One particular genre of film that gained popularity in the early 1930s was the musical. Musicals were generally light and somewhat comedic films that contained catchy tunes as well as over the top dance numbers and costumes. The plots of these films normally involved some type of preparation for a musical show as well as a character or group of characters seeking some financial gain. This "rags to riches" idea is a variation of the Horatio Alger myth. The basic concept of the myth is the belief that if an individual works hard and is a good person, they will benefit somehow. Though this magic formula differed in Alger's writings, several of these musicals adopted the basic Alger idea and modified it for audiences of the 1930s.
Many Warner Brothers musicals had plots and other visual and lyrical clues which supported the idea that people during the Great Depression believed in ideas similar to those perpetuated through the Horatio Alger "rags to riches" myth. The best way to understand and appreciate the significance of these films comes from viewing them as primary evidence. Six Warner Brothers films in particular exude characteristics of the 1930s idea of the Horatio Alger myth. Films such as 42nd Street, The Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, The Gold Diggers of 1935, and The Gold Diggers of 1937 prove that "rags to riches" ideas were popular during the Great Depression.
Horatio Alger, Jr. was born January 13, 1832 in Revere, Massachusetts. After completing his education and some travel Alger pursued writing. His children's stories became quite popular to readers in the 19th century. In 1867, Alger wrote Ragged Dick, a tale based on many homeless boys Alger had seen in his travels and throughout the city. This story was wildly popular and widely read. Alger was contracted to write five more novels like Ragged Dick stories in order to make a series. The Ragged Dick series, by far his most popular, made Alger's name synonymous with the idea of "strive and succeed." The plots of these stories inspired young people to work hard in order to achieve the American Dream. Alger wanted to encourage youth to obtain success through "honesty, industry, and independence."
Though the spirit of Alger's message was present in the 1930s, the conditions under which it was presented were certainly different. The Great Depression was a unique time in American history. In his book The Great Depression: America in the 1930s, T.H. Watkins described the Great Depression as "…a terrible, scarring experience that changed this country and its people forever." Fear and uncertainty combined with lack of money and lack of employment haunted the average American from day to day.
In a situation like the Great Depression, Horatio Alger's idea of "honesty, industry, and independence" would not put a warm meal on the table or provide shelter. Clinging to the idea that only hard work and morals would take you from "rags to riches" was no longer realistic. In an interview with Studs Terkel, Ray Wax, a man who lived during the Great Depression stated "I grew up on Horatio Alger. I remember reading every Horatio Alger. I was really bit in the ass. I really believed that if you ran out and stopped the horses, you married the boss's daughter." Alger's original ideas desperately needed modification because America was a vastly different place during the Great Depression.
Desperate times like the 1930s called for desperate measures thus causing people to resort to alternative or illegal means in order to obtain a precious dollar. For example, gangsters, people who broke the law in order to have money and power, became heroic figures. Al Capone, "the overlord of vice in America," ran a soup kitchen in Chicago that fed great numbers of people daily and helped him gain public support. Gangsters in depression-era films gained the sympathy of the audience despite their law-breaking activities. This sympathy for gangsters on screen reflected the despair of the Great Depression. People's desperation allowed them to relate positively to figures who did what they had to do in order to survive.
This shift in societal attitudes due to the Great Depression helps to explain why the Horatio Alger myth was adjusted to fit life in the 1930s. Alger was not writing in a time when there was a great economic depression in America. In Alger's America, it was possible to go from "rags to riches" simply by having good character and working hard. In books like Ragged Dick, the characters who benefited in the end were moral citizens who did good deeds and made an honest living. No longer was it satisfactory to procure enough money to save and live with stability like Ragged Dick. The 1930s were about obtaining great amounts of wealth in order to live comfortably and spend. Spending the money you accumulated would pass the money around and put it back into the economy to benefit all.
The economy and society of the 1930s differed so much from the late 19th century that it was impossible keep Alger's original ideas intact and apply them to life during the Great Depression. Therefore, in the 1930s the Horatio Alger myth and "rags to riches" idea was vastly different for several reasons. Because of the huge amounts of despair, fear, and unemployment, it was no longer necessary for someone to work hard and be honest to gain wealth and happiness. 1930s society seemed to embrace those who used circumstance, luck, immoral, and sometimes illegal means to make money and achieve happiness. When people were starving, morality got pushed by the wayside. Being a gangster, prostitute, or showgirl was now acceptable because desperation and frustration caused people to resort to the quickest and easiest methods of making money. The "rags to riches" idea was still alive and well but 1930s society used people like gangsters and showgirls as proof that being wealthy and happy was possible regardless of the path chosen to get there. This disregard for conventional, moral, and lawful means of acting combined with luck, circumstance, creative ingenuity, and an enthusiasm for spending makes the 1930s idea of "rags to riches" enormously different from honest and hard-working conservative values conveyed in Ragged Dick.
After the advent of sound, studios began to create musical films. By 1933 the popularity of the musical film declined. The idea of bringing back the Hollywood film musical was that of Darryl F. Zanuck, the chief producer of Warner Brothers. In 1933, Warner Brothers decided to make a musical called 42nd Street. In order to make this musical a success, Zanuck contacted a well known Broadway choreographer named Busby Berkeley who created the grandiose dance numbers and the props and costumes used in the dance numbers. Zanuck liked Berkeley's work so much that after 42nd Street, Berkeley was given a contract to work on Warner Brothers musicals for the next 7 years. Berkeley, a man with a military background who never took a dance lesson in his life, directed almost every musical number for Warner Brothers from 1933 until 1937.
Zanuck also found magic in the songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Warren and Dubin worked on most of the Warner Brothers musicals until 1938. Their hit songs, many of which are still known and played today, fit in well with the various stories presented in the Warner Musicals. In addition to using the same songwriters, Warner Brothers also assembled an acting ensemble for its musicals. Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Ned Sparks, and Guy Kibbee frequently played various roles on the silver screen. The plots and acting, combined with Berkeley's choreography, scenery and costuming, and the musical excellence of the songs of Warren and Dubin, made these Warner Brothers musicals excellent examples of the 1930s "rags to riches" idea.
The first film Warner Brothers released to rekindle the popularity of the musical in 1933 was 42nd Street. This film's tremendous popularity made it a landmark film for Warner Brothers and Busby Berkeley. 42nd Street, a backstage musical, followed Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), a producer who was trying to make his latest musical a hit. Marsh was not the most pleasant producer throughout the process and his star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) did not help matters. Brock felt quite full of herself and had an affair with the production's financial backer. Before opening night, Brock sprained her ankle throwing Marsh into a frenzy. He decided to get a quiet chorus girl named Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) to take Brock's place in the leading role. Peggy goes from being a simple girl who was never in love to a hard working starlet. Eventually Peggy finds love with Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), a young man also involved with the show. When the show finally opens, it's a huge success and Peggy becomes a star.
Peggy's story exemplified "rags to riches" by going from unknown mediocrity to becoming a huge star and falling in love. She was drilled to the point of collapse and worked very hard to prepare for the show and achieve her stardom and happiness. Though she did work hard, luck and circumstance ultimately helped Peggy to achieve wealth, love, and fame. According to Andrew Bergman in his book We're In The Money: Depression America and Its Films, "…Ruby was an Alger hero…" Coincidentally 42nd Street happened to be Ruby Keeler's movie debut. Her portrayal of Peggy Sawyer guaranteed her a place in the industry and she went on to star in many more Warner Brothers musicals. In a way, her character's experience mirrored her own acting experience and 42nd Street brought Ruby Keeler motion picture stardom.
In 42nd Street, emphasis was placed on the idea that the complete success of the show "Pretty Lady" depended on the star of the show. Before Peggy Sawyer, Dorothy Brock was the one who had the responsibility of carrying the show. This idea of one person leading and creating success for a group seems to parallel that of the incoming Roosevelt administration in 1933. With a new president, a new sense of hope emerged in America. With the administration change and New Deal about to surface, Roosevelt was America's Peggy Sawyer chosen to come in and save America after Herbert Hoover's presidency.
Following his work on his first film with Warner Brothers, 42nd Street, Berkeley had the chance to work with director Mervyn LeRoy on the film The Gold Diggers of 1933. Berkeley staged and directed the musical numbers for The Gold Diggers of 1933. This film follows Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon), and Polly (Ruby Keeler), three young chorus girls, or gold diggers, involved in show business. The show in which the girls starred closed due to lack of funding. As they tried to find work in another show, the girls met Brad (Dick Powell), a young songwriter concealing his wealth in order to pursue his songwriting. As the story leads up to the final musical production, the girls end up involved and in love with the leading men, employed, and wealthy. The showgirls ended up winners by being smart enough to use mistaken identity and immoral maneuvers like seduction and trickery to their to their advantage
Though the plot itself applies to the 30s version of the Horatio Alger myth, other factors in the film contributed as well. Visual imagery, props, and costuming also support the Alger myth. The overall theme of The Gold Diggers of 1933 is the acquisition of wealth by any means necessary. Like many people living through the depression, the girls in the film lived with uncertainty and wondered what they were going to eat the next day.
Andrew Bergman quoted an article entitled "Poverty Breeds Vice" from The Literary Digest of 1932 which stated that the "…inability to get work is forcing many young women either directly into prostitution or at least into borderline occupations…" "Borderline occupations" like becoming a showgirl, provided women with an alternate way to get income. Men could become gangsters so women became prostitutes or showgirls. This film has characters that clearly believe that showgirls are trashy women. Brad's wealthy brother and family lawyer forbade Brad to involve himself with Polly the showgirl because they believed showgirls to be morally unfavorable, seductive, and borderline prostitutes. However, when the other girls use some sex appeal and trickery, they make Brad's brother and family lawyer fall madly in love with them.
Costuming and choreography also play a big role in sending messages about the showgirls' occupation. Skimpy costumes showing great amounts of flesh combined with strategically placed items like coins convey a very sexual image. Close up camera shots of legs or routines involving women using their legs and bodies to make formations was also very sexual. These maneuvers reinforced the idea that being a showgirl was a "borderline occupation." In the 1930s these sexual ideas were popular in entertainment, as they still are in today's entertainment industry.
The Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with the musical number "We're In the Money" written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren and performed by Ginger Rogers. The song, clearly about ending the Great Depression, is upbeat and conveys a positive message equating money with happiness. After the opening credits, Rogers sings:
Gone are my blues
And gone are my tears;
I've got good news
To shout in your ears.
The silver dollar has returned to the fold.
With silver you can turn your dreams to gold.
We're in the money, we're in the money;
We've got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We're in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.
We never see a headline about breadlines today.
And when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye
We're in the money, come on, my honey,
Let's lend it, spend it, send it rolling along!
At the beginning of the song, the lyrics express that tears and blues will be gone because there is money out there to be had. The silver dollar, a form of currency, has made a return. During most of the depression, people did not have money so getting a silver dollar meant money was available. Warren and Dubin use a play on words saying "with silver you can turn your dreams to gold" basically meaning that as long as you have money, in this case silver dollars to spend, you can make your dreams come true.
In the next verse, the song proclaims "we've got a lot of what it takes to get along." Obviously money is what it takes to get along. Even the sky seems to look more sunny, since having money takes away problems that make life gloomy. Obtaining money means "Old Man Depression" has ended, breadlines are no longer needed since people will be able to buy the food that they need, and rent can be paid on time.
Finally the song ends with the line "Let's lend it, spend it, send it rolling along!" This line is of extreme importance because it embodies the philosophy of spending in the 1930s. Hoarding available money is not the right thing to do. Lending and spending are two things that helped others by putting money back into the economy. A person was able to obtain goods or services that they wanted or needed while sending their money "rolling along." The original Alger myth would have focused on saving money for stability but the updated Alger myth supports spending money and placing it back in the economy to spread to others.
The extreme optimism brought forth in "We're In The Money" could have been due to the new presidential administration. Perhaps Warren and Dubin were hoping that Roosevelt's policies would cause everyone to be "in the money." This song also uses words like "we're," "let's," and "us" indicating a group idea. The writers were including many people, not just an individual. This group idea differs from Horatio Alger's original ideas because Alger's ideas focused on the success of one individual like Ragged Dick. This song's emphasis on spending to help one another as well as lyrics that address a group apply to the 1930s Alger myth.
Busby Berkeley's choice of costuming and scenery creates vivid imagery that enhances the "We're In the Money." The scenery is full of giant coins. The chorus girls have costumes displaying many small metal coins. The first number takes place at rehearsal for an upcoming show in which all of the main female characters have a part. Dressed as giant coins, singing and dancing, the chorus girls essentially are personifying the message the song conveys. Singing and dancing is their job therefore the showgirls have money as long as they are putting on a show. Unfortunately the depression rears its ugly head and the show is forced to close because of financial issues. The girls no longer are employed but as the film progresses, they continue to seek employment and other means of financial gain.
Later in the film, Berkeley's choreographic genius is again evident in the song entitled "The Shadow Waltz." Berkeley has women dressed in white gowns playing violins. The twist is that when the lights turn down, the violins glow in the dark. Berkeley uses electric technology along with aerial shots for maximum effect. These beautiful women are well dressed and appear to be classy and refined. The violins playing beautiful classical sounding music and the extravagant gowns convey an idea of wealth. The scene looks expensive. This musical number takes place during the final show in which all the girls are hired to perform. Through the dance and images presented in this part of the film, Berkeley is reinforcing the idea that wealth is desirable. Berkeley is also using group formations. One girl could not create the shape of a giant violin alone therefore a group working together was necessary to make the choreography work properly. This makes a statement that in the 1930s assisting the group and working together was important to achieve success.
Footlight Parade, the next in the line of the grandiose Warner Brothers musicals, made its debut later in 1933. Like The Gold Diggers of 1933, this film also dealt with the production of musicals and the backstage world. Footlight Parade focused on producing prologues as opposed to one single grandiose musical extravaganza. Prologues, essentially miniature musicals, were put on before the feature film was shown at major movie theaters. The story begins with Chester Kent (James Cagney) struggling to keep his job as a musical producer. Kent's employers (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl) no longer believe that musicals provide profit and are convinced that talking motion pictures have replaced musicals as popular entertainment. One day Kent realizes that running mini-musicals in movie theaters before movies are shown can bring in money. After convincing his bosses that this scheme will work, the various mini-musical prologues go into production.
During the behind the scenes preparation for the prologues, more pivotal characters are introduced. Kent's secretary Nan (Joan Blondell) keeps Kent apprised of his duties as well as demonstrates how much she really cares about him. Though its a tumultuous journey, Nan's perseverance and ability to obtain inside information benefits her in the long run. Nan exposes Kent's cheating bosses as well as ends up with Kent falling in love with her.
Bea (Ruby Keeler), a very conservative secretary who is always on top of things, receives Kent's praise for her brains and good work. Later on, after meeting the newest young male brought in for the prologues Scotty (Dick Powell), Bea decides that the mousy secretarial life is no longer the type of life she wishes to live so she becomes the star of the prologues. Bea goes from uptight and conservative to a beautiful young star who finds love with Scotty. This element of the plot is very similar to the story of Peggy and Billy from 42nd Street. Both times the female was wooed by the male star of the show and her life went from quiet and plain to love and stardom. The affection of the male star is one element of circumstance that changes the life of the female star. The other element that allows the female lead to go from "rags to riches" is the sudden need for someone to step into the show's starring role.
Many characters in this film ended up succeeding with love or money thanks to their work, changes they made, and good circumstances. Besides finding love with Nan, Kent's prologues were hits. Kent's hard work helped him overcome a spy leaking his prologue ideas to a competing producer, his bosses cheating him out of money, his supposed ex-wife coming back to demand more money, and the stress and pressure of creating and producing new prologues so often. Like The Gold Diggers of 1933, and several other films of its time, Footlight Parade conveyed a message about achieving success. These films made it acceptable to achieve this success through immoral means or pure luck. It did not matter how the success was achieved as long it happened. People were pleased to see the characters onscreen attain happiness and money.
For Footlight Parade, Busby Berkeley was once again in charge of creating and staging the musical numbers. In this film, Berkeley created one of the most stunning and elaborate scenes in musical film history during the song "By a Waterfall." Berkeley devised an astounding water based scene where the girls were standing mixed in with a waterfall. The waterfall had slides built in for more girls to slide down the waterfall into a pool below. Berkeley explained that the waterfall set (the mountainside and pool) covered almost an entire sound stage while the pool alone measured eighty feet by forty feet. Twenty thousand gallons of water a minute were pumped over the falls. Plate-glass used under the pool allowed Berkeley to light and shoot from the pool's bottom. This expensive and elaborate set created the spectacle that was captured on screen. A simple and cheap set would have restricted camera angles and not allowed such a grand spectacle to take place on screen. The size and technical aspects of creating this scene turned what could have been a simple musical number into a complete escapist fantasy sequence.
As the song continued and left the more natural waterfall setting, the set morphed into a hydraulic tower fountain. The natural waterfall turned into something manmade. Throughout the 1930s there was a conflict between man and nature in the form of agricultural failures and the Dust Bowl. Perhaps the idea of man conquering nature in this scene intended to convey a sense of hope that man still could be victorious against nature.
Overhead cameras allowed Berkeley to film his dancers using their bodies to create shapes and patterns on the fountain and eventually in the pool. This impressive aquatic choreography is pleasing to the eye, memorable, and slightly racy. The entire number is executed brilliantly and beautifully and turns a normal recreational activity like swimming into an art form. This grandiose production, full of luxurious images and beautiful women, turns the ordinary into the extraordinary just as having money could turn an ordinary lifestyle into an extraordinary one. The lack of simplicity combined with the high cost of producing a musical number of this caliber goes right along with the 1930s idea of living large and spending money to enhance the economy for all.
1934 saw the release of another Warner Brothers musical, Dames. Berkeley created and directed all of the musical numbers for this film. According to The Busby Berkeley Book, "Dames might as well have been titled The Gold Diggers of 1934, since in content and intent it amounted to the same thing." Even the poster distributed by Warner Brothers to promote the film said "Warner Bros.' Gold Diggers for 1934!" The cast included many of the same performers who had been in Warner's other musicals. The story line focused around a show entitled "Hot and Sweet" that was the creation of Jimmy Higgins (Dick Powell), a young songwriter in love with Barbara (Ruby Keeler). Jimmy did not have money to make his production a reality but fate steps in when he meets Mabel (Joan Blondell). Mabel, a chorus girl who used creative circumstance, blackmail, and some gumption, ends up getting Horace (Guy Kibbee) to financially back "Hot and Sweet." Mabel met Horace when she snuck onto a train and decided to sleep in his sleeping quarters. Because of his embarrassment, she used the experience later to her advantage. Horace's dilemma stems from his cousin, millionaire Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert), who can never find out that Horace is the show's backer. Ezra promised to give Horace ten million dollars for being such an upstanding man. Backing a show would upset Ezra, a very moral man who thought musical shows were inappropriate and immoral. Eventually Jimmy's show goes on and is a success. Jimmy and Barbara fall even more in love after all of the events occur. Ezra, with the help of some alcohol disguised as hiccup elixir, enjoys the show and Horace gets his money.
In the beginning of the film, Ezra ounce embodied the values of the original Horatio Alger myth. Ezra accumulated a great amount of wealth, was an upstanding citizen, and concerned himself with furthering moral values in America. However since this was a 1930s film, circumstance came into play, this time in the form of the vice of alcohol. Ezra's addiction to the "hiccup elixir" relaxed him and changed his mind about showbiz. His campaign to eliminate immoral things like musical shows fell by the wayside due to Ezra's newfound acceptance of entertainment in his intoxicated state. At the end of the film, Ezra embraces the "immoral" world of show business and spends his money. This new attitude and spending fits in with the 1930s version of the Horatio Alger myth.
This film featured the song "I Only Have Eyes For You," written by the classic team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren. For this song, Berkeley had the chorus girls in frilly white dresses and used many aerial shots of them in formations. The eccentric thing about this musical number in particular was Berkeley's decision to use Ruby Keeler's face essentially as a prop. Since the obvious theme of the number was the gentleman crooning about only having eyes for his lady, Berkeley decided that using Ruby Keeler's image would be an effective way to tackle the number. The chorus girls all had small cutout pictures of Keeler's face and danced in various formations holding the pictures. As the number continues, all the girls bent over at one point. Berkeley put equally sized, different colored panels on their backs so when they clustered and bent over, a giant picture of Keeler's head appears. This giant face made the number dazzling and physically made the point of the song larger than life.
Once again the group had to work together in order to make the musical number a success. This socialist spirit of the collective can be compared to Huey Long's 1934 idea of "Share the Wealth." In this plan families would have a homestead and guaranteed income, college students would have a free education, and the elderly would have pensions. Income taxes would be adjusted accordingly so everyone stayed in the same income bracket. Long thought making the pieces of American life equal would benefit the whole. Similarly, each dancer in "I Only Have Eyes For You" had an equally sized piece of the large picture of Keeler's head. Unequal pieces would have obscured the whole picture.
The final song in the film, also entitled "Dames," uses aerial shots to show beautifully dressed women making shapes and various complex formations. One portion of this number stands out. The scene contains many beautiful bathtubs covering the stage. The gorgeous white tubs are large and filled with bubbles. Each tub contains chorus girl taking a luxurious bath. Another girl stands by each tub wrapped in a towel and pours water into the tubs. That particular scene shows a comfort that the average person would not be able to engage in during the Great Depression. It also screams sexuality. The tubs and water girls are a symbol of sex and luxury and work with the film's theme that everything ends up all right with some hard work, creativity, and perseverance. The scene's acceptable risqué elements separate it from the original conservative and moral values conveyed by the Horatio Alger myth.
The next official film in the Gold Diggers series contains a similar storyline however this time a male character does the "gold digging." In The Gold Diggers of 1935, Dick Powell stars as Dick Curtis, a young medical student who works at a high class New England hotel in the summertime in order to pay his medical school bills. Dick is a hardworking, honest, upstanding young man who is an excellent hotel clerk. At the hotel he is approached by Mrs. Prentiss (Alice Brady) and offered five-hundred dollars in exchange for escorting her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart) around for the summer. Though already engaged, Dick understands the terms of the agreement; to serve as a friendly companion for the also engaged Ann. Dick takes some time to think about the offer, decides it is indeed legitimate, and will use the money he makes to pay for an entire year of his medical school bills.
As time goes by, Dick and Ann fall in love. Dick's fiancée falls for Ann's wealthy brother so Dick is free to be with Ann. The film ends with Mrs. Prentiss' annual charity show where Mrs. Prentiss discovers that Dick and Ann have fallen in love. Mrs. Prentiss' infuriation causes her to inform Dick that he will not get paid. Once a mishap with Ann's fiancée occurs, Mrs. Prentiss finally approves of Dick. Even though he did not get the initial five-hundred dollars he was promised, Dick planned to marry into an extremely wealthy family, making him much richer. Thanks to sheer luck, the young male medical student ended up with money and love at the conclusion of the film.
The difference between this and other movies in the Gold Diggers series is that the main character is male. Though the showgirls tended to resort to alternative means of procuring money, Dick's luck, honesty, and morality lead to happiness and wealth. Dick relied on a fortunate circumstance, not trickery or sex, to take him from "rags to riches."
Busby Berkeley served as both the overall director as well as the musical and dance director for The Gold Diggers of 1935. Early in the film, a musical number entitled "I'm Going Shopping With You" follows Dick escorting Ann on a shopping trip. The song simply is a musical number chronicling their shopping excursion. This significant portion of the plot reiterates the message of spending to spread wealth. Ann's purchases include a variety of items including shoes and high priced jewelry. Items of this nature are not necessary to live; they simply allow life to be more luxurious. The upbeat tempo of the song and fun Dick and Ann have while shopping convey a very positive message about spending money in great amounts. She has the money to spend from her wealthy family. Ann is doing her part to put her wealth back into the economy for everyone's benefit.
Perhaps one of the most striking moments comes at the end of the film during the charity show. The dance sequence is performed with fifty-six baby-grand pianos. This effect was achieved by light piano shells being built to allow a human being to be inside the piano in order to make it mobile. The pianos each had a woman in a lovely gown sitting at the bench "playing" the melody of the song as the number progressed. Pianos were not cheap so only people with wealth would own a baby-grand piano. Besides the sheer splendor of watching large pianos effortlessly waltz and create formations on the screen, this musical number reinforced the idea of money resulting in luxury. Wealth leads to obtaining fine objects like pianos. This pleasant imagery combined with the storyline makes wealth seem even grander, like a beautiful, white, baby-grand piano.
The final film used for this study was The Gold Diggers of 1937. Like the other films in the Gold Diggers series, this film culminated in the production of a musical show. Dick Powell starred once again, this time as Rosmer Peek, an insurance salesman who did more sitting than selling. Joan Blondell stars as his love interest Norma Perry, a former showgirl who wants to change her lifestyle and get a "real job" that produced a paycheck every week. Though a chance meeting on a train, Rosmer and Norma meet and she becomes a secretary at the Good Life Insurance Agency, Rosmer's employer.
Through a tip from Norma's showgirl friends, Rosmer ends up selling a million dollar life insurance policy to wealthy show producer and hypochondriac J.J. Hobart. Hobart's two conniving partners wanted the policy on Hobart in the hopes he would pass on sooner than later, leaving them with the insurance money. The partners squandered away Hobart's money on bad stock tips. To help Hobart to feel young again, Rosmer did everything in his power to keep his newest client alive and in good spirits, much to the dismay of Hobart's two sneaky partners.
Regardless of his mental and physical condition, Hobart still had no money to produce the show. All of the chorus girls pitched in and did whatever it took to raise funds. There were several scenes of girls calling up men and blackmailing them threatening to tell their wives about secrets and affairs if they did not donate money to put on the show. This immoral fundraising method worked and the show succeeded. Hobart ended up happy, healthy, and newly married. Rosmer finally succeeded at selling insurance. Norma and Rosmer achieved happiness, wealth, and love. The only people unhappy were Hobart's two greedy partners. The "good guys" came out on top once again thanks to creativity and circumstance.
The songs of this film were scattered more throughout the production as opposed to at the end like in several of the other films. Early in the film, a song was played at the life insurance salesman's convention. The song encouraged people to "buy, buy, buy life insurance!" In the song, the salesmen said buying life insurance was good for you and your loved ones in the event of your passing. In addition, the song had another message about the Great Depression. Buying insurance was good for the economy since it involved spending money.
The song in this film with the most clear cut message about money was entitled "With Plenty of Money and You (Gold Digger's Lullaby)." This song, again penned by the team of Warren and Dubin, opened the film sung by Dick Powell wearing a tuxedo. The song came up again later in the film during a scene involving Rosmer and Norma discussing marriage. The lyrics to this song are:
Well, baby, what I couldn't do
With plenty of money and you.
In spite of the worry that money brings.
Just a little filthy lucre buys a lot of things.
And I could take you to places that you would like to go.
But outside of that, I've no use for dough.
It's the root of all evil,
Of strife and upheaval.
But I'm certain, honey, that life would be sunny
With plenty of money and you.
It's the root of all evil,
Of strife and upheaval.
But I'm certain, honey, that life would be sunny
With plenty of money and you.
The song says that possibilities are endless with love and money. Money, or lack thereof, can cause problems and worries. Money is evil; however, necessary to live life. Alger would have never considered money evil, however he was not writing during the Great Depression. During the Depression, money was the reason for hardship because people had none. Money can be easily lost, like in the stock market, therefore making it an integral part of life that is good when present but evil when absent in your pocket. If the singer had money and love, he could buy his lady many things and take her places she wished to visit. Even though money can bring bad things, it is necessary to live a happy life. Acquiring money to spend it to improve your own life held great importance. Not only were you spending money to purchase things to make your life nicer, you were also putting more money in the economy to pass the wealth around. Obtaining money was completely welcomed in the 1930s especially once that money turned around and went back into the economy. Alger would have encouraged saving the money and living with stability but the updated Alger myth encouraged sharing money through spending.
These six Warner Brothers musicals made between the years 1933 and 1937 demonstrate that the "rags to riches" idea was still alive during the Great Depression. This idea, though vastly different from Horatio Alger's original intentions, reflected what people of the 1930s wanted to see. Regarding Depression era films in his book A History of the Cinema From Its Origins to 1970, Eric Rhode observed "…a society usually gets the movies it wants…adults engaged in the monotony of factory work and children forced to play on the streets should naturally crave for fantasies in which sex, riches, and the death of enemies are easily obtained." Filmmakers and studios made films with plots and songs that would appeal to audiences and provide entertainment. Musical films were part of this fantasy escapism. This formula of choreography, plots, actors, and a 1930s variation of the Horatio Alger myth, gave Warner Brothers many successful musical films during the 1930s.
42nd Street. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Lloyd Bacon. 90 minutes. Warner Brothers. 1933. Videocassette.
Barrios, R. 1995. A Song in the Dark: the Birth of Musical Film. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dames. Produced by Warner Brothers Pictures and directed by Ray Enright. 90 minutes. Warner Brothers. 1934. Videocassette.
Dougherty, L. Busby Berkeley Biography. http://www.lynnpdesign.com/ classicmovies/ berkeley.
Ellis, E.R. 1971. A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression 1929-1939. New York: Capricorn Books.
Footlight Parade. Produced by Warner Brothers Pictures and directed by Lloyd Bacon. 104 minutes. Warner Brothers. 1933. Videocassette.
Kobal, J. 1972. Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.
Lavender C. Songs of the Great Depression. www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/ lavender/cherries.html
Rhode, E. 1976. A History of the Cinema From its Origins to 1970. New York: Hill and Wang.
Terkel, S. 1970. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon Books.
The Gold Diggers of 1933. Produced by Warner Brothers Pictures and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. 94 minutes. Warner Brothers. 1933. Videocassette.
The Gold Diggers of 1935. Produced by First National for Warner Brothers and directed by Busby Berkeley. 95 minutes. Warner Brothers. 1935. Videocassette.
The Gold Diggers of 1937. Produced by Hal B. Wallis and directed by Lloyd Bacon. 100 minutes. Warner Brothers. 1937. Videocassette.
The Horatio Alger Association. Horatio Alger. http://www.horatioalger.com.
Thomas, T. 1973. The Busby Berkeley Book. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, Ltd.
Watkins,T.H. 1993. The Great Depression: America in the 1930s. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Williams, M. Horatio Alger. http://www.niulib.niu.edu/rbsc/2ha2.html.
With Plenty of Money and You (Gold Digger's Lullaby). http://www.harrywarren.org/ songs/0606.htm.