In 1933, Depression weary audiences were looking for anything that would take their minds off their collective woes. Due to this frantic search for escapism, crowds filed into theaters for glimpses of the extravagant, the luxurious and the glamorous. They wanted to see the exact opposite of the dull, drab and stressful lives being led outside those theaters. Nothing fit the bill like 42nd Street (1933). It was the film that single handedly brought the musical genre back from the dead, and made stars of many affiliated with its production.
The film musical had been developed only a few years earlier with the advent of sound in films. As a matter of fact, the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), included songs by musical stage star Al Jolson. MGM took the reigns with The Broadway Melody in 1929 winning the Best Picture Oscar. These earliest examples of the genre were stagy, stodgy and static. The camera would remain stationary while a crackling version of a popular song would be warbled, in many cases by an actor or actress not even trained to sing (check Joan Crawford). These were more filmed stage shows than anything else and audiences stayed away, bored and uninspired.
In late fall 1932, Warner Brothers began filming its newest installment of musical comedy, 42nd Street. Famed film maker Mervyn LeRoy was slated to direct but illness forced him to withdraw and was replaced with Lloyd Bacon. However, LeRoy's choice for musical director did stay to work on the film. Choreographer Busby Berkley had worked on Broadway throughout the 1920's. He came to Hollywood with the Talkies and worked on musicals starring singer/comedian Eddie Cantor. With 42nd Street, Berkley added a new dimension to the musical film. Instead of the camera merely recording the performer singing a song or doing a standard dance number, the famed choreographer designed elaborate routines based around large numbers of chorus girls shot from directly above the action to produce a kaleidoscope effect of outstretched limbs, tilted heads and spinning stages. The story lines for his films during this era were based around the production of stage shows or "backstage musicals" and the grand dancing arrangements he designed could never be done realistically on a theatrical stage, but that was completely beside the point. Audiences loved it. The songs featured in the film were catchy as well. Written by musical team Harry Warren and Al Dubin, they included the title tune, "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me", and the delightful "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." The latter produced as a charming vignette set on a train with a Pullman car swinging open to show the pajama clad background singers in their berths singing the unforgettable lines, "Matrimony is baloney, She'll be wanting alimony, Still they go and shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo."
Unlike many of the early musicals which were thin on plot, 42nd Street, though no heavy narrative, did have a substantial enough story to carry the numerous characters involved. It revolved around the production of a Broadway musical show directed by a veteran New York showman, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and is depending on the success of his latest venture to provide him enough financially to retire and save his sanity. His star is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), a Broadway big wig who is dating the shows financial backer (Guy Kibbee) while seeing her longtime lover and ex-vaudeville partner (George Brent) on the sly. Meanwhile, secondary story lines and comic relief involve various chorines and show personnel including Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel as sassy, brassy and not so classy chorus dames, who chew up the wisecracking dialogue as well as their favorite gum (Rogers' character is named Anytime Annie). Dick Powell, as the juvenile lead crooner with the boyish good looks and Ruby Keeler, as Peggy Sawyer, the naive newbie who takes over for ailing Dorothy Brock to become the shows next star, make a fresh and striking pair in what were early roles for both. In fact, 42nd Street was Keeler's first film, and based on her performance and the huge success of the film, she was offered a long term contract at Warners, where she continued in the same type part in musicals for the remainder of the decade.
The film is famous not only as a ground breaker in its genre, but also as the film in which Warner Baxter's character says to Keeler just as the curtain is going up on opening night, "Sawyer, you're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" Supposedly the financial success of 42nd Street saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy and it didn't let that success go unexploited, as The Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, both Berkley supervised musicals, were produced before the end of 1933. The film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a huge feat for the burgeoning genre, and set the precedent for a new wave of musical films.