The Neil Simon of his day, Avery Hopwood was one of the most financially
successful – and funniest – playwrights of the 1920s. The Gold Diggers,
written in 1919, was a big hit, spawned numerous movie adaptations, and
forever coined the phrase ‘gold digger’ as part of the English vernacular.
Hopwood wrote The Gold Diggers for producer David Belasco, who was looking
for a ‘star’ vehicle for one of his starlets, Ina Claire. Hopwood had
gotten the idea for the play while sitting in the Ritz in New York with
Kay Laurel. As the two sat waiting, Laurel called out to a girlfriend who
had just entered: 'Hello, Gold Digger.' 'Gold Digger?' asked Hopwood.
“Yes,” responded Laurel, 'Why shouldn’t we girls capitalize what nature
has given us — our good looks and our ability to please and entertain men?
We’ve got to live- and what’s more, we’ve made up our minds to live darned
well!' Hopwood’s play would ultimately forever coin the phrase ‘gold digger’
as someone who uses charm to extract money or gifts from others.
The Gold Diggers opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre on
September 30, 1919. The show presented beautiful women, the latest in
Bendel fashions, and a questionable, but entertaining, portrayal of the
lives of chorus girls. After Prohibition struck in 1920, audiences reveled
in the champagne atmosphere that surrounded the performance, billed as the
most “sparkling” comedy in town. It ran for two years, the second longest
running play at that time and one of Hopwood’s record-breaking four
concurrent running shows on Broadway in 1920. The play ran in London in
1926 with Tallulah Bankhead in the lead role of Jerry Lamar for 179
performances. It was first adapted for the screen in 1929 as
Gold Diggers of Broadway followed by Gold Diggers of 1933, 1935, and 1937
with choreography by Busby Berkley.
The story follows innocent and demure chorus girl Violet Dayne who has
fallen in love with the well-to-do Wally Lee. Unfortunately, Wally’s
uncle Stephen disapproves of the match so Violet turns to her friend,
mentor, and fellow chorus girl Jerry Lamar for help. When Stephen arrives
to save his young nephew from the machinations of the girls, he mistakes
Jerry for Violet. Using a bit of reverse psychology, Jerry attempts to
shock him, hoping to have him relent when he meets the real Violet, only
to have it backfire when Stephen falls for her. When Jerry confesses the
deception, Stephen storms out. In the end, however, love and happiness
prevail for both Violet and Jerry."