‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ and the Allure of Pre-Code Cinema

Witness the rise of a star, Joan Blondell, in a deeply fascinating era of film history.
Gold Diggers 1933
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on August 30th, 2017

This essay, posted on what would be Joan Blondell’s 101st birthday, in 2017, celebrates the classic pre-code musical ‘Gold Diggers of 1933.’

Joan Blondell would likely object to her 101st birthday being celebrated today, insisting it was only her 98th. Were she to make this case to me, either in person or especially on the movie screen, I would concede, and print the legend. Because she is one.

The thing about loving movies—one of them at least, there are as many things about loving movies as there are grains of sand on a beach or stars in the sky—is loving all of their possible forms. Which is why when people talk of “old” movies I always bristle a bit, because there’s no such thing as “old” movies, merely ones that were made before other movies. The circumstances, be they cultural or logistical, that contributed to them being made a certain way, are often as fascinating as the movies themselves, which is true even before we get to a lot of the dumb generalizations about “old” movies that pervade. They are not boring. They are especially not boring in the Pre-Code era, the window between the advent of sound and the enforcement of the restrictive Hays Code. Pre-Code movies rule. They just do. Seek out as many as you can find. You’re welcome. This brings us back to Joan Blondell, whose debut and ascent in the movie business took place in the Pre-Code era, and one of her particularly great and important films, Gold Diggers of 1933.

Gold Diggers of 1933 yields a particularly acute strain of one of the great experiences of watching movies from the medium’s formative years, the thrill of witnessing origin. The birth of the timeless and eternal feels both paradoxical and natural, seeing the first iteration of things long since passed into tradition, that you have seen so many times before, and yet now as if for the first time. The cinema in which Gold Diggers of 1933 was a popular hit with popular actors was a young cinema, bursting with the energy of invention, an art form that had only recently taken flight, still exhilarated by its ability to fly.

The four women for whom the film is titled are the lifeblood of show business, the people who love the illusions of it so dearly and unshakably that they keep pushing the rock up the mountain because there is simply no other way to live. When the movie begins, they are in need of a show to put on. Fate delivers them a show. Fate subsequently throws a couple curveballs. But the show goes on because that is what the show must do. There is no other way for the show to go. The gold diggers may superficially be out to land rich husbands, but that is icing on the cake. The cake is the show. (This cake is not a lie.)

For most of its running time, Gold Diggers of 1933 is almost giddy with the joy of show business, bouncing around magically on the strength of its zippy story and energetic performances, and on the glorious Busby Berkeley production numbers (Busby Berkeley is one of the very best things that ever happened to movies). But it goes out, denouement aside, on a bold and daring note, one that could not have been struck with as much grace without Joan Blondell. The song “Remember My Forgotten Man” directly addresses the dire straits in which the America of 1933 found itself, the very Great Depression to which films like Gold Diggers of 1933 were meant to be an antidote. And Blondell—though Etta Moten’s contributions should not and can not be ignored—sells the the severity of the number with just as much style and grace as she does the romance and comedy that led to that point.

This is not a zero-sum statement, as this is true of many other performers, but the point of these remarks is that it is true of this piece’s subject: Joan Blondell embodied show business. “Show business,” in this case, being the meeting point of the performing arts, the creative arts, and commerce. The first two elements need each other more than they need the third, but at a certain point, for certain career paths, entertainment is a job, and in order to properly entertain, you have to mean it, and in order to mean it, you have to mean it even if you don’t. To carve out a career for oneself means showing up and putting in the work, and being good enough at it that people still want to see you. Joan Blondell could do it all: sing, dance, play comedy, play drama. She did the work for decades, and even to the end, she was still doing it with that singular style and grace. Look her up. Check it out. She’s the truth.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all