The story goes that the extraordinary popularity of musicals in the 1930s in America was a direct result of the Great Depression: the fantasy and spectacle and charm of the genre was an easy way to stay distracted for an hour or two of joy in the face of widespread economic suffering. Another story goes that choreographer Busby Berkeley was the single most important, influential, and innovative creator of musicals during that same time period, whose work in 42nd Street almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of the genre. You can pick one of these, but not the other. Berkeley's musicals, after all, were hardly fluffy escapist fare with no clue that a Depression was on: they were fully aware of the desperation, violence, and poverty of the real world in the '30s, filtering this awareness though romantic comedy stories and ingenious dance routines. And this has as much to with the studio where Berkeley found himself, as anything: Warner Bros. was the grubby, nasty-minded house of relatively realistic urban cinema, while MGM was busy making the most elegant, otherworldly eye candy that money could by, and the other studios occupied some space in between, but mostly facing MGM's direction.

After scoring a few big hits, Berkeley was given the keys to a whole movie musical with Gold Diggers of 1935, the second movie he directed (the grimy pre-Code shocker She Had to Say Yes was first); he had already choreographed the previous entry in the series, Gold Diggers of 1933. And before we go any deeper into it, the Gold Diggers films allow us a chance to look briefly at the very different expectations that referring to something as a "series" brought along with it in the '30s. Between the five movies in the franchise (the first, Gold Diggers of Broadway from 1929, is mostly lost beyond two reels and its soundtrack), there are several overlapping cast and crew members but no overlapping characters, and plots that do not intersect expect on the level of theme: all of them involve some people with no money or jobs and some people with lots of money, and the way that the former extract money from the latter by means of putting on a show. Sometimes on Broadway, sometimes not - in Gold Diggers of 1935, it's a resort-town hotel - and sometimes there is more venality involved than others. Insofar as the films need to be related at all, it's in the fashion of a brand name: Warner's way of saying, "if you've liked our other movies about backstage ingenues staging a musical, you'll like this one too". It was a successful enough gambit that MGM even got in on the game in 1935, with a similarly disjointed series of non-sequels under the Broadway Melody moniker.

It's mostly nonsense and froth, except for the constant, itchy focus on money. This is a deeply class-conscious movie, this GD35 (I have no idea how else to abbreviate it); not in the way that is angry and political, like Warners' message films from earlier in the decade, before the Production Code went into effect - oh, yes! We are now on the back side of the Code Years, and now sex, violence, politics, godlessness, antisocial thinking, and bodily functions are all going to be scrupulously scrubbed from the movies for many years to come. And it is noticeable that GD35 has less of an acute interest in sex than other, earlier Warner musicals. But it was never, at any rate, likely to be a political firebrand: as I was saying, there is class awareness here, in a way that has an extra tang to it with the Depression bubbling in the background, but there is no rage. The rich are not like you and me; they are easily buffaloed out of the money that they guard so zealously but with such lack of imagination.

The plot, anyway is set in one of the swanky hotels where the wealthy flock together: Wentworth Plaza at Lake Waxapahachie. The desk clerk here is is Dick Curtis (Dick Powell), and he's part of the nasty, smiling hierarchy that exists wherein the hotel staff are paid literally nothing, on the promise of magnificent tips to come; except that those tips are bullied down to fractions by bosses and bosses' bosses. This information is presented in the very beginning, in a crisply edited scene where the dialogue flows from one conversation into the next, providing a fluid and organic sense of just how widespread and pernicious the game goes; that's a simple trick, even by 1935 standards, but it's done awfully smoothly, in a time when sound editing was still an uncertain process. I linger on this because both the privileged place of the sequence (the first lines of dialogue) and George Amy's bravura editing, showy in a way that absolutely none of the cutting is for the rest of the film, except in musical numbers, both want to make absolutely certain that we notice what's going on: a cycle of money based predation. You can make your movie a frothy confection, but there are still ways of sneaking a "society is fucked" message in there if need be.

Anyway, Dick is hired by the neurotic, penny-pinching Mrs. Prentiss (Alice Brady) to chaperone her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart) for the summer, never dreaming that her daughter might possible waver in her devotion to her pre-fiancé, the wealthy T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert), a drifting sort of fellow current deep in the throes of writing his opus, an historical study of snuffboxes. But Powell is first-billed, Stuart is third, and Dick's fiancée Arline (Dorothy Dare) didn't even get a card all to herself during the credits, so we can get ahead of shrill ol' Mrs. Prentiss pretty easily.

Meanwhile the impoverished genius Nicolai Nicoleff (Adolph Menjou), a great theatrical creator, is dodging his bill, when the hotel manager, Louis Lamson (Grant Mitchell), makes an offer: why not stage Mrs. Prentiss's upcoming annual musical extravaganza to raise money for the Milk Fund? The results will be glorious, the small fee he'll collect will pay his bills, and everyone will be happy. Nicoleff knows a good chance when he sees it, and instantly sets to planning with his set and costume designer, August Schultz (Joseph Cawthorn), a scheme to shake Mrs. Prentiss for significantly more than the production will actually cost; they're joined by the hotel's scheming stenographer, Betty Hawes (Glenda Farrell), who is also hatching a plot to blackmail Thorpe.

So, again: money. How do you get as much as possible from other people, and/or how do you spend as little of it as possible. Dick and Ann are mostly exempted from these concerns, but they're also mostly exempted from anything resembling a plot: while the story whirls around, they saunter through quiet moments falling in love and have the two songs that serve a narrative function rather than hiding under the fig leaf of "it's on stage!", "I'm Going Shopping with You" and "The Words Are in My Heart" (the latter is given a reprise, with the aforementioned fig leaf). The former in which shopping together is used as a euphemism for either having sex or getting married, depending on the verse. And even here, the specter of cash raises its head: Ann spends wild sums that amuse more than alarm Dick, mostly because he knows that Mrs. Prentiss has an essentially inexhaustible pocketbook; and yet it's also clear from his very amusement that this is all remarkably strange and alien behavior to him.

Still and all, while the awareness of money and poverty linger of GD35 and clearly reflect the concerns of its audience, while a Paramount or MGM film would be doing their best to assuage and hide the concerns of the audience, this isn't a social tract. It's a light comedy with moderately appealing leads (I never much cared for Powell till he made his late-career shift into thrillers), and far more appealing bit players; seeing the reliably prim Menjou going to town on a cartoon Russian accent is one of those privileges that make being a classic movie buff all worth it, and Alice Brady's self-centered blustering and freaking out is always delightful to me. Berkeley's staging shows the clear hand of someone who thinks in terms of human bodies moving in relationship to each other: it's even fair to say that he has a musical sense to playing comedy, particularly in a sequence where the three conspirators get into an argument over how to split the money they're going to swindle out of Mrs. Prentiss and Thorpe, with cutaways to Mrs. Prentiss's oblivious irritation as perfectly timed as the choruses of a song.

Still, Berkeley the director would never be as good as Berkeley the choreographer, and that's clear from the very beginning, in which the hotel employees interact with the film's underscoring as they ready the place for the season (this sequence involves the sole depiction of black people in the entire movie, as the smiling cleaning crew; the really depressing part is that makes the film decently progressive for a Hollywood production in 1935). It's even clearer in the end, when he does the usual trick of these films, staging the Milk Fund show in ways that no stage in the history of mankind would be able to accomodate. "The Words Are in My Heart" is the geometric number, with the usual Berkeley glamor girls sitting at bright white pianos spinning against pitch black backgrounds, and it's very striking; but it's got nothing on "Lullaby of Broadway", which I'd rank behind only "Shanghai Lil" from Footlight Parade and the title number of 42nd Street in the echelons of Berkeley's work. The lightly sarcastic but affectionate song (written, like the other two, by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) is song first by Winifred Shaw, who also plays the protagonist of the story the dance depicts; it's about a party girl who carouses at night, sleeps all day, and who dies in a freak accident caused by the widespread off-kilter drunkenness surrounding her. It's a scolding moral fable, I guess, but so keenly aware of the fever energy of the young and urban that it feels like a bad dream version of "42nd Street", and it's shot with some of the most exciting camerawork in Berkeley's canon: severely acute angles, an especially fluid moving camera, and even shots from below a tap dancer's feet, showing off the talent and energy involved in being a professional dancer - and really, that's the only true requirement of a good dance number - while also further emphasising the pounding, heavy, nonstop movement of the lifestyle the sequence is condemning. Which is what those intent, stylised camera angles are for, too. The cheery music says one thing, but the visuals say another: "this can't be sustained". And indeed it is not.

It's not unusual - in fact, the opposite - for the big climactic number to be more interesting than the film as a whole; that said, GD35 is upbeat, good fun with enough characters making enough plans that it buzzes by (at 95 minutes, it's the shortest of the surviving Gold Diggers films). It is frivolous, ultimately: what depth it has comes through implication only. But well-mounted, intelligently framed, and above all sharply-cut frivolity can still have its place. Making handsome trifles as this was something of a specialty in the 1930s; there were talented people involved at every step of the production, and the airiness of this film is the result of hard, focused work that needed to be all the more precise so that none of the strain would ever show. It's not high art, but it's about as impressively disciplined as filmmaking craftsmanship can get.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1935
-RKO releases the first 3-strip Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Miriam Hopkins
-A major wave of prestigious literary adaptations begins to kick off with Dickens's David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities at MGM, and A Midsummer Night's Dream at Warner Bros., among others
-James Whale directs Bride of Frankenstein at Universal, breaking ground in both horror comedies and horror sequels

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1935
-Leni Riefenstahl directs the peerlessly beautiful, peerlessly effective, and peerlessly evil propaganda film Triumph of the Will, at the personal request of Adolf Hitler
-Jean Renoir directs Toni, a major work of early realism, in France
-The Bengali-language film Devdas, of which no complete version survives, is a major hit with audiences across India