Jen is required to get close to the millionaire as part of the dastardly scheme. I won’t reveal whether it succeeds, but you can probably guess.
The script, adapted from a stage play by Richard Maibaum, might be nearer to the plot of a film noir than to that of most musicals, but the mood is lightened by the hilarious performance of Victor Moore as J J. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor who played such a heartbreaking role in Make Way For Tomorrow, released the same year as this film. Here he puts on a great comic show. There’s more fun provided by a hugely talented tap dancer, Lee Dixon, playing a character with the ridiculous name of Boop Oglethorpe. Looking at his stunning routines and handsome appearance, I wondered why on earth he didn’t become a star, but the imdb reveals that he had a drink problem and died young. Blondell, Powell and Farrell are all great too.
Despite all the lighthearted music and humour, though, there are hints at an underlying darkness – as there was in Berkeley’s earlier films. Once again, this movie doesn’t forget about the Depression, but weaves a sardonic awareness of its realities into the fun. The theme of money runs all through the film, and is there in the songs, including The Gold Diggers’ Lullaby/With Plenty of Money and You, and the Life Insurance Song performed by Powell at the insurance conference, which features the line “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die”. Glenda Farrell is even given the line: “It’s so hard to be good under the capitalist system.”
Money, sex and death are all brought together in the show-stopping finale, All’s Fair in Love and War (also known as Love Is Just Like War), where Berkeley finally pulls out all the stops. This number features spectacular dance scenes of more than 100 women dressed in white marching in uniform. There is also one amazingly tasteless sequence where women wearing First World War-style headgear hurl missiles at their men across a gap labelled ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘No Woman’s Land’ – less than 20 years after World War One. The theme of this is that women will stop at nothing to get their men to walk them up the aisle, so it’s marriage or death – I’m not sure whether this was mocking or reinforcing the Code’s determination to make sure that couples were respectably married at all costs.
For further reading, here’s an article on the film from the Movie Magg blog which includes some background information about the Gold Diggers series – it discusses the whole plot. I’ve also put a link to the trailer below.