Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gold Diggers of Broadway (Warner Bros., 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran two of the Charley Chase shorts I’d taped from TCM last Tuesday — Mum’s the Word and Dog Shy — as well as the odd “From the Vaults” feature TCM showed between them, the surviving fragments from the early two-strip Technicolor musicals Gold Diggers on Broadway and The Rogue Song. The Gold Diggers on Broadway clip features Nick Lucas in 1929 doing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a style surprisingly close to Tiny Tim’s infamous cover version from 40 years later, in what passed for a production number in 1929 — a stationary camera shooting a scene that blacked out (there were actually insert shots of the stagehand pulling the light switch off and on) from a scene with Lucas and the girl he was singing to to a stage set of giant tulips that opened, each revealing a chorus girl inside. There were a few bits before and aft, including a funny shot of Winnie Lightner (who played the part Aline MacMahon played in the well-known remake of this story, Gold Diggers of 1933) practicing for a number that cast her as the Statue of Liberty, but the “Tiptoe” number was by far the most interesting part of this clip. (Apparently the entire soundtrack of Gold Diggers on Broadway survives on Vitaphone discs but the film, with the exception of these few minutes, is lost.) — 4/11/05


The “feature” Charles and I watched — or, in large measure, just listened to — last night was Gold Diggers of Broadway, a big-budget Warner Bros. musical from 1929, just two years after The Jazz Singer and an illustration of the vagaries of film preservation or the lack thereof. Warners was still using the Vitaphone process, in which the movie’s sound was recorded on phonograph records (20 inches in diameter and playing at the 33 1/3 rpm speed which became standard in the 1950’s for the 12-inch LP) that were played along with the film — an elaborate mechanism synchronized the motor that ran the turntable with the one that ran the projector for the visual portion, but not surprisingly accidents frequently happened and if the film got broken and spliced, the record got scratched and jumped, or some other happenstance occurred, the picture and sound could get out of synch. Thus there are movies in Vitaphone for which the soundtrack survives and the picture does not, movies for which the picture survives and the soundtrack does not (like Broadway’s Like That, a 1930 short filmed in New York with Ruth Etting, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell: David Wolper discovered the picture and used a short clip from it, of Bogart taking Etting to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, in his early-1960’s series of TV biographies, but the soundtrack remains lost), and movies like Gold Diggers of Broadway for which the complete soundtrack survives — including a trailer that is nearly 10 minutes long as well as a seven-minute overture obviously used originally as entrance music rather than for a prologue — but only about 15 minutes of actual film footage is known to exist.

This is a real pity, for what we have indicates that this was one of the best early musicals, stiffly photographed and with production numbers shown as they’d be seen from a good seat in a theatre instead of made truly cinematic, but with a good story, a good score, a good cast and the always energetic direction of Roy Del Ruth — whose wife-to-be, Winnie Lightner, has a key role. The story began life as a play by Avery Hopwood called The Gold Diggers of Broadway, which was premiered in New York in 1919. Warners bought the movie rights and made a silent version in 1923 (shortening the title to The Gold Diggers), then with the musical craze in full swing in the early years of the talkies, Warners dredged up the story for an original film musical and shot the works budget-wise, shooting the whole thing in two-strip Technicolor (though the word “Technicolor” wasn’t used in the trailer — instead it was called “natural color,” which two-strip really wasn’t since it couldn’t reproduce blue). They didn’t stretch the budget for a big-name cast — unlike their next shot at the same plot line, Gold Diggers of 1933, which featured Warners’ biggest musical stars of the time (Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers) and some of their top players in the non-musical roles as well (Warren William, Aline MacMahon and Guy Kibbee) — and the casting is a bit awkward because neither of the romantic leads, William Bakewell and Helen Foster, could sing or dance, so other characters had to be created to give this musical film genuinely talented musical performers: singer-guitarist Nick Lucas and dancer Ann Pennington.

Charles and I experienced Gold Diggers of Broadway by listening to the recent CD release of the complete soundtrack and playing the two surviving video clips — Nick Lucas singing “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” (a song actually written for this film by Joseph Burke and Al Dubin — and performed by Lucas with his own accompaniment in a high falsetto tenor quite like the voice of Tiny Tim, who had a hit with this song as a novelty number in 1969) segueing into a big production number in which chorines emerge from giant tulip bulbs (a gimmick done even more effectively five years later in Murder at the Vanities) and most of the film’s big dance finale, representing the show the musical performers in the cast are rehearsing when they’re not involved in offstage romantic intrigues. The plot of Gold Diggers of Broadway will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Gold Diggers of 1933 (which was billed as a sequel but was actually a remake), though the Zeitgeist of the films couldn’t be more different: Gold Diggers of Broadway was released August 30, 1929, nearly two months before the stock market crash, and its mood is that of the 1920’s: big, brassy, optimistic, without the grim Depression gags the writers of Gold Diggers of 1933 added to their version. The film centers around three chorus girls in a hit Broadway show (in this version the show is already running, not in preliminary rehearsals like the one in Gold Diggers of 1933): Jerry Lamar (Nancy Welford, top-billed) and her roommates Violet (Helen Foster) and Mabel (Winnie Lightner). Violet is in nice, sweet, innocent love with Wally (William Bakewell), a rich but sympathetic kid who’s part of a Boston banking family, but his uncle Stephen Lee (Conway Tearle, who was not only billed second but narrated the trailer as himself) fears both that Wally will disgrace the family if he marries a chorus girl and that the family will be taken to the cleaners financially by her gold-digging demands.

So Stephen comes to New York with the family attorney, Blake (Albert Gran), in tow — only when he visits the apartment where the three chorus girls live and Jerry answers the door, he mistakes Jerry for Violet. Jerry decides to continue the impersonation and decides to make herself seem so creepy that Stephen will let his nephew marry anyone else — and there Violet will be. Only Stephen ends up falling for Jerry himself, and Blake similarly goes for Mabel, so the curtain falls with three happy if rather mismatched couples and a big musical finale representing the big climax of the show the chorus girls have been working in all movie. Obviously it’s difficult to judge a movie that exists only in such fragmentary form — rumors persist that it will be reconstructed much the way the silent London After Midnight was from the surviving production stills, with the extant footage spliced in at the appropriate points — and Charles and I didn’t make it easier because, responding to a bit of mistaken information on our source for the visual clips (the bonus features section on the Warner Home Video release of Gold Diggers of 1937), I played the clip of Nick Lucas singing “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips” at the point where Lucas sings the song for the first time (at a nightclub where the principals are partying) instead of the second time (when he performs it as part of the show); the DVD had identified this clip as from reel six of the film when it’s actually considerably later. At the same time Charles and I both had a sense of relief, after sitting in the dark for over an hour listening to disembodied voices, from actually having something to watch!

What there is of Gold Diggers of Broadway is actually quite good: the script by Robert Lord (who’d have his name on a lot of important Warners’ films in the 1930’s) is full of snappy dialogue (some of it quite daring even for the so-called “pre-Code” era), good in-jokes and a nice running gag for Lightner, who’s obliged to come on in a Statue of Liberty costume, carrying a torch and declaiming, “I am the Spirit of Liberty and the Progress of Civilization!” — only she keeps blowing the line. The two film clips that exist show how splendiferous this production’s budget really was — the finale takes place on a set that’s supposed to represent Paris (the Arc de Triomphe and the front of Nôtre-Dame Cathedral are clearly recognizable) but whose buildings are at such extreme (and unrealistic) angles to each other both Charles and I thought, “Ah, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — the musical!” — and also how Del Ruth was able to avoid the static feeling of a lot of early talkies even though within a year directors like John Murray Anderson in The King of Jazz and Busby Berkeley in Whoopee would develop ways to do production numbers on screen that broke the stage frame once and for all and took advantage of what film could do — not only soar over chorus lines and show them in the overhead kaleidoscope formation Berkeley became famous for but expand the landscape over which a number could take place far beyond what was practical, or even possible, on stage.

Gold Diggers of 1933, though in black-and-white (Berkeley’s first film, Whoopee, had been in two-strip but he wouldn’t get a chance to work in color again for another 13 years, until The Gang’s All Here), is a better film — the script is more mordant, the cast is stronger (and it helps that the principal musical talents, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, also play the juvenile leads) and the numbers have Berkeley’s staggering imagination going for them — in Gold Diggers of Broadway the numbers were staged by Larry Ceballos (incidentally Conway Tearle pronounced the “l”’s in his name when introducing him in that extended trailer — I’d always assumed the “l”’s were silent, Spanish-style), who according to the American Film Institute Catalog was originally assigned to direct the numbers in the 1933 musical Footlight Parade and sued Warner Bros. for breach of contract when Berkeley replaced him, and the two surviving production numbers (as well as an incredible still showing Nick Lucas singing the song “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” in front of a set of a giant palette, with chorus girls poking their heads through holes in it, while Ann Pennington dances in front of him) show him as perfectly competent and imaginative but still awfully stage-bound. Still, Gold Diggers of Broadway seems like a quite good movie, better than the common run of musicals of the period, and though it’s great that it hasn’t been entirely lost, it’s still frustrating that we have to watch/listen to it in this piecemeal fashion and try to reconstruct in our own imaginations what the original 1929 audiences got to see and hear!