For our film last night I continued our trip through the Warner Bros. Gold Diggers series of musicals — which began with Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929, its remake Gold Diggers of 1933, unrelated stories Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937 and ending with Gold Diggers in Paris (in which the titular chorines are mistaken for a ballet troupe and awarded a government-sponsored cultural exchange tour to the French capital). The episode we saw last night was Gold Diggers of 1937, which Charles and I had watched over a decade ago and I had thought then was a stronger movie plot-wise than Gold Diggers of 1935 even though the numbers were weaker. This time around the plot seemed interminable and there’s only one big Busby Berkeley production, “Love Is Just Like War” (sometimes the song is referred to as “All’s Fair in Love and War”), and it happens at the very end of the film. The movie begins with a pre-credits sequence — rare in a 1930’s film — though it’s just Dick Powell in a marching-band uniform, wearing a thin “roo” moustache, singing the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song “With Plenty of Money and You” directly at the camera. For this one Warners decided to try some other songwriters; they had Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg (whom they’d hired for Al Jolson’s last Warners film, The Singing Kid) write three songs for this movie but Berkeley, who always felt more comfortable with Harry Warren than any other composer, insisted that the big final number be a Warren-Dubin piece. Lloyd Bacon, the (hack) director of 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, helmed this one from a script by Warren Duff — the American Film Institute Catalog credits Tom Reed with “contribution to scenario construction” and there are a few lines in which I thought I detected Harburg’s decidedly Left-wing slant (Harburg, Arlen’s long-term collaborator and best remembered for their work together on The Wizard of Oz, was blacklisted through much of the 1950’s, which is why Ira Gershwin was the lyricist for Arlen on A Star Is Born), one in which Glenda Farrell refers to “the capitalistic system” in a way that suggests she does not approve of what it’s making her do, and also the bizarre lyrics to the opening song, a hymn to life insurance sung by Rosmer Peck (Dick Powell) — and yes, that’s the name Warren Duff stuck him with — at the apex of an insurance salesmen’s convention to which he’s been brought by his boss Andy Callahan (William Davidson), who’s coined phrases like “Life insurance is immortal” and “The Good Life [the name of his company] goes rolling along,” which itself sounds like a cue for a lyric sung to the tune of “The Caisson Song.”
Of course, Rosmer hates being a life-insurance salesman — so much so that he’s got a piano set up in his office, where he writes songs for his hoped-for break in a Broadway production. The insurance convention takes place in Atlantic City, where there’s a show playing that closes “out of town,” and on the train back to New York the chorines in this production, led by Norma Perry (Joan Blondell — Dick Powell’s vis-à-vis in this one now that they had tied the knot in real life as well) and Genevieve Larkin (Glenda Farrell, blessedly playing a basically good girl playing at being a gold digger instead of the avaricious creep she played in Gold Diggers of 1935), decide the only future they have is latching on to rich men and being gold-diggers. Unfortunately, they’re all too aware that a train full of insurance salesmen is hardly the most fruitful hunting ground for wealthy men with lots of money to spend on trophy girlfriends. Norma is determined to get a real job and does so at the Good Life Insurance Company, where she spends most of her time cruising Rosmer (who’s blessedly called “Ross” through most of the movie) and hanging out with him and his comic sidekick Boop Oglethorpe (Lee Dixon, who despite his stupid character name is actually the hottest-looking guy in the film, especially when we get to see him in shorts!). Meanwhile, theatrical producer J. J. Hobart (Victor Moore, oppressively whiny as ever but fortunately with considerably less screen time than he got in the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time, where one just wanted to strangle him so Edward Everett Horton could have taken over his part!) is putting on a show — only his business managers, Morty Wethered (Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ father) and Tom Hugo (Charles D. Brown), have swindled him out of all his money and lost it in bad investments, so they hit on the idea of buying a $1 million life-insurance policy on him from Ross and running him ragged so he croaks and they can recoup their losses from the payout. Of course, this means Ross and Norma have a vested interest in keeping Hobart alive and healthy — they’re counting on Ross’s commission payment for the money to get married on — so the rest of the movie turns into a tug-of-war between the factions which heats up when Morty and Hugo hire Genevieve to romance Hobart — only she falls genuinely in love with him and decides to level with him. The news that he’s broke propels him into a heart attack and it looks like the show will have to be cancelled, only Ross persuades Callahan to put $10,000 into it on the ground that if the show is called off Hobart will die from the shame so it’s cheaper for the company to put $10,000 into the show than have to pay off a $1 million policy.
The rest of the chorines in the show raise the money from the rich men they’ve been gold-digging — they don’t raise 25,000 percent of the cost, though for a while I thought that’s where this might be going (the idea of socking the backers for several times the real cost of a show, deliberately staging a flop and making off with the money was an urban legend on Broadway decades before Mel Brooks filmed it as The Producers — indeed, Groucho Marx had wanted to use it as the plot of A Night at the Opera!) — the show goes on, it’s a hit, Hobart is revived and marries Genevieve, and Ross and Norma get hitched as well. The one big number Berkeley got to do is a stunner — a spoof of war in which the men are lined up in “No Woman’s Land,” the women are lined up in “No Man’s Land” and the battle ends decisively with the distaff side victorious after they abandoned their pristine white rifles for a gas attack with perfume bottles, the men fall for it, they kiss across the trenches and then there’s a great all-female victory parade — though there are other, lesser known Berkeley films that might have better merited inclusion in the Busby Berkeley Collection, Volume 2 set we were watching (like The Singing Marine, with Dick Powell as a Marine who becomes a radio crooner and lets success go to his head — the song he sang in that one is “Night Over Shanghai” and Berkeley gave it an intensely dramatic staging along the lines of “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935) — and Berkeley was getting more and more disenchanted with having Jack Warner as his employer. In the 1970’s (he died in 1976) his movies were revived and he gave interviews expressing his bitterness that his grandiose productions were reduced from three or four per movie to just one — and sometimes none (his idea for a chorus of dancing trees in the film Stars Over Broadway was nixed by the Warners’ bean counters) — when none of his movies had actually lost money. He moved to MGM in 1939, accepting a cut in his own salary in return for the promise of bigger budgets for his numbers, but he had a new set of problems: MGM had hired him mainly to do the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films but they resented the way Berkeley’s dazzling spectacles, with platoons of chorus girls and sound effects often drowning out Mickey’s and Judy’s vocals, took audience attention away from the stars. It’s not surprising that there’d be only one more Gold Diggers movie after this one — the formula was getting threadbare and Jack Warner and Hal Wallis were savvy enough to know it (they ran out Ruby Keeler’s contract with the 1937 film Ready, Willing and Able and let Dick Powell go two years later), though there’s really nothing wrong with Gold Diggers of 1937 that a couple more Busby Berkeley extravaganzae wouldn’t have fixed!