MGM produced great musicals like rabbits reproduce themselves: The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. RKO cranked out hits starring Astaire & Rogers (Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance), which didn’t just showcase Fred and Ginger’s fancy footwork, but boasted standards by the Gershwins, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
Then there was Warner Bros. Despite being known for gangster epics and ripped-from-the-headlines melodramas, the studio released two of my favorite musicals, just two months apart, in 1933.
With tunes by the less-famous duo of Warren and Dubin, these flicks were toe-tapping snapshots of their time. Great Depression issues – unemployment, hunger, wolves pawing at doors – were unseen characters in both films, yet they delivered enough racy banter and escapism to entertain millions. Like most Warner Bros. releases, they featured overlapping casts and double-espresso pacing. Best of all, they immortalized the genius of Busby “Shoot Everything From the Ceiling” Berkeley, whose kaleidoscopic choreography, featuring 100 chorus girls, is an eye-popping delight.
But enough teasing – let’s get streaming!
There had been backstage musicals before 42nd Street. In fact, the first Best Picture Oscar in the sound era went to MGM’s creaky Broadway Melody in 1929. But four years later, Warner Bros. stuck the landing with a screen spectacular that later became a real Broadway musical in 1980.
The plot: Tempestuous director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) mounts a show with stage star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Meantime, the world’s oldest juvenile lead Billy (Dick Powell) falls for plucky hoofer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who literally steps into Brock’s dance shoes after an ankle injury, leading Marsh to bark the iconic pep talk, “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster. But you’ve got to come back a star!” (But hey, no pressure!)
The cast: As the Moviediva notes, “You’ll see some of my favorite members of the [Warner Bros.] stock company here, actors whose images were so defined, the script department just wrote in ‘Guy Kibbee’ or ‘Ned Sparks’ instead of the character names.” Kibbee is Brock’s sugar daddy, Sparks is a cigar-chomping producer, and Ginger Rogers lends support as Sawyer’s pal.
The songs: “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “Young and Healthy.”
Gold Diggers of 1933
If there existed a genre called “Socially Conscious Pre-Code Musicals,” this pic would top it. You’ve gotta love any movie that opens with Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin (reportedly an idea Ginger hatched herself), and ends with a nearly seven-minute sequence about the “forgotten” veterans of World War I, whose 1932 Bonus March on Washington ended with the fiery arrival of federal troops led by Douglas MacArthur.
The plot: Four Broadway tootsies (Ginger, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler) are desperate to land roles in a new show. Times are tough, so the women share a showgirl crib and a plot to nail rich husbands. Dick Powell is a composer who (once again) romances Ruby, while the brass-tastic Ms. Blondell harpoons the heart of stuffy millionaire Warren William.
Trivia: Before launching his acting career, Ned Sparks (who plays producer Barney Hopkins) panned for gold in the Yukon, so you could rightly say he was the only true “gold digger” in the cast. Look for Busby Berkeley’s cameo, knocking on a dressing room door (“Get ready for the ‘Forgotten Man’ number!”) just before the finale.
The songs: “We’re in the Money,” “Pettin’ in the Park,” “Remember My Forgotten Man.”