01 May 2016

The remarkable impact of 'My Forgotten Man'

Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley's knockabout musical comedy Gold Diggers of 1933 was a big success at the time, but it also stands up surprisingly well today in entertainment terms, with its peppy dames, Broadway production numbers, and the still-popular show-stopper We're In The Money. But surprisingly it ends with a coda that's one of the most talented examples of political propaganda film-making of the 1930s.

The Warner Bros blockbuster was based on a successful play from 1919-20, but stylistic differences emerged to reflect the Depression-era context. Kicking off proceedings with Ginger Rogers singing lead on a dress rehearsal of a chorus line production of We're In The Money - a celebration of wealth with fluttering showgirls festooned in giant coins - reality swiftly intrudes when the Sheriff's office closes it down mid-number due to unpaid debts. A leggy showgirl squeals as a rough copper plucks off the giant coin pinned to her dancing shorts. Everyone, including Gold Diggers' three female lead showgirls, Polly the ingenue (Ruby Keeler), Carol the torch singer (Joan Blondell) and Trixie the comedian (Aline MacMahon), is out of a job and destitute. The three girls share an apartment but are so skint they're forced to liberate a neighbour's milk-bottle through the window to kick-start their breakfast. Potential salvation comes in the form of a new show on the horizon, but in their hearts the girls all dream of finding true love, which should ideally be found with the richest possible husband; for some, the true love aspect might conceivably be optional.

MacMahon, Rogers, Blondell & Keeler
The cast is uniformly excellent. The wholesome star Keeler, who was at the time married to Al Jolson, is the perfect foil to the handsome piano-player Brad (Dick Powell), a talented performer with a strange reluctance to appear on the stage. Blondell's Carol is impish and an enthusiastic participant in a subterfuge to dupe two wealthy, stuck-up Bostonian fellows; Blondell would go on to marry Powell three years later. MacMahon's Trixie, the oldest of the trio and by miles the funniest, is a sharp-tongued wise-cracking machine who steals most of her scenes, essaying the then-popular trope of the sassy older spinster - although MacMahon was only 33 at the time, that's virtually 66 in showgirl years. She issues forth the film's raciest lines, adopting the Groucho Marx approach in that if you keep moving quickly enough, no-one will be able to remember what they're offended about.

Rogers in We're In The Money
Rogers appears in a supporting role as a love rival for MacMahon's Trixie; apart from her big opening number, she has little to do. (Although she does distinguish herself with a flawless and tongue-twisting Pig Latin verse in We're In The Money). Her relationship as the then girlfriend of director LeRoy may have helped her casting. It was still relatively early in Rogers' career, but she had to wait only six months more until December 1933 when she was teamed up with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, which was the start of a long and richly rewarding partnership.

The film's production numbers show arranger Busby Berkeley at his best, with dozens of showgirls swirling in tightly choreographed geometric patterns, often filmed from high angle to create elaborate kaleidoscopic effects. For the Shadow Waltz number Berkeley experimented with neon-tube lighting on dozens of violins and bows to create an innovative light show. This is topped by the racy Pettin' In The Park extravaganza, which boasts suggestive lyrics, showgirls drenched in a summer downpour and getting changed behind backlit curtains, the hijinks of a mischievous 'baby' (the then nine-year-old dwarf actor Billy Barty), and a cracking closing gag about the showgirls' armour-clad breastplates. All hallmarks of Gold Diggers' status as a lively Pre-Code production, flirting with sex to titillate an eager 1930s audience. Pettin' In The Park was meant to be the film's big finale, but instead the studio was delighted with another big number and moved that to close Gold Diggers - a production number carrying a remarkable slap at the political injustice of the Depression.

Plunged into chaos by the 1929 stock market crash, the global economy was ruined for a decade. At the height of the Depression, no-one's really sure what the unemployment rate was in America, but figures of over 20 percent seem likely. (The current 2016 unemployment rates in Spain and Greece are 20 and 24 percent respectively). Jobs disappeared and the breadlines lengthened; only the economic burst stimulated by World War II in 1939 eventually pulled the world out of the economic doldrums. And in the Depression-era US, the discarded veterans of World War I often found themselves in poverty, with little government support despite the hard times. Congress had defied President Coolidge in 1924 to institute a bonus payout for veterans, but the bulk of the payouts wouldn't be made until 1945. This was no use to anyone. A small army of around 17,000 veterans and their families - the Bonus Army - camped out in Washington DC in the summer of 1932 to demand immediate payout of their bonus to alleviate their hardship, but the wasteland campsite was broken up by the US Army and two of the Bonus Marchers were shot dead. On President Hoover's orders, the US Cavalry charged an encampment of US veterans, in an incident that sealed the fate of the Hoover presidency. In November 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept to power, ushering in the New Deal politics that helped to lessen the worst effects of the Depression.

Despite being a frothy, silly musical comedy, Gold Diggers ends with a performance number that taps into this rising sense of injustice and protest against the harsh fate endured by veterans. The film's companion piece, 42nd Street, which was released only two months earlier in March 1933, had no numbers like it.

Blondell's Carol dashes from backstage to centre stage to perform My Forgotten Man, an ode to the neglected and downtrodden veterans of America. Clearly dressed as a streetwalker, which is remarkable in itself because the audience is being asked to empathise with a 'fallen woman', she leans against a street-corner lamppost, and recites rather than sings:
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day
Till they came and took my man away 
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 
Remember my forgotten man
You had him cultivate the land
He walked behind the plow
The sweat fell from his brow
But look at him right now 
And once, he used to love me
I was happy then
He used to take care of me
Won't you bring him back again?
'Cause ever since the world began
A woman's got to have a man
Forgetting him, you see
Means you're forgetting me
Like my forgotten man
This is then repeated, sung by the distinguished contralto Etta Moten (famed for her Porgy & Bess performances), with vignettes of women left alone to cope without their men, and Blondell's streetwalker defending a derelict from the menaces of a policeman by pointing out the service medal inside the drunk's coat. 

This segues into Berkeley's Parade of Forgotten Men, clearly influenced by European cinema and the realism of Lewis Milestone's 1930 anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front. Marching soldiers are cheered off to war, only to return as shells of their former selves, bloodied, bandaged and limping, bearing stretchers and with their unconscious comrades slung grimly over their shoulders. In civvies, they queue for handouts of bread and coffee. Cutting to the theatre stage, a small army of civvie-clad veterans march as the music swells, surrounded by their women, with the silhouettes of dozens of rifle-bearing infantrymen carefully choreographed behind them. Finally, torch singer Blondell returns amidst them all, to sing the last verse again: 'And once, he used to love me - I was happy then...', and with outstretched arms the women and men of the chorus reach forth and sing, 'Like my forgotten man'.

Busby Berkeley's The Parade of Forgotten Men, Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers of 1933 ends there. Nothing follows this number. (At least, not in this version of the film - other edits were made for different US state and overseas censorship regimes). No snappy wrap-up, no jokes, nothing to distract from the abrupt and intentional shift from dippy comedy to hard-hitting political commentary. This was the only production number Berkeley ever made with a political theme, and it's a striking example of propaganda film-making at its most persuasive.

See also:
Movies: Ruggles at Gettysburg, 17 September 2013
Movies: Tabu, 28 May 2012
Movies: Marion Davies in Show People (1928) 
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