Criterion Sunday 468: “Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé”

The Criterion Collection may generally be known for championing the great auteurs, but they also do some rather left-field choices, whether that’s Michael Bay (albeit early on in their existence; I’m not sure they’d give his films much time now), weird low-budget 50s sci-fi and now this set of short films about animals, which somewhat defy any straightforward description. The first disc presents his “popular films”, which is to say those made for the public (and not academics).

There’s a certain wonder to the first, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), about little weird algae-like creatures with their spindly spines. The photography is obviously not as advanced as now, or even Painlevé’s later films, but there’s something luminous about the grainy, ethereal monochrome of these aquatic close-ups that has a magic to it. Sea Urchins (1954) has a lot of the same tentacles and marine weirdness but is somehow slightly unsettling, perhaps from the pulsating 1950s electronic score or just the better closer photography available. It’s co-directed with Painlevé’s partner, Geneviève Hamon, like a lot of his later films and sadly she seems not to get mentioned much in writing about him and his work. Clearly, though, both had a fascination with jellyfish, or with the category of weird gelatinous and tentacle-y things, because it feels like a number of his films deal with them. How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960) also shows an interest in some unusual methods of conception and birth, with perhaps some hints towards other orders of gender and sexuality in these creatures which could probably have been developed more.

One of his better works, and certainly the creature with which he’s most linked (given the set’s box art), The Sea Horse (1933) makes clear just how extremely weird these creatures are. Just watching them is like gazing upon some Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monster, but in a cute sort of way, though maybe there’s a bit of Lovecraft to them. Certainly Painlevé gets much more into the reproduction here, with the males gestating the babies, and seeing the tiny little ones come out is so fascinating (though I could have used without the shock cut to them cutting a pregnant seahorse open, even if I recognise this is ultimately a scientific film). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that Painlevé excels at, the intersection of science and the oneiric, which is also where The Love Life of the Octopus (1967) seems to sit. Truly octopuses are the most terrifying of creatures. Slithering yet smart, and, like so many of Painlevé and Hamon’s scientific studies, they have many tentacles. This particular short sets up our subject before getting into reproduction, and that too is strange and creepy, with thousands of little octopuses swimming away from these loose threads of gestating eggs. I remain properly terrified by this animal.

Further short films continue their fascination. With Shrimp Stories (1964), the directors acknowledge how ridiculous shrimp look with an overtly comic introduction, before we get into these (once again) elaborately tentacled sea creatures. Well in the case of shrimp, less tentacles than waving antennae and frantically moving little feet. If Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) were merely an excuse to orchestrate the delightful aquatic ‘dance’ of these tiny snail-like organisms, then that would be enough (they swirl about, all but hopping up and down), but we also discover their hermaphroditic reproductive rituals and the gestation of tiny new acera. The photography is luminous and, as ever, these animals are strangely compelling. Sadly Freshwater Assassins (1947), despite its title, just seems a little bit duller, more like the orthodox nature shows you might get on TV, with less of the ugly weirdness of his other animals, mostly being just bugs living and fighting under the water in a pond. In Sea Ballerinas (1956), though, there’s a sense of humour, with it ending on a brittle fish seemingly conducting an orchestra, but otherwise there’s a lot of tumbling, shuffling and crawling around.

Stepping away from the sea creatures to watch something far more abstract is Liquid Crystals (1978). This is in fact closer to a late Stan Brakhage film than the kind of natural science pieces Painlevé did earlier on. It’s beautiful, though, as is an earlier film about the blood-sucking vampire bat, The Vampire (1945), which contextualises it in a short history of entertainment before letting it loose on an unfortunate guinea pig. There’s the customary blend here of limpid beauty and a sense of mystery in the photography, an informative voiceover and the dull academic subject matter, but the first enlivens the latter. Back to the abstraction in Diatoms (1968), but partly because the creatures under the (literal) microscope here are single-celled algae-like things, of various shapes, floating around on their own or in colonies. I’m still not exactly clear what a diatom is or does but I certainly got an almost trippy vision of their lives.

The final film on the first disc, and the latest film collected in the set, is Pigeons in the Square (1982). Pigeons get all kinds of bad press, and though this (relatively long) short film has a comical edge to it, Painlevé comes from a science background so he’s not interested in adding to the negative propaganda about pigeons. They are by turns majestic, beautifully patterned, comically silly, strutting, hopping, fluttering and pecking. Sure some of the urban varieties are a bit bedraggled and their seduction attempts wouldn’t pass muster by human standards, but this film just enjoys watching pigeons, and I enjoyed watching this film.

The second disc starts with “early popular silent films”, some of his earliest works. There’s The Octopus (1927), which has sort of a structure, but is mostly just the octopus slinking around (because if there’s anything we learn from the first disc it’s that Jean Painlevé loves a tentacled sea creature). The fragile beauty to these silent films is exemplified by Sea Urchins (1928), a creature he returned to in the 1950s (on the first disc), with luminous oneiric cinematography and no sound to distract (even if I did put some music on). The urchins wave around but also move and burrow. One thing I could do without is watching one get cut open but I guess there is at least some scientific method here. I am, though, prompted to wonder if my response to these short films is related to how much I like the creatures rather than a dispassionate critique of the filmmaking. I mean we may all know and love a seahorse, and even have opinions on octopuses, but what’s a Daphnia (1928)? Still for all its tiny bug like size — and there’s some serious magnification happening here — there’s even a bit of drama when the hydra comes along. A lovely little film.

Under the heading “silent research films”, there are a couple of Painlevé’s scientific shorts included and you can see immediately the difference from his “popular films”. The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) deals with a less than thrilling subject (microscopic organisms) and is pretty dry. There’s some great close-up photography that must have been very advanced for the time, and being silent I was able to put on a jaunty score, but this is mainly interesting as a comparison. Meanwhile Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930) is only four minutes, and exemplifies his specifically scientific focus in the silent era, but I really did not need to see this. The dog was fine after the procedure the film is clear to point out and that’s good, but it’s pretty graphic.

Unlike his more famous short films about animals (often underwater tentacled ones), Jean Painlevé also made a series of films dealing with various abstract concepts, here collected as “Films for La Palais de la Découverte”. The Fourth Dimension (1936) covers that idea, suggesting ways in which it could be understood, possibly as something beyond our own conception, something almost magical. It’s hard to really get to grips with it but Painlevé is serious and educational and it’s a lot to take in. More abstract scientific ideas are on show in The Struggle for Survival (1937) although this film is heavy on the text, which almost overwhelms the film with detail. He’s talking about population growth and certainly covers some ideas about it. Turning his cinematic attention to the Earth’s place in the universe is the subject of Voyage to the Sky (1937), which seems to conclude that in the grand vastness of space, we humans are almost ridiculously insignificant. It’s a rather bleak conclusion but nicely illustrated. Finally, Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937) is a rather abstruse short film on a topic I don’t really understand (which is to say, anything to do with mathematics). However, Jean Painlevé is an engaging filmmaker and tries to grapple seriously with his subject, which is about how bigger things aren’t exactly proportional.

Finally comes the single film under the heading “animation”, Bluebeard (1938), and it certainly a departure from Painlevé’s other films, being for a start not a scientific study of animals but instead a gloriously colourful claymation animated film about the bloodthirsty titular pirate, chopping off heads hither and yon. It’s all rather jolly and odd, and dark too and a fine way to round out the set.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

My custom on this blog has not been to give ratings to short films, so the list below is just of the films included in the order they are presented. However my favourite was probably The Sea Horse, with the two academic research works and the mathematics film as my least favourite.

Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1929) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 10 minutes.
Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1954) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil | Length 11 minutes.
Comment naissent des méduses (How Some Jellyfish Are Born, 1960) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 6 minutes.
L’Hippocampe ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Seahorse, 1933) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 14 minutes.
Les Amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 10 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 26 September 2021.

Acera ou Le Bal des sorcières (Acera, or The Witches’ Dance, 1972) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 27 September 2021.

Les Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 24 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Les Danseuses de la mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Catherine Thiriot | Length 17 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 October 2021.

Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Vincent Berczi | Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021.

Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
La Daphnie (Daphnia, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 7 October 2021.

L’Oeuf d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Egg, 1925) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 26 minutes.
Traitement éxperimental d’une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemmorhage in a Dog, 1930) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 4 minutes.
La Quatrième dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 14 minutes.
Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 11 minutes.
Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities Between Length and Speed, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard, 1938) [colour film] | Directors Jean Painlevé and René Bertrand | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 370: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

The first film on the first disc of Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set is reserved for The Emperor Jones (1933), not Robeson’s earliest work featured on the collection but probably the most famous of his film roles. The acclaim is certainly warranted when it comes to his acting, though to be fair he is given not just a big role (being the title character, Brutus Jones) but a very big character too (shot as if towering above everyone else on the set). Having gained the rare distinction of a job among the white world as a Pullman porter, Jones womanises and gambles his way to serious trouble, and upon escaping finds himself on an island (Haiti, allegorically), where he proclaims himself Emperor. Eugene O’Neill’s source play is what we would nowadays call ‘problematic’ I suspect and certainly leans heavily on a certain depiction of Black people (soulful, primitive, a little bit magical) in a script laden with racial epithets. Still, there’s stuff there that in the context of the early-1930s feels bold, like having him lord it over a white capitalist, even if things don’t end up going his way, and there’s even a showcase for Robeson’s fine singing voice.

The most remarkable thing about the accompanying documentary about Robeson’s life and work, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), is that it’s so short. It could be a thirty part mini-series but instead it’s a jaunty 30 minutes, narrated by Sidney Poitier, and touching ever so briefly on so much of his work that there’s no real room for his legacy. We do, however, get a careful delineation of the shifting lyrics to his iconic song “Ol’ Man River” as he sang it repeatedly over the years, as well as his involvement in political struggles not just in the USA but across Europe and the world (though very little engagement with the nature of those political beliefs, aside from the fact that they were enough to warrant him being denied his passport for 10 years). There is certainly room for a longer more detailed work about the man, but this will have to suffice along with his many films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 8 November 2020.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director Dudley Murphy; Writer DuBose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill); Cinematographer Ernest Haller; Starring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Fredi Washington; Length 76 minutes.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
Director/Writer Saul J. Turell; Length 30 minutes.

Extase (Ecstasy, 1933)

We’re starting to get back to having cinematic releases here in the UK which are separate from VOD online ones, though quite often they’re still released in both cinemas and online. One new release this coming Friday will be The Painted Bird, a Czech/Slovak film about World War II, and by all accounts a rather grim one at that. I haven’t seen it, and I am not entirely convinced I will go, but I am certainly intrigued. Therefore, this week! A week of Czech and Czechoslovak films, starting with this classic from 1933.


It seems somewhat unfair that this film is mainly known for its place in the history of sex/nudity in films, because it’s actually a very sensitively-made and beautifully-shot drama about a woman (the incomparable Hedy Lamarr) who is unhappy in her marriage. All of this is set up wordlessly, and although it’s not technically a silent film, there are only brief dialogue scenes and it is certainly very pleasingly parsimonious with its verbiage. We are introduced to her on her wedding day being carried across the threshold of their home by her husband (Zvonimir Rogoz), who is soon seen neatly arranging his items on the bedside table, and whose only apparent happiness is taking his shoes off. Little vignettes suggest her life with him, and there’s a recurring motif of insects being crushed (by him) or cared for (by the new love in her life, a manual labourer with fetching hair, played by Aribert Mog). As the central character, Hedy Lamarr is excellent (and yes, beautiful), and the cinematography closes in on little details to convey the emotions, as well as some nice use of double-exposure. This is top romantic melodrama, done well.

Ecstasy film posterCREDITS
Director Gustav Machatý; Writers František Horký, Machatý, Vítězslav Nezval and Jacques A. Koerpel (based on the story by Robert Horký); Cinematographers Hans Androschin and Jan Stallich; Starring Hedy Lamarr, Aribert Mog, Zvonimir Rogoz; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016.

Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse

This week, for a change, I’m doing a special director focus on Mikio Naruse, who in light of contemporaries like Ozu and later filmmakers such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, is perhaps an underappreciated Japanese cinematic master. A couple of weeks ago I rounded up a number of his 1930s sound films, and I’ve previously mentioned his biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936), but I realised I still had enough reviews of his great 1950s works, not to mention his earliest silent cinema, to merit an entire week dedicated to him. These silent works are collected on a boxset from the Criterion sub-label Eclipse, dedicated to lesser-known films presented in bare bones DVD editions, albeit with good transfers and liner notes. [NB Outside of the context of this director-focused week, I intend to do future posts about other Eclipse boxsets, though watching them all can sometimes take a bit of time.]

Continue reading “Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse”

Criterion Sunday 231: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang; Writers Thea von Harbou and Lang; Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018).

Criterion Sunday 79: “W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films” (1915-33)

Having released his 1940 film The Bank Dick, Criterion followed it up with six of W.C. Fields’ short films, largely spanning the beginning of the sound era (1930-1933) though with one from 1915. He may be younger in 1915’s Pool Sharks, but he still has his comic persona largely intact, albeit with the inclusion of a particularly ridiculous moustache halfway up his nose. The film is also enlivened by stop-motion animated pool table sequences which present some of the most incredulous pool playing one could hope for, making it at least passably amusing. Less successful for me are The Golf Specialist (1930) and The Barber Shop (1933), which largely coast by on very slight comic premises — the former involving a con artist who tries at length to show a lady how to play golf but is constantly interrupted, and the latter involving an inept barber in a small town with a shrewish wife — though the former does at least feature a comedically delightful list of charges upon which the character is arrested. Appearing to have largely the same set as The Barber Shop is the same year’s The Pharmacist, with Fields this time playing a small town pharmacist, who again has a difficult wife and family, but is trying his best to keep his shop going. The Dentist (1932) also features a straightforwardly descriptive title for Field’s character, but here he exhibits even more rancour than usual in dealing with his various customers’ complaints, leading to a prolonged tooth-pulling scene which at least is as funny as it is difficult to watch. The pick of the bunch for me, though, is The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, a veteran of a number of Buster Keaton films). It’s a very odd little film with a period wilderness setting, in which all the actors’ performances seem pushed to the edge of deadpan blankness that seems strange initially but which sticks in my mind afterwards, giving the whole enterprise an oddly oneiric quality. For fans of W.C. Fields’s comic persona, there’s plenty in all the films to like, with annoying kids and some slightly off-colour jokes, but also lots of knockabout physical comedy. There’s also a consistent line in abrupt endings, one presumes for comic effect, though some are more satisfying than others.

Criterion Extras: Like the earlier Fields release, this is an absolutely bare-bones package, with nary even a trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.

Pool Sharks (1915)
Director Edwin Middleton; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 15 minutes.

The Golf Specialist (1930)
Director Monte Brice; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer Frank Zucker; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.

The Dentist (1932)
Director Leslie Pearce; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 22 minutes.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
Director Clyde Bruckman; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.

The Pharmacist (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographers Frank B. Good and George Unholz; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.

The Barber Shop (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

A lot of the more prominent films that Hollywood made at the outset of the sound era, before the enforcement of the Production Code, dealt with such outré topics as sexuality and violence. These are the ones that still grab the column inches, whether it’s the amoral bloodshed of Scarface (1932) or the sexual liberation of Baby Face (1933). However, Gabriel Over the White House manages to be an equally outrageous film without any of these more saleable elements, but instead uses the allure of autocracy to transform its vision of America. In his Roosevelt-like reforming zeal, the President played here by Walter Huston looks brazenly towards dictatorship to push through the necessary reforms following years of Depression. It’s the kind of plot outline that reads like satire, but presented here as divine inspiration (hence the title), the film seems totally onboard with the proposed ideas, as the President bypasses Congress to push through his bold measures. That said, it’s a patchy piece of filmmaking and modern audiences will struggle to take it as seriously as the filmmakers, but then we have the benefit of hindsight.

Gabriel Over the White House film posterCREDITS
Director Gregory La Cava; Writer Carey Wilson (based on the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014.

Baby Face (1933)

This so-called ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood film, part of a retrospective taking place here in London, is renowned for being one of the films which finally ensured the enforcement of the Production Code (which ruled against general licentiousness in the pictures). For its content, it’s a fascinating film: a compelling Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly, who starts out as a barmaid at a suburban speakasy, forced from an early age by her tyrannical father to sell herself to her customers, though she is hardly passive around these drunken oafs seen swilling their beer. When her father dies in a fire at the bar, it’s her face that is framed in close-up, reacting utterly impassively to his death. She soon moves to the city with her black co-worker, prompted in part by the words of a local cobbler, the only man she admires, who quotes Nietzsche at her, exhorting her to do whatever she can to control men and help herself. Almost immediately, having hopped illegally onto a freight train, she is seen bargaining with a furious railroad worker, using sex to get what she wants. When the pair arrive in the city, she follows this pattern by literally sleeping her way to the top of a company, a vignette on each floor between her and a hapless male manager followed by the camera moving up the outside of the building to frame her next office conquest. It’s only when she reaches the boardroom (though sadly she’s never a board member, just the mistress of the President) that she encounters resistance from the founder’s playboy son, Courtland (George Brent). Yet while he sees through her ruse, this is hardly the end of her story. It’s tempting to just recount the plot blow by blow, for that’s where a lot of the film’s power to shock (at least, relative to the other films of the period) lies. Dramatically, it does rely rather extensively on Stanwyck’s performance, as stretches of it is constructed from a number of fairly repetitive scenes of office conquests, married men succumbing to her insistent charms. That said, Stanwyck is fantastic, and it’s great to see a film that largely withholds judgement from its predatory female star, though she does eventually succumb to romantic feelings towards Courtland.

Baby Face film posterCREDITS
Director Alfred E. Green; Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck [as “Mark Canfield”]); Cinematographer James Van Trees; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.

For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.

Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.

What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.

There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.

Gold Diggers of 1933 film posterCREDITS
Director Mervyn LeRoy; Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood); Cinematographer Sol Polito; Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014.