This one’s got the “We’re in the Money” number that I’ve always heard snippets of, usually being used to parody something, and it’s neat to see that the song is used as a sort of parody here too. About four years into the Great Depression, breadlines and misery abounding, the movie opens with this awesome song-and-dance bit, led by a stunning Ginger Rogers (who I think was still a few years from major stardom), wherein fluorescently-dressed dancers wield huge coins and worship cash, celebrating their supposed wealth. I didn’t realize until the movie was done that this might’ve come across as a middle finger to the struggling audience if not for the fact that the routine is interrupted by repo men. The dancers are stripped of their props, the set is taken apart, the show is killed.
From there it goes the route of other Busby Berkley musicals, where little is taken seriously and the dancers are all crazy-passionate about putting on a big show, but this one deals with the Depression a little more directly than 42nd Street or Footlight Parade did.
The exposition-fest following that interrupted dance at the movie’s opening, where down-and-out dancers brood with their director at an apartment, gives all of our characters an opportunity to show that business is bad, everybody’s broke, and that they all still believe in themselves and know that they could throw a good show together if only somebody would put up the money.
I’m pretty sure this is the last of Berkley’s musicals on the List (like with the gangster movies of this era, we’re getting a dose of three), even though it isn’t the last movie he made, and but there’s something about this movie that feels final. It ends with a routine called “Forgotten Man” wherein Joan Blondell leans on a lonesome street post and kinda does a spoken-word bit about men who went and fought in the war, endured unfathomably awful shit there, then came home and got slapped with the Depression – and, according to the routine, were met with no love at all from the people for whom they’d fought. It’s a beautiful piece – but also the most political of all these routines, in all these musicals. It’s sad, but encouraging; it pledges and encourages solidarity for these men and no doubt it sent audiences out of the theater feeling warm despite the bleak realities it’s invoking.
How and why does Berkley do this? It’s like the realities of the moment had become too serious to ignore, like he got a vibe that his audience was too jaded to really get lost in a story that pretended everything was fine. Whatever the case, Berkley decides that the movie needs to address these issues head-on. But he was also mindful of what I guess he might have considered his duty as a filmmaker in this era, which was to entertain his audience. Surely he’d garnered enough clout in Hollywood at this point that, if he’d wanted to do a cerebral movie with a political statement, he could have gotten a green light (or maybe not, ahdunno, the old studio system was weird).
Here, clearly, he wanted to talk about some rough shit without making his audience wallow in it. Fine line to walk. It’s maybe a little grandiose to talk this way but I’m giving serious thought lately to the idea of an entertainer having some kind of moral responsibility to their audience. You’ve got the ingenuity and resources to provide a couple hours of escape and joy for people who’re otherwise mired in misfortune and dread – then you need to do it. Make something.