Gold Diggers of 1933 carries quite a lot of violence against women with both really astounding openness and subtle currents of repeated imagery. We’re introduced to each of our golddiggers while they are in the process of being violently disrobed by repo men. Each offers a quip in response to our heroes’ protests. At one point a stagehand calls everyone to get onstage. Our last view backstage is him thrice slapping the ass of the last girl out, and the worst part is that there’s no commentary on it from either the female character or the larger film. It’s just the throwaway ending to a short filler scene. One song repeatedly invokes “struggling” as a step in getting a woman to engage in “petting.” There is also the incessant dispossession of women from themselves and their meager properties: Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) co-opting his conversation with the women in their apartment to vet Brad’s (Dick Powell) talents as a composer (and librettist!), for instance, which he follows up by telling Trixie (Aline McMahon) how he can monetize her suffering, bragging that he can “…make ‘em laugh at you starving to death, honey.” Another major plot point is fueled by misunderstanding caused solely by the insistence of Brad’s upper-class brother to speak over Carol.
Later, one woman calls the others back at the shared flat while crying with a pressing ambiguity—I can’t tell what emotion is driving her to cry. It reminds me of a time quite a while ago, back in the halcyon days of smoking weed in the backs of cars in high school, and I’m really stoned, with a friend who’s also really stoned and she’s hysterically laughing in a way that I can’t untangle, on a mammalian level, from the sound of someone weeping, and specifically a kind of weeping (that I wasn’t aware existed before this) that contains within it sounds an impetus to comfort. I keep reflexively thinking that something is very wrong and doubting her and her friends’ assurances that she’s laughing, realizing she is laughing, and then coming back to doubt a few seconds later. It’s just such a communicative expression that somehow has an ill-defined message, but a strong one nonetheless.
The camera—and therefore the audience—is either brilliantly intended to exist as an amorphous shifting spatial presence throughout the film, or the filmmakers really didn’t give a shit about continuity. There’s one scene (without any predicate) where a man begins to sing across an alley to one of our heroines. She leans out her windows to listen to him singing and playing piano when the camera abruptly shifts to a low position right outside and below this guy’s window. It can’t be the girl looking across the way; the establishing shot shows a much farther distance between the windows, and the woman slightly above the man. Yet as soon as we shift from looking at him over the woman’s shoulder to looking at him from outside the window, he is now looking directly into our eyes. Spatially, he is singing directly to the audience, which is sitting perfectly suspended from an artificial vantage point. Then we’re back with our heroine, his gaze instantly returned.
There’s another moment a little further along where Brad and Polly are performing on stage together, but the camera doesn’t reflect or acknowledge the stage for a very long time: it holds the couple in view exactly as if this was a musical film unconcerned with theater, and these two are film actors portraying lovers in a park, not film actors portraying stage actors portraying lovers in a park. I am constantly reminded of being a spectator to an undefined event. The final shot of the film isn’t even germane to the concrete narrative of the story; it’s Carol, finally showing us her torch singer’s chops, giving it her all on stage and invoking images of World War I and the Depression. There’s some parallel here I can’t tease out—it’s either making the struggle against the abstract forces of the Depression more tangible through a comparison to battle with a defined enemy, or a lament for the struggles of the aging men that have been born into a sequence of trying decades through some inscrutable and blameless chance.
[There’s a surreal moment near the finale where the women on stage are dancing with violas and the lights cut out, leaving the outlines of the instruments and the linear stroke of the bow aflame in white light while the women trace shapes in the darkness. It looks astounding, and I realize that this is the first time I’ve ever been floored by special effects in a film pre-70s.]
At the end of it all, this is a movie about laughter from ashes—not a dark comedy, but an optimistic comedy somehow born from bleakness, hopelessness. Perhaps inevitably born from there. We are left to wonder, with characteristic unbalance, whether the circumstances of the depression contain the seeds of such a comedy or if all comedy necessarily comes from one aspect of sadness.
All together now:
I could never croon/
A happy tune/
Without a tear