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When you think of the early talkies you might think of Al Jolson in The Singing Fool' or the MGM 1929 Musical Broadway Melody'. Both of these films are still with us and are frequently quoted in film histories. They are always quoted, partly out of legend and partly because they still exist as films. Yet, there are many early talkies lost to time and neglect. Warner Bros. Vitaphone production - The Gold Diggers of Broadway' is one of these and was surely partly lost because it was made in early Technicolor. What is remarkable is that this single film was in the top ten grossing films of the 1929 to 1939 period, yet is forgotten today. Until the 1980's this film was thought to be completely lost, yet due to chance (a private collector and an Australian archive) there exists two 35mm nitrate reels and a disk soundtrack for the whole film (plus trailer). From these we can get a picture of what the film was like. This film is so poorly documented that I thought it important to describe in detail what is left. The basic storyline was lifted for Gold Diggers of 1933' and was well worn even by 1929, however whereas the 1933 remake' was steeped in Depression references, it's original counterpart sang with breezy tunes and snappy dialogue and all coated in primitive, but alluring Technicolor (being the second full length color sound feature film ever made). In the surviving soundtrack portion of the film, we meet a group of man hungry Gold-digging showgirls comprising of the sly (Nancy Welford), snob (Lillian Tashman), the screwy (Gertrude Short) and the desperate show-off (Winnie Lightner). Add to this a wealthy lawyer (Albert Gran), and an angry Uncle (Conway Tearle) and his Nephew (William Bakewell) who has an eye for a blonde showgirl. They all meet eventually at an archetypal 20's party at Welford's flat, in which Nick Lucas notably croons two songs written for the film Painting the Clouds with Sunshine' and Tiptoe Thru the Tulips'. Both songs are supported by excellent backing arrangements that sing out the atmosphere of the crazy 20's. Dancer Ann Pennington hoofs on the kitchen table! Drink eventually goes to the heads of all concerned. After much backstage bickering, following the sleepy events of the previous night, the cast is in preparation for the opening night. At this point we have the surviving footage, in which we see the female comedy lead Winnie Lightner, rehearsing her finale she can't remember her sole two lines. Then we have Nick Lucas singing under an enormous moon in the elaborate production number reprise of Tulips', which also breaks out into a giant large-scale greenhouse with human tulips and chorus! Living Terracotta pots against a glass paned emerald backdrop. We also then have some bitchy backstage banter between Lillian Tashman and Lightner. Then on to the finale. Nancy Welford and Conway Tearle exchange and make up for love making' antics of the previous night, just in time for the big production number. In a make believe distorted Paris by night we see and hear a reprise of all the songs used in the film Then, in an almost delirium making finale a whole host of specialist acrobatic acts and dancers literally throw themselves around the stage. An almost frenzy like kaleidoscope of pastel reds, coral pinks and mint greens. Behind them swirl Larry Ceballos choreographic patterns made up from Top Hatted men and Feather boa clad Women. Spotlights flash around the set, almost invisible because of the literally human carpet of dancers. Just as the whole show builds breakneck speed, suddenly the picture is lost (for the film exists as but a fragment), but the sound carries on. Sharp eyes will spot Male dancers moving into position with Winnie Lightner, just before the blackout. We can now only imagine that they must lift her up, dressed as the Statue Of Liberty and then she forgets her line for the finale I am the spirit of the ages and the progress of ..darn it ..I forgot that second line..'. In retrospect, what is important about this film is that it does many things which have been previously been accredited to other, later musicals (long before the Busby Berkley era), we also have a summation of what was fun about 20's pop culture. Add to this some very snappy and pre-code dialogue and we have something special. So special at the time that it was one of the first films to gain revenue from people coming back for a second screening. Its impact at the time can be judged by the American gross of 3.5 Million Dollars (unadjusted to today's inflation!). It is a loss to film history that there is no complete print in existence, but what does survive sparkles far in advance of many other films in the dawn of sound.
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