After the rousing success of Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Warner Brothers did not delay in adding a new installment to the series. The next film in the series called upon all the more creativity from the studio: a fresh, original story that was not based upon any of the Gold Digger series predecessors. Historically, the plots of the previous Gold Digger films were very similar to one another, as they were each based upon the original play. In an effort to continue growing the series, new characters, and plotlines needed to be explored as the Great Depression continued.
Instead of the usual city backdrop to the Gold Digger stories, Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935) takes audiences to the upscale Wentworth Plaza in the Lake Waxapahachie resort, a popular destination for social elites. Here, Dick Curtis works as a desk clerk in order to pay for his medical school tuition and wedding to fiancee, Arline Davis. Curtis is faced with an opportunity to earn more money when the miserly Mrs. Prentiss offers to pay him to escort her daughter, Ann, for the summer. Ann initially appears dull to Curtis but he soon finds out that she is more than ready to be freed of her mother’s penny-pinching habits and ideas for her future–including an expectation to marry an eccentric and older millionaire named T. Mosely Thorpe. Ann’s brother, Humbolt, seems to marry just about any pretty girl he sees, bringing about more financial trouble for his long-suffering mother.
Stories and relationships begin to intertwine when Mrs. Prentiss begins work on the charity show she produces every year. She hires a Russian dance director for the show with the intent to spend the smallest amount of money possible, only to find that the director and his crew aim to be as extravagant as possible. As they scheme to make more money for themselves, the hotel manager and stenographer join in as they blackmail Thorpe.
Busby Berkeley reprises his work as the director for this installment in the series, with the film being produced by Robert Lord. The film marked Berkeley’s first time as an official director, even though he had his own unit at Warner Brothers which was responsible for the production of the elaborate dance numbers he planned, designed, staged, and directed. The screenplay was written by Manual Seff and Peter Milne and the story was by Lord and Milne.
The cast for this film is as follows:
- Dick Powell as Dick Curtis
- Adolphe Menjou as Nicolai Nicoleff
- Gloria Stuart as Ann Prentiss
- Alice Brady as Matilda Prentiss
- Hugh Herbert as T. Mosely Thorpe III
- Glenda Farrell as Betty Hawes
- Frank McHugh as Humbolt Prentiss
- Joseph Cawthorn as August Schultz
- Grant Mitchell as Louis Lampson
- Dorothy Dare as Arline Davis
- Wini Shaw as Winny
As in the previous film, the songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin worked on this film. The film has three key songs: “I’m Going Shopping with You”, “The Words Are in My Heart”, and “Lullaby of Broadway”, with the last two being major production numbers for Berkeley.
“I’m Going Shopping with You” features Powell singing to Stuart as they progress through a montage of shopping scenes in the Art Deco wonderland that is the fictitious resort. There, Stuart works hard to spend a substantial amount of money away from her mother’s supervision, as she purchases clothing, jewelry, and various salon services, reemerging into the film as a woman who is revitalized, glamorous, and confident. While she revamps her image, her mother receives a rude awakening of footing a bill after many long years of restricting any spending.
“The Words Are in My Heart” is Powell’s big romantic serenade to Stuart, as their relationship begins to develop from a business arrangement to genuine affection. The number initially appears in the film as Stuart and Powell’s characters are on an evening boat ride.
The song is reintroduced in the “show within a show” portion near the end of the film, as is typical in many Berkeley films, starting with a more simplistic scene that evolves into a major production which ultimately reawakens in the simple setting once again. Here the number begins with Stuart and Powell dressed in Civil War Era attire as two lovers enjoying an evening stroll. The lovers are later revealed to be a depiction in a snow globe near a piano, with a trio of singer carrying the melody forward into this new setting of women at a piano. The number then evolves into the massive Berkeley undertaking of imaginative shots featuring a wide array of chorus girls positioned at pianos as various illusions and kaleidoscopic maneuvers ensue.
With a bit of movie magic and 1930s escapism, the pianos seem to be moving on their own; however, about halfway through the production piece, one can see men’s legs underneath the pianos. After this part of the segment, the fantasies begin to close, with the chorus girls eventually escaping from view, the trio of women at the piano turning in for the night, and the lovers ending their stroll.
The “Lullaby of Broadway” number is one of the most moving and well-shot moments in the film, in musicals, and arguable, in Berkeley’s career. A happy tune and seemingly lighthearted story turns dark and melancholy. The number is backed with inventive camera angles, another large-scale Art Deco set, and top-notch dancing talents–encased by Wini Shaw’s evocative performance and a gorgeous transition into the story Berkeley aims to tell with this number.
Shaw opens the segment with her singing head against a black background as the camera gradually zooms in on her face throughout her song. Shaw’s head soon depicts New York City, and viewers follow a story of Shaw’s character coming home after a night of fun on the town, as the rest of the population heads into work. She rises with the moon and starts her day with her date, played by Powell, as they travel from club to club all night. The climactic moment occurs at one of the clubs, which features a massive tap number, preceded by a graceful dancing couple. The tap number features intricate choreography and even shots through a glass floor, allowing viewers to watch the many dancing feet from just about any angle.
Shaw’s character is met with a grim demise, with the sequence coming to a sobering end. Of all the numbers Berkeley worked on, he claimed that this was his favorite.
When the film was released in theaters, it was a hit at the box office. The studio also worked to promote the film by issuing a commemorative coin in theaters and also taking out ad space by having some of the chorus girls appear in an ad for a 1935 Buick.
The film garnered more attention when Warren and Dubin received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for their composition, “Lullaby of Broadway”. Berkeley also found himself nominated for a category which was ultimately short-lived: Best Dance Direction.
This creative take on the studio’s part for their own type of Gold Diggers story is one that is highly enjoyable. Powell retains his role as a romantic lead apart from his usual co-star, Ruby Keeler, in this film. While Stuart does not show off musical abilities in the film in the way that Keeler had for the studio, her presence and performance are enjoyable amidst this fine cast of characters. It is not surprising that Stuart’s acting talents would continue to be put to work until well into her old age. In fact, it was Stuart who played the elderly Rose in Titanic (1998) at age 86, which made her the oldest person to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The antics of Farrell, McHugh, and Herbert, and the many subplots of the film are a major source of the comedy, while the musical numbers are executed exceptionally well. This addition to the Gold Diggers series is not to be missed, as it remains an entertaining work that showcases the witty quips that come with Pre-Code musical writing and the fantastic imagination of Berkeley.
Read my full series on the Gold Digger films here: