Herewith do the escapist Busby Berkeley musicals finally acknowledge the Great Depression – albeit sometimes in ways that feel like tacked-on afterthoughts. But when they pull out the stops, they pull out the stops.
The cast includes some of Busby Berkeley’s regulars from 42nd Street and Footlight Parade – Dick Powell as the young romantic lead, Ruby Keeler as his aspiring actress sweetheart, Ginger Rogers and Joan Blondell as other up-and-coming actresses and Guy Kibbee in a largely comedic role as an ineffective lawyer. But we don’t really “meet” any of them at first – at least, not so far as we know, since we are plunged immediately into a Berkeley dance extravaganza of gold-coin-bedecked chorus dancers as Ginger Rogers sings “We’re In The Money”. It looks like Gordon Gekko’s wet dream, frankly; but the lyrics hint that this isn’t a greedy fantasy, but is about simply being financially solvent again:
“We never see a headline ’bout a breadline today…
And when we see the landlord, we can look that guy right in the eye!”
But before the number is even finished we are brought down to earth. For this is just a rehearsal – and the producer has been dodging his creditors, so the police have come to confiscate everything and close the show before it even opens. Our heroines Carol (Blondell) and Polly (Keeler) head for home, an apartment they share with comedienne Trixie (Aline MacMahon). All they have to eat is bread that they’ve pooled their money for, and the milk that Trixie steals off their neighbor’s windowsill. But they’re optimistic – and Polly is cheered by her flirtation with neighbor Brad (Powell), a composer who will sometimes serenade her window-to-window with his songs.
But what luck! Barney comes to them with the news that he has the idea for another show and offers all the women roles. This time, he says, he wants to make a show about the Depression itself! As he discusses his idea, he hears the plaintive music from Brad’s apartment and hires him as well. And only when Brad agrees, and everyone is on board does Barney admit that there’s just one tiny, eensy little problem – the budget realistically would be $40K, and he doesn’t have it. He doesn’t even have the $15,000 he would need to put down for a deposit.
And then Brad blows everyone away by casually saying “Oh, I can advance you that.” He offers to bring the money, in cash, to Barney’s office the following day – but refuses to explain how on earth he has the money to put up, and also refuses to appear in the show. He will be behind the scenes only. The others are dubious, but too desperate to question their good fortune.
Brad does end up being forced onstage when the show’s lead throws his back out. And his secret is revealed – he is the son of a wealthy Bostonian financier, who was slumming in New York to dodge the family business. And now that his family knows where he is, his older brother Lawrence and the family lawyer Peabody (Kibbee) have come to bring him home. Brad refuses, of course – insisting that not only will he keep his theater career, he’s also going to propose to Polly. So there!
Lawrence and Peabody try an alternate approach – they turn up at the girls’ apartment, hoping to warn Polly away from Brad. But it is Carol, not Polly, who meets them; they assume she’s Polly, and deliver their warning. She slips off to consult with Trixie – who’s also heard the whole thing – and they resolve to help Polly and Brad by playing along with the mistaken identity and snooker the guys out of their own money. Lawrence quickly has the counterplot to seduce “Polly” himself to break up Brad’s engagement, and Carol plays along to save the real Polly and keep Lawrence distracted so he lets the show continue. But in time, the pair start questioning their motivations….
This wouldn’t be a Busby Berkeley movie without the elaborate musical numbers. There’s no water ballet here – instead, we have “The Shadow Waltz”, in which dozens of dancers in hoop skirts play glow-in-the-dark violins, and “Pettin’ In the Park,” a winking ode to public displays of affection; the staging of which includes roller-skating cops, Billy Barty with a pea shooter, women disrobing in silhouette, and a pair of chimpanzees, and ends with Ruby Keeler in a costume made of tin and Dick Powell leeringly undressing her with a can opener.
Remember – these are meant to be numbers from Barney’s show about the Great Depression.
I was getting ready to write that off, though; it’s a Berkeley musical, after all. It’s about the production numbers and pretty dancers and lavish stage sets and escapism. No one really cares why everyone bursts into song, they just want them to, and want everyone to have a happy ending. So by the movie’s end I was just nodding along – yep, happy ending for that couple, check, and they’re happy now, check, and them too, bases covered…just enough time for one last production number, and here we are backstage and the chorus is getting into place for something called “The Forgotten Man,” here we go.
There’s no chorus girls in this one, no elaborate set gimmicks. Instead, we get Joan Lunden, in a tattered skirt, with a guy in a panhandler costume beside her; she watches him wander off and starts singing:
“Remember my forgotten man.
You put a rifle in his hand.
You sent him far away,
You shouted: “Hip-hooray!”
But look at him today…”
Soon another woman sitting in a window takes up the song, as the camera pans across other actresses in other windows – but none of them chorus girls, all of them poor and haggard-looking. Similar run-down men shuffle along the street, getting chased by cops; when a cop corners one, Lunden runs over and opens the man’s jacket to show the cop the man’s Purple Heart pinned to the inside lining, shaming the cop into letting him go.
This dissolves into a “stage set” of World War I doughboys marching off to war, flags waving and girlfriends rushing to kiss them farewell; after only a moment, this same “stage set” then adds a parade of wounded soldiers staggering past them in the other direction, where they later take their place in a growing Depression-era breadline. Berkeley can’t resist a whiz-bang set piece at the very end, with Lunden serenading a crowd of hungry men while a squad of solders in silhouette marches along an archway over them.
There was historic precedence for this; Gold Diggers of 1933 came out less than a year after the Bonus Army protest, a major World War 1 veterans’ protest action. Prior to World War I, any US Serviceman who saw combat was awarded a financial relief package meant to compensate for any lost wages he would have received. During the late 19th Century, this became more and more controversial as the definition for “combat” expanded even to include soldiers who’d served in the Frontier “Indian Wars”, and the relief packages often included land grants – which ate up most of the fertile land in some states. In the 1920s, Calvin Coolidge tried doing away with the practice, but was overruled by Congress, who announced that they would award all World War I vets the amount of one dollar per day they were on active duty, with a maximum of $500. However, they issued most of the rewards in the form of certificates that wouldn’t mature for another 20 years.
Still, in the go-go 1920s this seemed like a good deal – but when the Depression hit, the vets started thinking they’d rather have the money now, thanks. The 10,000-strong “Bonus Army,” as they called themselves, assembled just north of Virginia and marched on Washington to demand their bonus payouts, setting up a “Hooverville” near the Capital Building in protest. Some congressmen did introduce a bill authorizing an early payout, but the bill was voted down in committee, and ultimately the army was called in to break up the Bonus Army and throw out the protestors. Two vets were killed in the furor.
This recent history would have been as much on the mind of the 1933 audience as the 2017 Womens’ March would be today. Making impoverished veterans the focus of this number, instead of impoverished people in general, was a major political statement on Berkeley’s part – and clearly one he cared about, because he cast himself as the stagehand who rallies the cast onto the set for the “Forgotten Man number”. The rest of the show felt like it was making light of the Depression, or allowing people to get out of it too easily; it looks like Berkeley was just saving everything for the end. And what an end.