A bizarre event happened in North Carolina in 1932: namely, a group of unemployed people invaded a cinema hall pretending to watch the movie without paying any entrance fee. This episode shows how it was very difficult for many Americans who were affected both by the world recession and economic crisis to renounce in what they considered their major pastime. For many unemployed people the cinema was the only way they knew to spend their spare time, and movie-theater chains were spreading throughout the United States during this period. Carlisle assumed that the real reason why 100 million Americans went to movies in the early years of the Great Depression was to escape from their present conditions, plunging them completely into the world of imagination (1).
But, strange to say, one of the most respected and unwritten rules of the popular cinema were brought into question in the American cinema of the early 1930s : namely, the topical happy ending. Gold Diggers of 1933 was one of the first Hollywood musicals in which the famous choreographer Busby Berkeley played a major role, and we are surprised by the ending. By breaking radically with the traditional happy ending, this movie left viewers with a bitter note.
But, what a movie like Gold Diggers of 1933 had to do with the Great Depression?
The film begins with a beautiful ballet, emphasizing prosperity and money (Ginger Rogers sang We’re in the Money), interrupted by a police officer arrived to confiscate everything. At this point Barney Hopkins [the producer] has an idea. Indeed, he will not enact the prosperity and money, but the economic misery. But Immediately after having declared this intent, the trajectory of the film seems to forget it, and rather than represent the queues of jobless, it tells a funny Comedy of Errors, or a Viennese operetta. The film ends with a triple wedding between three couples, but the focal points of it are given by two ballets devised by Berkeley’s volcanic mind. The first and last ballet had a strong relationship with the economic depression gripping America. In her first dance performance Ginger Rogers, leading a chorus of showgirls dressed in costumes of glittering coins, sang We’re in the money; but the idyllic scene ends abruptly when a police officer takes away everything .
In the famous ballet of the Forgotten man the dancers wear costumes that clearly indicate that they are beggars, singing against the difficulties of the Great Depression, with an emphasis on the failure of promises made to the soldiers who fought in World War I. The film closes with this visual metaphor which tries to represent how the Great Depression has reduced to beggary the American people. “Still, the Forgotten man sequence provides one of the central examples of the occasional attempts by Hollywood (especially in the Warner Brothers ‘social problems’ films) in the 1930s to comment on problems associated with the Depression, in carefully packaged way and without suggesting radical solutions, ” M. Keith Booker stated (2).
In fact, the film does not suggest radical solutions, but only particular politic solutions, in perfect agreement with President Roosevelt’s policy :
“It was no secret that the liberal Warner Brothers were enthusiastic supporters of President-elect F. Roosevelt, ” Jeffrey Spivak said (3). And the Forgotten man sequence echoed Roosevelt’s words:
“These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon […] the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” (Roosevelt’ speech, 1932).
On the other hand, Berkeley showed evident sympathy for the New Deal, stating that “I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour.” (4) So, while most Hollywood film producers were politically conservative and fiercely hostile to the New Deal, Warner Brothers studios were ordered by Harry Warner to support Roosevelt. For, an optimistic approach to the Great Depression appeared in Gold Diggers of 1933, which was placed on the market in June of 1933, and
“Its release thus [coincided] with the height of expectation leading up to the first legislation of the new Congress, and both the anxieties and expectations of this period are refracted in it, ” Babington stated (5).
So Berkeley became a staunch supporter of Roosevelt’s policies, and dance, choreography and pro-Government policy were the ingredients that have marked his life and work. Buzz Berkeley attracted the attention not only of professional choreographers, but also of cultural sociologists. Elisabeth Bronfen just said that “One of the most frivolous enactments of money Hollywood ever had to offer can be found in Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 […] where the showgirls perform a surplus of money, which gestures towards the pursuit of happiness the constitution declares to be the right of every American.” (6).
1) Carlisle R.P., The Great Depression and World War II, New York, Infobase Publishing, 2009, pp. 27-28.
2) Booker M.K., The Post-utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s, London, Greenwood Press, p. 27.
3) Spivak J. 2011. Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley, The University Press of Kentucky, 2011, p. 72.
4) Ivi, p. VII.
5) Babington B. & Evans P.W., Blue Skies and Silver Linings: Aspects of the Hollywood Musical, Manchester. Manchester University Press, 1985, p. 48.
6) Bronfen E. “The Violence of Money”, in Comunicação & Cultura, 2008, n. 6, p. 53.