When classic Hollywood took on real-life issues.
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
I know it may seem a little pessimistic, but it feels like it’s always been trying times in one part of the world or another. Right now, the war in Ukraine is unleashing the kinds of horrors we never thought we’d see again, while inflation has touched every American in some way, despite our best efforts to keep it from reaching our personal lives. Still, the need to persevere and not succumb to the current reality remains vital. People are drawing inspiration all over, from activism to human connection, and especially through their favorite forms of art.
As always, Hollywood has been instrumental in helping people everywhere cope with the uncertain times that society has found itself in. The invaluable ability of movies to give people a much-needed escape is matched by the way they oftentimes tackle certain true-life events head-on in a bid to help the everyday person cope with them. It’s a great reminder to have during times like these, one that’s only furthered by Warner Archive’s recent release of two such titles, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Edge of Darkness. Both films didn’t avoid the monumental social issues of their respective times. Instead, they stared them straight in the eye and challenged them in the way only great art can do.
Gold Diggers of 1933
It’s the depression and like most industries in the country, Broadway is suffering. The latest hot stage musical has just had to close, leaving chorus girls Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline McMahon), Polly (Ruby Keeler), and Fay (Ginger Rogers) in a depression of their own. Tired of dodging the landlady and stealing milk from the neighbors, the promise of a new show from producer Barney (Ned Hopkins) brightens their spirits, especially Polly’s when Brad (Dick Powell), the handsome composer from across the alleyway is hired to write the music. Throwing a wrench in the plan is a lack of financial backing, which Brad is happy to put up thanks to his family’s money and his attraction to Polly. However, he soon ends up incurring the wrath of his wealthy older brother Lawrence (Warren William).
The Mervyn LeRoy-directed Gold Diggers of 1933 boldly plunges its plot right into the great depression, opening with a stunning Busby Berkeley number that ends when creditors come calling and everyone in the show is suddenly out of a job. But while the film doesn’t shy away from the state of things in the outside world, it does offer up a frothy escape full of mixed identities, lovesick creatives, and even a scheme or two. Powell and Keeler are just heaven to watch as the main couple and the subsequent musical numbers are memorable for both their daring quality (especially “Pettin’ in the Park”) and their wildly inventive panache.
But in the midst of this story full of colorful characters falling in love, Gold Diggers of 1933 takes time to acknowledge the tragedy of life outside. In the film’s final number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” the devastation of the great depression is brought to the forefront and all the farcical fun has been replaced by a sobering look at present-day society. It’s a haunting and poetic sequence that remains just as telling and moving all these many years later.
Edge of Darkness
This stark 1943 drama makes no bones about showing the horrors and atrocities of WWII. Set in Norway, the small fishing village of Trollness has been under German occupation for months. The soldiers have all but taken over everyone’s way of life, making the peaceful villagers fearful about their futures. They have every reason to be afraid as the vicious Captain Koenig (Helmut Dantine) and his men wreak havoc every chance he gets. At the center of this is an underground team of townspeople who are planning a secret revolt led by fisherman Gunnar (Erroll Flynn), Karen (Ann Sheridan), and Gerd (Judith Anderson), the owner of a local inn. Armed with the support of their fellow citizens, the town quietly prepares to fight to the death in order to take back what’s theirs.
Despite taking place in Norway, Edge of Darkness was filmed in a small California town and proved a troubled production for a host of reasons, including an unhappy cast and foggy weather. But the troubles seemed to have no effect on the finished product whatsoever. The film is a harrowing look at the horrors of German occupation and the strength of Nazi resistance. Edge of Darkness gives the audience plenty of horrific scenes and images to show how serious the stakes were. Some scenes are so frank in their depiction of the savage brutality the people of this small fishing village were subjected to, yet never denigrate those who had to endure such acts.
However, Lewis Milestone’s film wasn’t just about the human atrocities brought about by war, but rather the indestructible strength of the people to rise up against them with pride and honor. The sprawling cast, which also includes Walter Huston and Ruth Gordon, gives stunning performances, while the score, script, and overall direction all do right by the extremely sensitive subject matter. With a powerful ending that features the words of FDR playing overhead, Edge of Darkness is one of the most unforgettable WWII tales of the era.
Gold Diggers of 1933 and Edge of Darkness are both available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive.