Saturday, October 1, 2011
The creditors' blunt reminder of the world outside the theater, subsequently seen through the living conditions of the other three leads of the film: ingenue Polly (Ruby Keeler), torch singer Carol (Joan Blondell), and the sarcastic Trixie (Aline MacMahon). Forced to share an apartment, the three stoop to stealing neighbors' milk and have become so despondent over job searches that they've given up looking. And when their old producer, the irascible Hopkins, comes by with plans to make a production about the Depression, the fresh memory of his gaudy, glamorous oblivion suggests that such a show would capture the Great Depression with as much realism as Armageddon does astrophysics. Only the timely intervention of Polly's talented singer-songwriter (and mysteriously wealthy) boyfriend Brad secures Hopkins the money, exciting the girls but also raising suspicions.
When production issues force Brad on-stage, his true identity is soon discovered: he's no criminal but the heir to a fortune, forced to disguise himself because his family disapproves of his love of the theater. And sure enough, his brother Lawrence, who holds control of the estate, and the family lawyer, Fanuel "Fanny" Peabody, soon turn up looking to pay off Polly, whom they see as a gold digger, and bring Brad back home. But a case of mistaken identity leads Trixie and Carol to start wooing the two men, partly out of outrage at the way they insult Polly but also to rob them blind, genuinely taking on the role the fellas assigned to Polly without evidence. Fay (Rogers), the one so desperate to find a rich man, tries to barge in on this action, but Carol and Trixie make it clear that if she tries anything to steal one of these men away, she'll be able to use her own scalp as a stole.
Sharp dialogue and witty flirtation drives much of the film, with most of the comedy rooted in the constant bewilderment of Lawrence and Fanny as they find themselves flummoxed by the eyelash-batting temptresses before them. Carol and Trixie make such short work of the men that the two of them con the chaps into paying for outrageously expensive hats C.O.D. during their very first meeting. Lawrence and Fanny are instantly smitten but criticize the other for losing his head; William's proper but caustic declaration, "Peabody, you're disgusting" caught me so off-guard I laughed out loud.
But the real draw, of course, is the music. Though the film contains only four musical numbers, each is so impressive and visually distinct that the film needs to separate them to let the audience fully process the intricacy of the last sequence before seeing the next. Apart from the aforementioned gilded comedy of "We're in the Money" is the epic, slightly surreal and brazenly naughty "Pettin' in the Park," which clearly refers to the slang use for "petting" and doesn't even try to hide it in innuendo. The setpiece opens up the stage into impossible dimensions, dancing showgirls entering on roller skates by the dozen as a dwarf dressed as a baby hops out of a stroller and follows suit. A staged rainstorm soaks the women, who retreat into a two-story set as a cover goes up to mask them stripping down out of their clothes, but their silhouettes frankly reveal more than a PG-13 film could get away with today. When the curtain lifts, they wear metal clothing impervious to the lascivious grasps of the men who move around them, at least until Brad gets his hands on a can opener to cut Polly's outfit off her. The epic scale of the numbers made me forget this was a Pre-Code, but the overt sexuality on display here removes all doubt. I was also drawn to a patented Berkeley top shot of dancers holding giant, fake snowballs, their swaying white spheres reminding me of a dandelion about to release its spores. Even plant sex factors into this song!
"The Shadow Waltz" takes the mildly surreal touches of "Pettin' in the Park" to crazy new heights, setting the song against an inky black background as a handful of props and performers emerge with angelic light among the void. Eventually, the light drops out all together to leave a host of violins rigged with neon tubes to glow in the dark, undulating with amoebic sloshes before tightening into the usual Berkeley precision, even arranging into a giant violin at one point. What in the hell this has to do with the Great Depression is anyone's guess, but who on Earth cares?
Only the final song (placed at the end in lieu of "Pettin' in the Park" because Jack Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck were so impressed with it) truly gets at the Depression. But Berkeley and LeRoy make up for lost relevance by packing "Remember My Forgotten Man" with stirring choreography and brilliant cinematic technique to condense the effects of the Depression into a setpiece no less vast and astonishing than the other tunes but flecked with an emotional impact the others lack. Shots of soldiers returning home from WWI carrying their wounded and dead slowly morph into the Bonus Army March on Washington the previous year, while LeRoy cuts up the progression of performers walking through a bread line into rousing montage. Shot with Expressionistic lighting and vertical, vivid stage design, "Remember My Forgotten Man" culminates in a brilliant shot of soldiers' shadows hanging like ghosts in the background as Carole stands, the embodiment of hope in this dark time as the downtrodden below reach up to her like the groping paws clamoring for the robotic Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
Placed after the true conclusion of the plot, this sequence is perhaps out of step with the rest of the film's comic whimsy, but it's no wonder Warner and Zanuck rearranged the order to place it at the end: "Forgotten Man" shows off the best of the film's creative talents, and by shoving the coy flirtation of "Pettin' at the Park" further up in the movie, the filmmakers make the climax the proof of the theatre's worth. Sure, it's an ostentatious sequence like all the rest, but there's truth and relevance to this work, and the entire scene is so inspiring that it somehow works better as escapist optimism by confronting the Depression head-on than the carnal distractions of the other tunes. It's a wild, exuberant end to a great film.