The poll for best song of 1932-33 quickly turned into a neck-and-neck contest between "We're in the Money" from Gold Diggers of 1933 and "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" from Three Little Pigs, with the Busby Berkeley dance number edging the classic Disney cartoon theme right at the wire, 14 votes to 12. The Rogers and Hart standard, "Isn't It Romantic," finished third with 6 votes and two more songs, "42nd Street" and "Remember My Forgotten Man," both penned by the winning songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, picked up three votes each. And while "We're in the Money" won only a plurality of the vote, the three Warren/Dubin numbers, taken together, took 20 of the 38 votes cast, a clear win in my book for perhaps the most prolific pair of songwriters you've never heard of.
In a way, the story of "We're in the Money" begins with Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer way back in 1927—a story that so far has taken me more than a year to tell, so let me recap: when talkies supplanted silent films, studios actually had no idea what to do with the new technology. So movie producers, assuming audiences were just as dumb as they themselves were, copied The Jazz Singer formula over and over, dropping in songs and musical performances almost at random into every new film that came out, even into movies where a song made no sense at all. And audiences got sick of it in a hurry, so much so that by 1930, musicals were box office poison. (You can see Hollywood doing the same thing right now with 3-D, turning everything into a 3-D movie whether it makes sense or not.)
Come 1933, the only way Warner Brothers production chief Darryl F. Zanuck could convince his bosses to make a musical was to lie to them, telling them 42nd Street would be a gritty drama about the backstage intrigue typical of a Broadway show. He set up two separate film units, one for the dramatic material, one for the musical numbers, and hired a couple of Broadway veterans, composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, to come up with the songs for the movie on the sly.
For a guy you've probably never heard of, composer Harry Warren was a hit-writing machine. He wrote twenty-one number one hits in his career (nine with lyricist Al Dubin), including "Jeepers Creepers," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby." He also wrote hits such as "That's Amore," "I Got A Gal in Kalamazoo," "Shuffle Off To Buffalo," "You'll Never Know" and "At Last." He was nominated for an Oscar eleven times, winning three. In addition to Al Dubin, Warren also worked extensively with Mack Brown and Johnny Mercer.
Al Dubin meanwhile had written the lyrics for several hit Broadway musicals and found himself paired with Warren for the first time on 42nd Street, mostly because the two had backstage Broadway experience that Zanuck wanted to draw on. Among the numbers they wrote were "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me" (inspired by a line from a studio secretary explaining why she was dating a particular man), "Shuffle Off To Buffalo" and the title song.
Incidentally, the two can be seen at the beginning of 42nd Street as the authors of the stinker of a song, "It Must Be June," which stage director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) throws out of the show over their protests.
Providing choreography for the dance numbers was Busby Berkeley. Berkeley had gotten his start choreographing parades and marching bands, before going to work for Samuel Goldwyn on the hit Eddie Cantor movie, Whoopee! in 1930. Berkeley took a novel approach to filming the numbers, arranging the performers in geometric patterns and allowing the camera itself to do the dancing as it flew overheard or dollied underneath. As Daniel Eagan writes in America's Film Legacy, "For purists, this technique was the antithesis of true dance, but in 1933 it seemed fresh, even daring."
42nd Street was a huge success, saving the studio from near bankruptcy. A follow-up, Gold Diggers of 1933, immediately went into production, using most of the same team—hoofers Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers, choreographer Busby Berkeley and the songwriting team of Warren and Dubin. Stock Warner Brothers players Joan Blondell, Warren William and Aline MacMahon were added to carry the story.
Like its predecessor, Gold Diggers is about the backstage shenanigans of a Broadway production, this time played for laughs instead of drama. To save time, Zanuck recycled the screenplay from 1929's hit Gold Diggers of Broadway, but instead of the original's rather dull numbers, such a nine-minute version of "Tip Toe Through the Tulips," Zanuck relied on Warren and Dubin to come up with something sizzling. The duo didn't disappoint.
Unlike 42nd Street which hid its intentions until the last twenty minutes, Gold Diggers of 1933 announces itself as a musical from the get-go. After the opening credits, the movie jumps straight to Ginger Rogers singing "We're in the Money" (called "The Gold Diggers Song" to tie the sheet music to the movie) while a bevy of beauties clad only in body stockings and giant gold coins dance around her.
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.
It's an ironically upbeat number, not just because the story is about chorus girls so broke they steal the neighbor's milk for their morning cereal, but because the country was mired in the depths of a Depression grinding along in its fourth year.
The screenplay had originally called for a dreary montage of shuttered theaters showing the effects of the Depression on Broadway, but Berkeley and director Mervyn LeRoy junked the script and opted to dazzle the audience right away. It turned out to be an inspired choice. The number's energy sweeps you right past the movie's hokey storyline and by the time you start to wonder why you're watching this cookie cutter claptrap, there's another song and dance number on the screen and you're carried away all over again.
Gold Diggers of 1933 is not currently available on DVD and the only way to watch this song at the moment is to click this link, head on over to TCM and watch the clip there. Or you can come over to my house and watch it on tape. I suggest the former. [Note: In the comments section, Brian tells me that Gold Diggers of 1933 is available as part of the Busby Berkeley collection which also includes 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1935. That, my friends, is a good collection.]
While you're watching and listening, here are some of the faces to look for:
Ginger Rogers—I hope you know who she is. Half of the greatest dance team in history, Rogers started as a contract player, appearing in ten movies in 1933, including small roles in both 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. In the former, she played "Anytime Annie," a roundheels who said no only once "and then she didn't hear the question." Here she plays Fay Fortune, a down-on-her-luck chorus girl who pals around with the three leads, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline MacMahon. She may well have gotten this plum spot in the proceedings because she was dating director Mervyn LeRoy at the time, but once she was paired with Broadway dancer Fred Astaire in Flying Down To Rio seven months later, she wouldn't need favors from anybody.
And in case you're wondering why Rogers sings a verse in pig Latin, she was amusing her fellow dancers with pig Latin between takes, and either Darryl Zanuck or Busby Berkeley or Mervyn LeRoy—depending on whose story you believe—saw her and decided to make it part of the routine.
Ned Sparks—One of those ubiquitous character actors on the Warner Brothers payroll, his specialty was deadpan comedy delivered in a nasal, monotone voice of doom, so much a part of his persona that Lloyds of London insured his reputation for $10,000 in the event he was ever photographed smiling. At least that's what the New York Times reported in 1936, and they're never wrong. "I speedily realized that I was not destined to cause the ladies to swoon with romantic ecstasy as they watched me make love to one of their sex," he once said. "I have also divined that comedy and not romantic acting was my special forte." He appeared in over eighty movies and retired in 1947.
Ironically, Sparks's character Barney Hopkins growls at one point in the film "Cancel my contract with Warren and Dubin!" Obviously, Warner Brothers went in the other direction, hiring the duo to write songs for its next backstage musical, Footlight Parade.
Joan Blondell—I've written about her before, at length (click here). One of my favorite pre-Code actresses, Blondell made more than a hundred movies in her career, eight in 1933 alone. There was always something tough and no-nonsense about Blondell's sex appeal (she knew what she wanted, said yes when she wanted and only when she wanted) that made her a fan favorite during the Depression. She's the star of this picture, playing a chorus girl who tries to keep the snooty Warren William from breaking up the romance of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, only to fall for the big lug herself. I imagine this plot was already a cliche when Adam told it to Eve in the Garden, but Blondell looks great in her skivvies and it's all great fun, so who cares?
Ruby Keeler—The wife of Jazz Singer star Al Jolson, Keeler was the nominal star of Warner's backstage trilogy, with 42nd Street serving as her screen debut. "I couldn't act," she said later, "I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn't the greatest tap dancer in the world, either." But she had a fresh-faced innocence that translated well with audiences and for a couple of years there, she was a big box office draw. She only made eleven movies and except for a handful of television appearances in the 1960s, was out of pictures by 1941. (For more on Keeler, check out "Shadow Waltz," a blog devoted to all things Ruby.)
Aline Mac Mahon— Like Ned Sparks, she was one of those faces you'd see in Warner Brothers films of the period, usually playing someone good, wise and long-suffering. She began on Broadway in the 1920s, broke into movies as Edward G. Robinson's loyal secretary in Five Star Final and continued to act until her retirement in 1975. Nominated for an Oscar for her supporting performance in 1944's Dragon Seed, you might also want to track her down in Skyscraper Souls, co-starring Gold Digger's male lead, Warren William.
The movie was supposed to end with "Pettin' In The Park," which would have made more sense narratively but didn't pack much punch, either visually or as a tune. Instead, producer Hal Wallis (who took over mid-production when Zanuck quit in a contract dispute) opted to end with the picture's final Warren-Dubin song, "Remember My Forgotten Man," an explicitly political number about the Depression.
Remember my forgotten man,
You put a rifle in his hand;
You sent him far away,
You shouted, "Hip, hooray!"
But look at him today!
Sitting as it does at the end of the picture, the song serves as a big fat middle finger to everything that's come before it. Eagan calls it "a song of epic chutzpah." That it is.
Audiences ate it up. Gold Diggers of 1933 was an even bigger hit than 42nd Street, grossing a million dollars more than its predecessor, an enormous amount of money considering ticket prices ranged from 10¢ to a quarter.
Looking to cash in on a trend, Warners quickly rushed Footlight Parade into production and gave the lead to its most popular star, James Cagney. In this one, they barely bother with a plot—more a case of "Did you see the other two? This is more of the same"—and gave Berkeley free rein. It's the most over-the-top of three, with numbers that wouldn't fit into an airplane hanger ostensibly taking place on a theater stage. It's worth looking up, though, to see Cagney in a pre-Yankee Doodle Dandy dancing role.
Harry Warren and Al Dubin wrote the songs for that one, too, and all three movies are preserved in the National Film Registry.
1933 represented the highwater mark for Berkeley's career. Within a year, his lavish production numbers were considered old hat and by the early '40s, even though he was still directing musicals, others, particularly Gene Kelly, had taken over his choreographing duties.
Ironically, it was the star of the "We're In The Money" number that hastened Berkeley's downfall. Over the course of the next three summers, in The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat and Swing Time, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire would, like Berkeley before them, redefine the movie musical, turning dance into a most intimate expression of love and romance. Suddenly by comparison Berkeley's choreography seemed gaudy, abstract and impersonal, and what had thrilled audiences in 1933 was dismissed as so last year by 1934.
Harry Warren and Al Dubin continued to crank out hits throughout the 1930s, with their last number one together being 1937's "Remember Me." After that, Dubin returned to Broadway and wrote musicals until his death in 1945, while Warren teamed up with other lyricists and continued to write hit songs into the 1950s. "The familiarity of Harry Warren's songs," said one drama critic, "is matched by the anonymity of the man" and Time magazine noted, "By silent consensus, the king of this army of unknown soldiers, the Hollywood incognitos, was Harry Warren, who had more songs on the Hit Parade than [Irving] Berlin himself and who would win the contest hands down if enough people have heard of him."
Well, you've heard of him now, anyway.