Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Plot Summary
Chorus girls search for work as the Depression makes work scarce. Fast-talking comedienne Trixie, soulful songstress Carol, and perky ingenue Polly share an apartment while looking for a show to join. Producer Barney Hopkins stops by and says he is preparing for a new soon as he gets the money to finance it. He hears their neighbor Brad playing the piano and invites him over. Brad turns out to be a skilled singer/songwriter who also manages to come up with the money for the show. It turns out that Brad is from a wealthy Boston family, and he and Polly become engaged. However, Brad's brother, J. Lawrence and a lawyer named Peabody show up and try to discourage Brad from marrying a common showgirl. Trixie and Carol turn their "gold digger" charm on these two elitist gentlemen (Trixie with Peabody, Carol on J. Lawrence) who gradually begin to fall for them. The film ends with everyone reconciled, and the three couples are all married or engaged to be married.


Gold Diggers of 1933 is an entertaining example of the ‘backstage’ musical where the principal characters are themselves working to put on a musical within the film. This plot structure provides a simple way to integrate the famous kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley musical numbers that are probably the film’s main attraction. However, the dialogue scenes, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, are also somewhat amusing and manage to propel the narrative forward within a particular social context. As the title indicates, the film reflects a specific period in the nation’s history when the Great Depression was in full swing, and many Americans were struggling financially and were unemployed. Yet although these very real concerns are reflected in the film, the cheery proceedings (excepting the somber number that ends the picture) allow audiences a pleasant escape from the hardships of reality into a world where everything turns out all right in the end. With Roosevelt recently elected in 1933, this optimism feeds indirectly into the hope that new policies will eventually salvage the nation’s economy and bring back the economic prosperity of the mid-Twenties. Gold Diggers ends up being an amalgam of escapist entertainment and social commentary, and it shows how these two apparently disparate notions are not mutually exclusive within the film but rather are interlocked, with one often arising from the other.

Even (or perhaps especially) within individual musical numbers, the film can provide cultural insight as well as pure aesthetic enjoyment. The opening number establishes an unusual tone for the film with a close-up of Ginger Rogers singing the chorus of "We’re in the Money" in pig latin. The chorus of this tune hints at the showgirls’ sex appeal as a way for earning income, an idea easily supported by their costumes which feature large coins covering their bodies. This giddy, ecstatic opening is soon interrupted by the authorities who begin seizing costumes and props from the show because of unpaid debts. Although the number itself conveys that show producer Barney Hopkins, just like the filmmakers, realizes that glitzy optimism is what troubled audiences want to see, this intrusion of (onscreen) social reality tells the viewer that the film is not ignoring the present-day economic concerns in the pursuit of pure fantasy. In a sense this sequence reveals cinema to be a more encompassing medium of entertainment than, say, one of Barney’s shows because it can more easily display different perspectives of various events. This omniscient ability explains the popularity of the ‘backstage’ musical in that audiences not only get to see spectacular musical numbers but also the personalities and experiences, albeit fictional, of the people involved.

The effective "Forgotten Man" musical sequence that closes the film is clearly the film’s most direct attempt to grapple with timely social issues, and perhaps because of this, it conflicts with much of the preceding lighthearted narrative. Coming after the neat resolution of the main plot, this number makes up for its lack of integration by evoking strong sympathy for displaced WWI veterans who now face a more intangible enemy in the form of the Depression. It hearkens back to a time when the now ‘forgotten’ men were regarded as heroes and when they understood how to live their lives and, consequently, how to love their women. The image Joan Blondell reflects in this number is that of a strong, compassionate woman who is standing up for the downtrodden man as an equal since, "Forgetting him, you see, means you’re forgetting me…" This portrayal markedly differs from the opening musical sequence where the chorus girls’ costumes reflect more of the title’s labeling of these women as merely ‘gold diggers’, willing to trade their physical and emotional wares for financial gain. Of course not all of the musical sequences seem imbued with so much social commentary; the "Shadow Waltz" for instance is enjoyable for merely aesthetic reasons. A memorable shot shows many chorus girls playing glowing violins as the camera cranes upward, revealing their instruments to outline the shape of a larger violin. Yet even in spectacles such as this one, certain ideas can be extracted such as the individual joining with the mass to form a greater whole. This concept can certainly relate to the collectivist spirit fostered by Roosevelt and the New Deal administration.

While the experimental musical numbers contain many of the underlying political themes of the film, the narrative sandwiched between these glittering displays seems content to focus primarily on resolving the romantic dilemmas faced by the characters. The popular idea of the woman of questionable character who turns out to have a heart of gold is used to some extent here, particularly if viewed from J. Lawrence’s position. His eventual acceptance and proposed marriage to Carol, who he first considered to be a lowly showgirl, successfully levels the social standing between the aristocrat and the working girl. Although J. Lawrence and Peabody assumedly begin as the villains of the picture, easily acceptable for Depression-era audiences, their transformations seem to prove that even the rich have hearts, and this could be an attempt to reconcile some of the animosity between the different classes. Additionally, the initial notion of the girls as ‘gold diggers’ winds up being a misconception; only because J. Lawrence and Peabody consider them to be this way do the girls play into their expectations. In the end all of this exploitation and deception results in the three couples all married or engaged to be married, a satisfying but most conventional resolution; both the gold diggers and Boston aristocrats turn out to be little different than everyone else. Again, by suggesting the similarities and common goals of different groups of people, this theme relates to the socialistic shift in the nation’s politics during this period that helped bring the nation out of economic ruin.

Even when focusing on the personal relationships among its characters, Gold Diggers of 1933 can display a certain political sensibility. Yet first and foremost, the film was most likely intended to entertain audiences during the Great Depression and make them forget the troubles of the outside world, if only for a short time. In this goal the film succeeds admirably, and its continued appeal shows this success to be independent of the current political or economic climate.

7 of 10

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© 1999

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