Based on the 1919 play The Gold Diggers (which was also turned into a silent film of the same name in 1923, now lost), Gold Diggers of Broadway utilized Technicolor, showgirls and sound as its main selling points.
It earned a domestic gross of $3.5 Million, extending to over $5 Million worldwide (adjusted for inflation in 2007 this would be a gross of around $60 Million). The original production cost was approximately $500,000. This film was so popular that it quickly became the top grossing film of all time in 1929 and held this record until 1939. It was chosen as one of the ten best films of 1929 by Film Daily. As with many early Technicolor films, no complete print survives, although the last twenty minutes do, but are missing a bridging sequence and the last minute of the film. Contemporary reviews, the soundtrack and the surviving footage suggest that the film was a fast-moving comedy which was enhanced by Technicolor and a set of lively and popular songs. It encapsulates the spirit of the flapper era, giving us a glimpse of a world about to be changed by the Great Depression.
The film opens on an audience watching a lavish Broadway show, featuring a giant gold mine production number ('Song of the Gold Diggers'). This is followed by famous guitarist Nick Lucas who sings the song 'Painting the Clouds with Sunshine' which climaxes on stage with a huge art deco revolving sun.
Backstage, the star of the show (Ann Pennington) is fighting over Nick with another girl. We are also introduced to a group of chorus girls who are all 'man hungry'. They are visited by a faded star who is reduced to selling cosmetic soap. They gossip about how they all want a man with plenty of money so they don't end up selling soap. We then discover that a stuffy businessman called Stephen Lee (Conway Tearle) angrily forbids his nephew Wally (William Bakewell), to marry one of the showgirls (Violet).
A corpulent lawyer friend Blake (Albert Gran) advises him to befriend the showgirl first before making a decision. However the showgirls are a group of friends who stick together and the most raucous girl called Mabel (Winnie Lightner) takes a fancy to Blake calling him 'sweetie' and shows her appreciation by singing him a song ('Mechanical Man'). That evening, they all visit a huge night club. Mabel ends up on a table singing another song to Blake 'Wolf from the door' before jumping into his lap. Showgirl Jerry (Nancy Welford) extends the party to her apartment. Everyone gets drunk and after seeing Ann Pennington dance on the kitchen table, Lee decides he is 'getting to like these showgirls'. Blake says he is 'losing his mind or just plain mad'.
Keeping the fun going, Nick Lucas sings 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips'. Complications come thick and fast after a balloon game with both Blake and Lee falling under the spell of Mabel and Jerry. Blake gets fed drinks from Mabel. The party ends with Lucas singing 'Go to bed' and Jerry contrives to get Lee back after everyone has left. She gets him more drunk whilst tipping her own drinks away when he isn't looking. Her aim is to get Lee to agree to allow Wally to marry. To do this she lies and is shown up by her own mother who accidentally finds both of them together.
Next morning Jerry is feeling disgraced. Mabel has been given an extra line for the show 'I am the spirit of the ages and the progress of civilisation', but cannot get the words right. Nick Lucas is told off for singing poor songs and sings another 'What will I do without you'. Ann Pennington fights with another showgirl and hurts her eye. Jerry is asked to take her place as the star of the evening performance. Mabel receives a proposal of marriage from Blake, but worries about her extra line.
The show starts with Nick Lucas reprising 'Tip Toe Thru the Tulips' with full orchestra in a huge stage set that shows girl tulips in a huge greenhouse. Backstage, Uncle Steve comes back to give his consent to his nephew and tell Jerry he wants to marry her.
The finale starts with Jerry leading the 'Song of the Gold Diggers' against a huge art deco backdrop of Paris at night. Various acrobats and girls litter the stage as all the songs are reprised in a fast moving, lavish production number. This ends with Jerry sweeping through the middle as the music reaches a climax. Mabel then says her line, but forgets the end!
The song 'Painting the Clouds With Sunshine' was originally the main theme for the film. After Nick Lucas signed up for the film (he was hired by Darryl Zanuck) it was spotted as a potential hit and 'Tip-toe thru the Tulips' was written to enlarge the film and proved, against expectations to be just as popular. Zanuck provided an extra production number for the tune. It became his theme song, yet ended up being emulated in a much different version by the 1960s singer Tiny Tim who recorded it as a novelty, and eventually attached a campy stigma to the tune that would remain, seemingly forever after. Lucas was a favorite of Tiny Tim's, however, and even appeared as a guest at Tim's infamous wedding ceremony on The Tonight Show in 1969, singing both of their trademark number.
The two production numbers for "Painting the Clouds with Sunshine" and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" both start on a smaller set and move to a larger one. To change between sets while the song was sung and create a seamless transition, instead of using a curtain, a shot of a stagehand was shown, throwing a sparking electric lighting switch which darkens one scene out and fades in another.
Majestic Pictures attempted to cash in on the "Gold Diggers" concept by naming a feature Gold Diggers of Paris, however Warner Bros. prevented this via legal action. Warners released a film called Gold Diggers in Paris in 1938.
The Technicolor process used for this film could not reproduce a full range of color. Normally, color in movies and photographs is created by recording the image using filter material sensitive to red, green and blue light values. This early Technicolor was a simplified compromise that kept the red, but used a blue/green combination with the emphasis on the green. Hence, it is known as 'two-color Technicolor', as opposed to later, 'three-color Technicolor'.
The resulting prints reproduced a rich "sepia like" browns, "reds" that varied from a muddied brick red to a coral pink and "greens" that were slightly muted and at their most pale, struggling to look like blue. No pure blue, yellow or purples were possible.
The Technicolor camera was specially constructed for the purpose of color photography, but used standard black-and-white panchromatic negative film. The gate of the camera contained a prism which split the incoming light into an image pair of film frames instead of the usual single image frame. Each image pair consisted of two back to back images, one exposed through a red filter and the other through green. The effect on the black-and-white negative was to have a record of the different color values from each filter recorded in shades of gray. This meant the negative was double the length of a conventional black-and-white negative.
This camera negative was cut and reprinted to form a complete reel, but this was done twice, once for each colour, using a special printer to strip off the images. The negative was then printed to a special print called a matrix. This was developed to convert the image into a gelatin relief which acted like a printing plate. To create Technicolor prints, a clear 35mm film reel was run into a special dye transfer machine. Underwater, the red exposed matrix was dyed green and brought into contact with the blank through a heated pressure roller. The dye in the matrix was stronger or weaker according to the thickness of the gelatin, which varied according to the values of the photographic image derived from the negative. The green dye transferred an image based on the original photographic values. This is known as imbibition printing (it has also been used for professional still photography). The complete reel was then fed through a second pass using the green exposed matrix and this was dyed red. When the red-dyed image was stamped over the green, a complete color image was formed (the process was later refined for full color to add a third pass (known as 3 strip Technicolor) and a silver or sometimes dye image to sharpen the print).
The prints were expensive (compared to black and white). The prints were never as well defined as a black-and-white print and this was due to unavoidable dye spread. The speed of the camera was around 4 ISO/ASA. The studio lighting was therefore very intense. Pure white was forbidden on costumes because of the glare and the resulting 'white out' on the matrix, which lead to transfer problems.
"VITAPHONE recreates The Gold Diggers of Broadway in 100% natural color in Technicolor"
"One hundred percent Color, an additional feature of Vitaphone all talking pictures, doubles the 'life-likeness' of this most vivid and enjoyable of all talking pictures."
"Look for the thrill of a lifetime the day you see Gold Diggers of Broadway.....And look for the Vitaphone sign when you want talking picture entertainment-always!"
"Picture a profuse procession of revue spectacle scenes in amazing settings....superbly staged chorus dancing numbers......the flashing wit of Winnie Lightner....the charm of Nancy Welford.....the astounding dancing of Ann Pennington.....the crooning of Nick Lucas.....love scenes as only Conway Tearle can play them......a story that had New York gasping and giggling for one solid year....and you only begun to imagine the treat that is in store for you"
Although the film had copyright renewed in the late 1950s, it does not appear to have been shown on Television (16mm black-and-white prints were made of other early Warner Bros. talkies). It is currently unclear why the film wasn't reprinted but as with many titles with no optical soundtrack, conjecture might suggest that the Vitaphone discs may have been lost at that particular time.
Two excerpts from the film were released as a bonus feature on the 80th Anniversary 3-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD of The Jazz Singer.
Topsy: "And you're not so particular about the pants, are you"
Steve Lee to Blake: "I'm living Jim, just living. We've been letting ourselves get old. These young people are dancing the kinks out of our knees and our hearts. The spirit of youth. You ought to welcome it."
Topsy: "I've got a very sore"
Stage manager: "Sore what?"
Eleanor: "Tell him the truth darling. One can't shock him. He's been married.......frequently"
Blake "A Gold Digger, generally a woman, who extracts money and other valuables from the gentlemen of her acquaintance, generally without making any adequate return".