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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Comedy > Drama > Politics > Cold War > Relationships > Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933)/Seven Days In May (1964/MGM)/Who's Afraid Of Virgina Wolff? (1966/all Warner Archive Blu-rays)

Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933)/Seven Days In May (1964/MGM)/Who's Afraid Of Virgina Wolff? (1966/all Warner Archive Blu-rays)

Picture: A-/B+/A- Sound: B+/A/A Extras: B/C/B+ Films: A+/B+/A-

PLEASE NOTE: All three Blu-ray discs are now only available from Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive series and can be ordered from the link below.

In the span of two months in 1933, Warner Bros. released two seminal musicals: 42nd Street, on March 11, and Gold Diggers of 1933, on May 27. As I wrote in my review of the former on this site, it ''set the template and sensibilities for decades of all-singing, all-dancing talkies.'' It also achieved a kind of immortality when it was adapted for Broadway. Gold Diggers, meanwhile, didn't fare as well. It gave pop culture ''We're In the Money,'' the ironic, smile-in-the-face-of-the-Depression hit that, nearly a century later, is rightly a standard. But beyond that it seemed to never escape the glare of 42nd Street.

It's a fate that's baffling. 42nd Street is crummy, episodic, and shaggy - a prototypical Big Hollywood Musical choreographed by Busby Berkley that nevertheless needed more time gestating. Gold Diggers, on the other hand, is a complete narrative, stocked with top-tier actors at the top of their game, with numbers (also by Busby Berkley) that are motivated by the plot (they exist as part of the show-within-the-show) as well as fantastically bananas, absurd, and pre-code dirty. It's a film firmly centered on the Depression, giving fullest voice to Warner's Rooseveltian politics and grounding it in an experience that's fertile ground for preposterous satire. Think Sullivan's Travels, but with music.

Like 42nd Street, Gold Diggers, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (more confidently than 42nd's Lloyd Bacon, by the way) is a backstage farce. But here the action has a center of gravity: Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks), a perpetually harried and gruff wannabe Flo Ziegfeld, is putting on a show all about the Depression. And he's going to use all the girls: Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon), Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), and Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers). But only if he can scrounge up the money. He finds an angel investor in Brad Richards (Dick Powell), a piano player and songwriter in love with his neighbor Polly. Barney likes the kid's songs; they're fresh and different, he wants to use them in the show, and Brad, too. Brad also is willing to put up $15,000 to get the show going - which he's able to do because he's secretly a scion to a wealthy New England family. When the show opens and Brad's outed by the press as Robert Bradford - and romantically linked with Polly - his brother J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and family lawyer Faneul H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) come to New York to protest his impending marriage to this ''gold digger.'' Later, J. Lawrence and Peabody mistake Carol for Polly, and Carol and Trixie exact their revenge in a series of alcohol- and expense-account-fueled hijinks.

And what hijinks! Everyone's timing is perfect, especially Blondell. That's no surprise; she's one of the great actors of Hollywood's golden age. But here she's particularly excellent, delivering expressions and dialogue that are broad but contain layers of subtlety. MacMahon is also great as the self-proclaimed ''best comedian on Broadway'' and ''the most hard-boiled dame on the dirty white way,'' getting in some great lines of her own and inspiring others. ''Isn't there going to be any comedy in the show?'' she demandingly asks Barney when he's pitching his new show. ''Plenty!'' he replies. ''The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the Depression! I'll make 'em laugh at you starving to death, honey. It'll be the funniest thing you ever did.'' Sparks, it should be said, steals every scene he's in - not only is he the paradigm of the crusty, put-upon Broadway producer, he turns every line into an all-time zinger. (Another favorite, as the actor playing the show's juvenile - a role he tartly says he's been in for 18 years - is writing in pain from lumbago, Barney snaps at his house manager: ''Go out and announce the show is postponed! Give them their money back! Tell them our juvenile man's dying of old age!'') And William and Kibbee absolutely nail their feckless, humorless characters, men who could have easily walked out of a New Yorker cartoon. If there's a weak link it's Keeler, who always sounds like she's delivering lines from a phone book and who is a stiff stage presence. But she works better here as the straight woman to her co-stars' antics than in her utterly forgetful appearance in 42nd Street. (Oh, and Dick Powell is, as always, Dick Powell.)

Woven throughout are indelible, impeccable numbers. Gold Diggers opens with ''We're In the Money,'' sung by Rogers and choreographed to play up the chorus girls' cardboard-coin outfits (and Rogers' chain-mail-like costume made of change). ''Petting in the Park,'' an ode to getting lucky (by no small amount of coercion), is both filthy (besides the lyrics, there's a shot of a bunch of chorus girls changing, silhouetted against a sheet that, when removed, clearly shows nudity that would've titillatingly-barely visible in '33 but, thanks to Blu-ray, is really noticeable) and, with some 90 years of distance, kind of uncomfortable. (It's impossible to forget a young Billy Barty, playing a baby, offering Powell a can opener to forcibly remove Keeler's metal corset. Which she's wearing, for some reason, in the middle of a downpour.) ''The Shadow Waltz,'' which finds the cast of young women dancing in hoop dresses that could have dropped out of an Art Deco version of The Jetsons, is a fantasia of precise choreography and electricity.

But it's ''My Forgotten Man,'' performed by Blondell (whose singing is dubbed by Etta Motten, who also appears in the number), which closes the film and, with all the subtlety of a blackjack to the noggin, articulates the film's politics. Carol, as Hopkins' ''spirit of the Depression,'' delivers a dirge aimed squarely at the American government's failures from the country's entry in World War I to the first years of the Depression: ''You put a rifle in his hand/You sent him far away/You shouted: 'Hip-hooray!'/But look at him today/Remember my forgotten man/You had him cultivate the land/He walked behind the plow/The sweat fell from his brow/But look at him right now.'' This is all set to harrowing scenes of soldiers marching to war and the unemployed marching in breadlines, soldiers returning home bloodied and wounded and the homeless assaulted by police, Carol and other women lamenting the state of their men and protecting them from a cold, uncaring society. And as the number reaches its climax, Carol is foregrounded by a sea of Forgotten Men and backgrounded by a multi-tiered shadow-tableaux of marching soldiers. It's a primal scream of anti-authority, and a big, bombastic showstopper that, indeed, ends the film. It's an odd choice to end the film on a downer - especially after an hour and a half of patently screwball antics, but it works. And time hasn't dulled its impact; if anything, it's more powerful considering such a raw expression of un-patriotic sentiment would never materialize in a major studio picture today.

Gold Diggers of 1933 is a film I could watch every day for the rest of my life - whenever I put it on I find something new to appreciate. (Even if it's just how barely-there some of the costumes are!) And it helps that it ages like the finest wine. It might be nine decades old, but it feels as fresh and alive today as it must have then. (The same can't be said for 42nd Street.) So why has it been relegated to an afterthought in 42nd Street's wake? Maybe because it was the second of the two films released. Or perhaps it's the title: having ''of <insert year>'' wasn't exactly the mark of quality, then or now; indeed, there are also Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937, and neither are anything to get excited about. It could also be that 42nd Street got the actual Broadway treatment, solidifying its reputation as a perennial production.

Whatever the reason, we don't have to dwell on it too much because now, finally, Warners has upgraded the previous DVD - which was fine but showed its age - with an excellent Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Short of a full-bore restoration, this is likely as good as it will ever look. And for 90, it looks great. There are the occasional soft shots here and there, but overall it's astounding a film this old (and without the sheen of some of its contemporaries) could survive this long in this good of a condition, from the best, original black and white 35mm elements in its original 1.33 X 1 aspect ratio. Same for the sound, its DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack a crisp and full showcase for the numbers and snappy repartee. Extras include four featurettes, three cartoons, and the film's trailer, which are the same as what was included on the DVD. But, really, the film is why you get this disc. And it's a long-overdue, much welcome addition to not only the Warner Archive library but mine, and yours, as well.

And speaking of Warner Archive, two other discs I have on my pile are worth shelf space, as well.

The first is Mike Nichols' first film, the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The actors - and on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again-on-again-off-again Hollywood power couple - are perfectly cast as George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple navigating the politics of campus life (George is an associate history professor at New Carthage University, Martha's dad is the school's president) and the emotional wreckage that comes with unfulfilled dreams and promises. (Indeed, Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar for the film.) Here, those are represented by a dinky house cluttered with reminders of what could've been and what is, as well as a young couple, the cocksure Nick (George Segal) and delicate Honey (Sandy Dennis, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), that mirror George and Martha professionally (Nick is a biology professor at the university) and romantically (they're newly married, with all the glow and hope that comes with it).

The film is claustrophobic and crushing, creating a cinematic space of such discomfort that you desperately want to flee - except there's an undeniable allure in being among these disreputable people as they snipe and quip and snarl at each other. That's a testament to Albee, certainly, but especially Taylor and Burton (not to mention Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler). Of the films the actors made together, this is unquestionably their best and richest collaboration, playing off their long, shared histories and allowing them to imbue their characters with the hard-earned resentments that come with age and experience. Nichols, too, is in top form; primarily known as a comedian and stage actor before helming Woolf, his choice seems a bit afield, but he firmly establishes himself as a director of vision and humanity. (I'll take Woolf over The Graduate any day.) And Wexler's camerawork is superb, a supple black-and-white presentation that strips bare all pretense in these characters and heightens the fraught physical and psychological place these people inhabit.

Warner Archive's disc does right by the film. The restored transfer is excellent, a celebration of Wexler's Oscar-winning black-and-white cinematography (in 1.78 X 1 here, though 1.85 X 1 in its original theatrical presentation) and Richard Sylbert and George James Hopkins' Oscar-winning meticulously dilapidated set design. Similarly, the restored DTS HD MA mono audio track is top-notch, ensuring the savage barbs delivered in this dialogue-driven film can be heard and, well, felt. Extras here will be familiar to anyone who owned Warners' two-disc special edition DVD way back when: two making-ofs, an interview with Nichols, Dennis' screen test, an hour-long documentary on Taylor, and a handful of trailers. But it's the commentaries - one by Wexler, the other with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh - that remain the most valuable, and entertaining, part of the package.

The other film cinephiles should give attention to is Seven Days in May, John Frankenheimer's 1964 adaptation of the novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Set in 1970, the film stars Kirk Douglas as Marine Col. Martin 'Jiggs' Casey, in the orbit (and thrall of) Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster) who, frustrated with the country's weak-on-commies foreign policy, plots a coup against the seemingly feckless president Jordan Lyman (Frederic March). Ava Gardner rounds out the cast as Eleanor, Scott's former mistress and a potential love interest for Casey. May is built around the kind of by-the-numbers plot - Will Casey go with Scott? Will he turn him in? Where do allegiances lie? How important is democracy, really? - that Frankenheimer spun into gold throughout his career. And he does so here, too. The outcome is never in doubt - Douglas was too big a star, and Lancaster too much a wild card, for there to be any outcome other than the implosion of the attempted coup - but how Frankenheimer gets us there is the fun of the thing, which stands solidly alongside The Manchurian Candidate as one of the era's great political thrillers. (Jerry Goldsmith's score does a fair share of lifting in driving and ratcheting up the tension.)

And like Candidate, May is vital in a way that betrays its age thanks to the speech to the nation March delivers at the end of the film. The coup squashed, the president takes to the airwaves to brief the press and public on what has happened - and make the kind of impassioned defense of democracy no one thought he had in him: ''There's been abroad in this land, in recent months, a whisper that we have somehow lost our greatness, that we do not have the strength to win, without war, the struggles for liberty throughout the world. This is slander. Because our country is strong - strong enough to be a peacemaker. It is proud - proud enough to be patient. The whisperers and the detractors, the violent men, are wrong. We remain strong and proud, peaceful and patient. And we will see a day when, on this earth, all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.''

The Twitterati like to trot out clips of Chaplin's climactic monologue from the end of The Great Dictator, but more should look at the conclusion of May, particularly March's speech. Not only is it every bit relevant to our contemporary moment, it resonates in a deeper way because of the particulars of the film. For one, it's not a comedy. But more importantly, it's a Cold War-era assault on democracy from within our own government perpetuated by traitors who believe in their righteousness as the defenders of America against a weak, ineffectual leader. That must have seemed absurd in 1964, but it doesn't feel so far from our own experience after the attempted coup launched on January 6, 2021.

Seven Days in May is a great, underseen film, and Warner Archive's disc gives it the accessibility it demands. It's an excellent transfer, Ellsworth Fredricks' black-and-white cinematography looking great thanks to a 2K scan of a 35mm preservation master positive in 1.78 X 1 here, though 1.85 X 1 in its original theatrical presentation. Similarly, the DTS HD MA mono audio track does solid work, giving the soundtrack - not only Goldsmith's score but the fine script work - the room it needs. Extras-wise the disc is a little slim: a trailer and a very good commentary with Frankheimer. But what it lacks in bonus content, it more than makes up for in the feature presentation.

To order any or all of these Warner Archive Blu-ray discs, go to this link for them and many more great web-exclusive releases at:


- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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