11/18/16

"GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY": A GHOST OF THE TWITCHY TWENTIES



Warner Brothers famous series of "Gold Diggers" films (of 1933, 1935 and 1937) had an antecedent which is now a mostly lost film. "Gold Diggers Of Broadway", shot in 1929, was a tremendously successful early sound Technicolor musical. The soundtrack was recorded on the famous (or in some cases infamous) Vitaphone system, which meant that it existed on individual discs (one per reel) that were synced up to the projector showing the movie. This insanity actually lasted for a three or so years before sound-on-film became the accepted norm. On a bad day, the sync disappeared due to a  faulty disc-to-projector connection, allowing the voices to gradually descend into chaos a la "Singing In The Rains's" infamous premiere scene of "The Dueling Cavalier." (If you're geek enough to be reading this blog then none of this probably needs any further explanation). But the good news with the sound-on-disc system is that thousands of the discs survived, whereas their visual counterparts vanished, the victims of changing taste and overcrowded storage vaults. In the case of GOB (nice acronym) all the sound discs survive but only one picture element is extant. And that is the quite extraordinary clip I've posted above.

In it, we see the movie's grand finale, a 1920s one-of-a-kind whoop up featuring a bevy of lovely women wearing multi-colored dresses which must have made audiences gasp in 1929, due to the vivid nature of the color. (Did I mention that GOB was shot in two-tone Technicolor? Well now I have). Of course the surviving print is only dimly representative of what the color looked like at the time but you still get a sense of why audiences thrilled to this sort of thing. Then there's the production number--or really numbers given how many different songs and singing and dancing acts thread their way through this mega-mega all-stops-out extravaganza. The madness begins at 3:40 when a series of different acrobatic acts take to the stage, all dancing and jumping and twirling in front of a gaggle of tuxedoed men and gowned women (some of whom look frankly terrified at the physical freak show going on just a few feet in front of them). At 5:30 things take a definite turn for the crazier and one can only presume that what we're watching is not only a result of great skill and practice but of a diet full of Gin, Amphetamines and Camel cigarettes.

But the real find here are the appearances two major gangster stars of the thirties, here seen as hard-dancing, acrobatic 'chorus boys'. At 3:35, a duo act comes out and does a pretty fabulous dance routine. Look carefully at the guy on the right. It's James Cagney! There's some controversy about this as he's not listed in the credits but there are two reasons to be certain it's him. 1) He made this film for Warner Brothers who signed him just moments later as an actor and quickly built him up to be a star. And 2) Look at his face! It's him! All right? Enough said. And at 5:40 (or therabouts) a tuxedoed gent goes into a quite mad and wonderfully eccentric jazz dance. It's George Raft. And he's listed in the credits.

Just as the number winds its way toward its last chorus of mad 1920s gyrations, however, the screen goes black. The sound continues. And that's where the remaining picture elements leave off, with only the sound-on-disc left to take us out to the film's conclusion. It's a little chilling, as if the 1920s itself suddenly disappears into thin air, with only the echo of the era's sounds trailing it along to the ash heap of dead civilizations...

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