‘GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY’ INTRODUCING…JAMES CAGNEY?

James Cagney began his career as a ‘hoofer’ in Vaudeville–an admittedly self-taught dancer who picked up steps quickly and was athletic and acrobatic enough to try just about anything, all in the name of putting on a good show. He wended his way to Hollywood in the late 1920s and before you know it seemed to have attracted somebody important’s notice at Warner Brothers. He was a dancing nobody who suddenly seemed to become a major somebody.

But of course there were a few steps in between that generally don’t get mentioned and one of them is immortalized in the quite amazing clip I’ve posted above, the finale from the phenomenally successful and now mostly lost 1929 film ‘Gold Diggers of Broadway’. The number is a 1920s one-of-a-kind whoop up featuring a bevy of lovely women wearing multi-colored dresses which must have made audiences gasp in 1929, due to the vivid nature of the color. (Did I mention that GOB was shot in two-tone Technicolor? Well now I have). Of course the surviving print is only dimly representative of what the color looked like at the time but you still get a sense of why audiences thrilled to this sort of thing. Then there’s the production number–or really numbers given how many different songs and singing and dancing acts thread their way through this mega-mega all-stops-out extravaganza. The madness begins when a series of different acrobatic acts take to the stage, all dancing and jumping and twirling in front of a gaggle of tuxedoed men and gowned women (some of whom look frankly terrified at the physical freak show going on just a few feet in front of them). As things take a definite turn for the crazier, one can only presume that what we’re watching is not only a result of great skill and practice but of a diet full of Gin, amphetamines and Camel cigarettes. But the real find here are the appearances two major gangster stars of the thirties, here seen as hard-dancing, acrobatic ‘chorus boys’. At timecode 5:30, a duo act comes out and does a pretty fabulous acrobatic dance routine. Look carefully at the guy on the right. It’s James Cagney! There’s some controversy about this as he’s not listed in the credits but there are three reasons to be certain it’s him. 1) He made this film for Warner Brothers who signed him just moments later as an actor and quickly built him up to be a star. 2) He sticks his ass in the air while he dances just as he always did. And 3) Look at his face! Enough said. And at 7:42 (or thereabouts) a tuxedoed gent wearing a top hat goes into a quite mad and wonderfully eccentric jazz dance. It’s George Raft. And he’s listed in the credits.

Just as the number winds its way toward its last chorus of mad 1920s gyrations, however, the screen goes black. The sound continues. And that’s where the remaining picture elements leave off, with only the sound-on-disc left to take us out to the film’s conclusion. It’s a little chilling, as if the 1920s itself suddenly disappears into thin air, with only the echo of the era’s sounds trailing it along to the ash heap of dead cultures…

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