Whose is the first face you see when Warner Brothers’ hit musical Gold Diggers of 1933 opens? Why it’s top billed Warren William, of course:
You’d better savor it. We don’t see Warren again until the 43 minute mark of the movie.
Gold Diggers of 1933 is my own favorite of the Warner Brothers’ musicals, but that distinction has very little to do with Warren William. It has the catchiest tunes to my tastes and they are spaced out better than they are in either 42nd Street or Footlight Parade. If only Warren could have been spaced so well!
Gold Diggers of 1933 begins as a behind the scenes musical in the style of its immediate predecessor, 42nd Street, before Warren and Guy Kibbee join the showgirls for romance and comedy throughout the second half of the film. Once that gets itself straightened out it’s back to Busby Berkeley and company for the unforgettable “Remember My Forgotten Man” number.
For those who’ve yet to see it, here’s Gold Diggers of 1933, in brief, up until Warren William’s arrival:
After the rousing Ginger Rogers opening the police burst in on rehearsals and close down producer Barney Hopkins’ (Ned Sparks) show for lack of funds. Everyone departs and we wake up the next morning in the bedroom of Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and Polly (Ruby Keeler). Across the way neighbor Brad (Dick Powell) plays a tune and we soon see that he and Polly are an item. Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers) pays the girls a visit with the news that Barney is going to stage a new show. Carol heads out to see what’s what and soon returns with Barney.
“It’s all about the Depression,” Barney tells them, promising parts for everyone. Barney grows even more excited when Brad Roberts plays a tune declaring that Warren and Dubin are out, this is going to be Brad’s show. With everyone in the highest of spirits Barney then breaks the news that he has no backer. He needs someone to put up $50,000, but says he could get by on $15,000 if need be. That’s when Brad volunteers financial support and upsets even sweetie Polly who thinks he’s playing a mean trick on them all.
The next day, sure enough, Brad shows up at Barney’s office with $15,000 cash and things are on! He only asks that Polly be given a featured role, a-ok with Barney, and that he not appear in the show himself. But the lead juvenile’s lumbago acts up the night of the preview and Brad either has to go on in his place or be responsible for putting everyone out of work. Trixie, who is convinced Brad came by his money dishonestly, tells him that she doesn’t even care if he has to go to jail, he has to go on to keep the performers off of the streets.
Brad relents and is a hit. But in the lobby during intermission the society columnists gab away and Brad’s true identity is discovered. The morning papers report that Brad Roberts is actually “Boston blueblood” Robert Treat Bradford. He’s called back home to the University Club where his brother, J. Lawrence (Warren William) dresses him down. Family lawyer and J. Lawrence yes-man Faneuil “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) seconds all of Lawrence’s recommendations to brother Robert, who we’ll continue to call Brad just like they do in the movie.
We’ve reached that 43-minute mark. Warren William is here to stay until his quick exit at the start of the “Forgotten Man” number that closes out Gold Diggers of 1933.
To draw on Warren’s previous performances, J. Lawrence Bradford seems like what you’d get if you interrupted David Dwight (Skyscraper Souls) or Kurt Anderson (Employees’ Entrance) on a bad business day. Banker J. Lawrence is hard and he is serious to the point where he lacks any sense of humor. He’s so upright that we have no choice but to laugh at him.
William biographer John Stangeland makes a fascinating comparison of Warren’s J. Lawrence Bradford to the actor’s real life uncle, noted New York banker Alvin W. Krech (121-122) who reportedly died at his desk in 1928. Besides the similar background to his Gold Diggers character, Warren had even lost out on financial reward via his uncle’s will when he married against the wishes of the elder Krech in 1923.
Whether direct inspiration was drawn from this source or not Warren at least would have a clearer idea of what his J. Lawrence Bradford character was all about.
His first words as his younger brother enters the University Club are, “Good morning, Robert, you’re late.” Despite the good morning, J. Lawrence is all business. As his brother seats himself Lawrence informs him that the family is greatly disturbed over what has been reported by the papers. They can’t believe Brad would choose show business over banking!
While they are willing to relent and allow Brad to follow his passion on stage, Lawrence tells Brad that he’s stunned that he’d want to marry a “cheap little show girl,” referring to Polly. Elder brother Lawrence has control over Brad’s trust fund until Brad turns 30 and so the threat is made. Brad will have to either give up Polly Parker or give up his income.
Brad leaves in a huff determined to live his own life and leaving Lawrence perturbed by his reaction. Peabody tells Lawrence that he used to know a showgirl and that those type of women are nothing but parasites and gold diggers. “I’m going to see her,” Lawrence says. “This Polly Parker woman.”
It’s upon Lawrence and Peabody’s arrival in the city that the real fun begins. The stiff upper lipped banker runs head on into the scantily clad showgirls. Without giving her a chance to speak he mistake Blondell’s Carol for his brother’s girl, Polly. Before she can correct him he gives her the straight dope: “I’ve told him that if he disgraces the family by marrying a showgirl, the family is through with him.” Lawrence tries to excuse himself by adding that, “Showgirls are reputed to be, uh, parasites. Chiselers. Gold diggers.”
From there Carole and Trixie take Lawrence and Peabody on a ride that costs them a pair of $75 hats for starters and a whole lot more after that. Returning from lunch with the girls to his hotel room Lawrence tells Peabody, “Now I tell you there’s only one thing to do. We’ve got to spend more time here. We’ve got to see more of her.” He plans to have “Polly” transfer her affections from his brother to him, thus saving his brother. But we can already tell that Lawrence is interested in Carol, even if he doesn’t know who she really is.
Once everybody has set their traps all of the prey proceed to get caught. Lawrence is falling hard for Carol, but how’s a good banker supposed to rationalize any involvement with a showgirl? Especially after he thinks she’s set a trap for him when he wakes up nursing a nasty hangover in her bed. From this compromising position the boisterous Trixie proceeds to blackmail J. Lawrence. “Call it payment for a nights lodging if you like,” she tells him leading Lawrence to pull out his checkbook. Poor, Lawrence can’t even remember what he’s done but he stumbles away fed up with gold digging showgirls.
Despite being overwhelmed by the superior musical sections of Gold Diggers of 1933, Warren William does take part in several memorable scenes, especially with co-stars Guy Kibbee and Joan Blondell. “Peabody, you’re disgusting,” Warren says to Kibbee’s character as Trixie and Carol waltz off leaving Kibbee’s Peabody with thoughts as transparent to us as they are to the scolding J. Lawrence. Warren is also involved in a wonderful romantic scene with Blondell in which he kisses her every time she lustily refers to herself as “cheap and vulgar Carol.”
But no matter how Lawrence feels about Carol he remains dead-set against his younger brother marrying any woman of such low standing as a showgirl.
Warren’s final scene sorting everything out just before “Remember My Forgotten Man” takes to the stage is a bit muddled. It skips a few points of logic to allow everyone to arrive at a happy ending, but that’s easily overlooked because it’s what we wanted anyway. Then just as quick as J. Lawrence arrived he disappears and Gold Diggers of 1933 closes with one of Busby Berkeley’s strongest choreographies.
One additional item of interest to the Warren William fan about his final scene: The policeman he brings along with him to try and put a stop to Brad and Polly’s wedded bliss is played by Fred Kelsey. Kelsey appeared in just about everything, and he gets a couple of great lines in his single scene in Gold Diggers of 1933, but where we know him best is from Warren’s later Lone Wolf series at Columbia where he plays Warren’s bumbling antagonist Detective Dickens.
For Warren William Gold Diggers of 1933 follows The Mind Reader which I just covered a few days ago and hearken back to now. It was in discussing the timing of Warren’s being cast in The Mind Reader that I mentioned he and Kay Francis were tabbed as the original leads in 42nd Street, back before that title was even slated to be a musical.
By late January 1933 Warner Brothers announced plans for their second musical film of this period. It began with the working title High Life for the “purpose of concealing the nature of the story” (Film Daily). For this film, shortly announced as Gold Diggers of 1933, there was no confusion over the cast. With the exception of Allen Jenkins, who was probably just too busy to make it to the Gold Diggers set, everybody originally listed as being in the cast wound up appearing in the finished movie.
Harry Warren and Al Dubin were back from 42nd Street to contribute songs on Gold Diggers of 1933. Busby Berkeley again staged all of the elaborate song and dance scenes. Acclaimed director of the previous year’s I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy, handled the dramatic sequences, or better stated here, all of Warren William’s scenes. With 42nd Street having proved a smash, Warner Brothers began mounting a massive publicity campaign for Gold Diggers of 1933.
Scouring the January-June 1933 volume of Film Daily courtesy of the Media History Digital Library reveals almost daily ballyhoo for Gold Diggers of 1933.
Besides frequent photos splashed across Film Daily’s covers the trade journal reported stunts including 5,000 gold balloons being released at Gold Diggers’ Broadway premier, which was also heralded by fifty girls skating along streets in the area tossing out gold coins. Gold Diggers star Ruby Keeler was scheduled to arrive in a gold-painted automobile with husband, Al Jolson. In Pittsburgh it was a “living billboard” composed of 50 girls adorning the front of the Stanley Theatre for the June 8 opening. The report adds “This is the first time this has been done here.”
And it worked. Receipts were reported by the studio itself at this time but they claimed that Gold Diggers of 1933 was consistently out-earning what 42nd Street had pulled in. Business up 30% on 42nd; one too cute report blared that business was up 42% over the previous hit with that very number in its name. At the Strand in New York, “the premiere was like a circus event. Yesterday the crowds started to line up early and the front of the house was a beehive all day” (Film Daily).
Warren William was the star of an honest to goodness hit movie. Of course, Warren wouldn’t be who the public remembered when they left the movie theater.
- Gold Diggers of 1933 is available as part of the original Busby Berkeley Collection of DVD’s from Warner Home Video.
- Stangeland, John. Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.
Content accessed from inside the following issues of Film Daily via the Media History Digital Library.
- Film Daily. Vol. 60: Jul-Dec 1932: Sep 1; Sep 17.
- Film Daily Vol. 61-62: Jan-Jun 1933: Jan 25; Jan 30; Jan 31; Jun 4; Jun 5; Jun 7; Jun 7.