September 24, 2014
A couple of weeks ago my husband and I watched Busby Berkley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. We thoroughly enjoyed the depression-era story: rich boy meets poor girl and saves the play. And then there’s the singing and dancing. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, who play the rich boy and poor girl, respectively, sing “Pettin’ in the Park.” Ginger Rogers sings “We’re in the Money,” while showgirls dance on gold coins.
It’s a rather buoyant affair, except that no one has any money, apart from the playboy/songwriter and his relatives who want to keep him from marrying an actress. Like any other thirties musical, it’s somewhat frothy and madcap. Love trumps all, until the end.
The mournful ballad, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” carries the finale. From a close-up of Joan Blondell singing the blues, the scene dissolves first to soldiers, some carrying the wounded, marching in the rain and then to men waiting in a bread line for some soup and coffee. The lyrics tell the story: “You put a rifle in his hand; You sent him far away; You shouted: ‘Hip-hooray;’ But look at him today.”
The scene is visually moving and dramatic, but rather startling to anyone watching the movie today. World War I ended fifteen years before Gold Diggers takes place. The war is not mentioned in the movie until that point. Veterans, despite what they had done for their country, were unemployed, just like everyone else.
Knowledge of history makes the ending more fitting, by providing a perspective similar to that of a thirties movie audience. Here are some facts.
The tragedy of the Bonus Army March was top-of-mind. In the spring and summer of 1932, 43,000 veterans and their families marched on Washington, D.C. for the much needed immediate cash payment of bonuses they had been promised. Although payment wasn’t due until 1945, who could wait? With little sympathy, the Hoover Administration ordered the protestors removed from all government property and their campsite burned. Several veterans were shot and later died.
A second, smaller march early in 1933 at the start of the Roosevelt Administration was more quietly resolved with an offer of jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corp. Transportation home was given to those who chose not to work. As the depression dragged on, by the way, Congress voted in 1936 to pay the veterans their bonus then, rather than later.
Gold Diggers of 1933 was one of the top grossing films of the year. To audiences of the era it offered escape from the glum reality of the Great Depression, yet it was still topical. To modern movie-goers it is emotionally satisfying, as well as entertaining, once the details are filled in. The same is true if you’re writing a life or family history.
© 2014 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved