Thursday, June 18, 2009

42nd Street: Brother, Can You Spare a Dame!

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.


  1. I love this movie-Ruby Keeler is always a favorite.
    Joan Crawford was very smart to stop dancing and stick to acting!

  2. This is a really nice post. Interest, especially with the historical context. Great work!

  3. I adore this movie! It has the same effect on me as all those depression hit people in the 30s, brings a smile! Ruby Keeler is sweet, love Dick Powell and of course the lovely Ginger with some cracking one liners, "what do you ant me to do? Bite my nails?" ebing a favourite. Shuffle off to buffalo is the best number in my opinion, so funny and interesting staging. Loved the review!

  4. It's incredible but I've just finished watching 42nd Street for a second time in a cople of months, just to make sure I still find it a real bore and very coarse. All characters are absolutely inconsistent. Guy Kibbee is disgusting and Daniels as well. Brent loves Daniels but spends evening and night with the wishy-washy Keeler, who, by the way, cannot sing nor dance. She dates Brent but ends with Powell, who looks like a teenager and sings accordingly.Merkel and Rogers at their lowest. They're just two cheap prostitutes. Where's the fun in this film? The story is boring (Warner Baxter shouting and selfcomplaining are tedious) There are a few disgusting scenes supposed to be hilarious (the party in Daniels apartment and her awful drunk scene with Brent)which are just unbearable . Attilio F.

  5. Is this a musical? You have nothing till the end of the film : a long scene with a couple of nice songs, but horribly sung , and some very dull and uninteresting dance. All completely inconsistent. I only save a couple of excellent ideas by Bubsy Berkley: the tunnel of legs and the skyscrapers. The end is zero.A sleezy movie.
    1933: watch please Flying down to Rio: this is fun and glamour and music and dance and dream! Attilio F.

  6. Your piece was so timely given our sour economy. Sure, 42nd Street is old Hollywood excess to the nth degree but the message is clear--escapism. Today's media doesn't quite get that message. Oh sure they get the excess right but not the cost. Going to the movies was blissfully inexpensive. Studios made more my increasing output.

  7. HI Rupert! Great review. I enjoy 42nd Street. Ginger is my fave in it. It isn't my favorite musical but I do like it. I think your review was wonderful though. Especially historically. I like Bubsy musicals.

  8. Rupert, very nicely written--an intelligent and fun post. I like the way you describe Berkeley's production numbers, and you got off a couple of very amusing turns of phrase ("stagy, stodgy, and static," "sassy, brassy, and not so classy"). My only real complaint about the movie is that all those great production numbers come one after another at the end. It's a long wait for them, and then almost too much at once to appreciate fully. That's one of the reasons I prefer "Gold Diggers of 1933."

  9. Hi Rupert! Being a classic movie lover, I'm really enjoying your blog. I have yet to see 42nd Street, but it is on my list along with Gold Diggers of 1933. Looking forward to more interesting & informative reviews! :)

  10. I allow myself to suggest everybody to have a look at "Wonderbar" a precode Bacon-Bubsy Berkley musical of 1934, starring Al Jolson, Dolores Del Rio, Dick Powell, Kay FRancis, Ricardo Cortez, Guy Kibbee, Louise Fazenda,Ruth Donnelly,Hugh Herbert,Robert Barrat, Fifi d'Orsay. It's daring and politically uncorrect but astonishing and very,very entertaining.
    It was considered outrageously risqué and disappeared from any screen after the enforcement of the production code. Don't miss this gem. Attilio F.

  11. Thank you for visiting my blog.She does amazing beadwork that beadedlily!So glad to connect with you too because I am a LOVER of classic movies.

  12. Great write-up, Rupert, love this movie for a lot of the same reasons Anonymous dislikes it though I'm going to make a note to check out those early musicals that they recommend as well.

    Love that you mentioned "the grand dancing arrangements he designed could never be done realistically on a theatrical stage" because that's one I always chuckle over--you'd have to be riding a see-saw over, under, and around the stage to enjoy Berkeley's numbers in an actual theater the way you can on the screen!

    As fun as 42nd Street is I do find myself preferring both Gold Diggers of 33 and Footlight Parade, though not by much.

    Thanks for the post,

  13. Thank you for the comment on my blog! I love this post - I've always loved old movies but never really seen any before 1940. I'm going to check this one out next. ;)

  14. Don't be so naif,my friends, it's clear that cinema means fiction, dream come almost true: how could you stand a musical number if it were presented to you so that you had the same vision as you were seated in a theatre's armchair. Berkley knew that and also what he had to technically do to materialize "the impossible". His highest merit is to have succeeded in realizing very astonishing and beautiful shows, both artistically and technically and exclusively created for the camera. This is cinema!
    In a lesser technological way, a good writer knows how to rewrite a stage play for the cinema and a good director knows how to make a good film out of a good stage play..... (Attilio)

  15. I've never seen the movie of 42nd street, but have seen it on stage a few times. I quite like the story line and have a soft spot for musicals.

    Thanks for the comment!

  16. I LOVED this movie & your review hit the nail right on the head, Rupert! It was quite a pleasant surprise for me when I first discovered this movie years ago. Although dancing styles were different back then, the movie represented a slice of life from an important time in our history.
    Seems to me that I was not the only one surprised to find Joan Crawford dancing in this movie. That woman did just about everything on film. No wonder she goes down in the annals of time as a most talented actress.
    What would this movie be without the talents of Busby Berkley? He has been criticized over the years for being hard to work for, but the results of his work are simply mesmerizing!
    This movie has stood the test of time, and as mentioned in a previous review, this is an excellent time to see this classic again (and again!)

  17. Excellent post Rupert with plenty of good background. "42nd Street" is a classic WB musical though I have to say I prefer Gold Diggers of 1993.

  18. I tried to comment here the other day but there was some computer glitch - hope for better luck today! I like '42nd Street' very much and enjoyed your review, Rupert - I loved Warner Baxter's performance in this movie and have gone on to watch him in a few more films since. An underrated actor these days. I've just seen a stage version of 'The Producers', and was interested to see a couple of references to '42nd Street' and 'Footlight Parade'. Judy

  19. Yeah I love 42nd Street! Thanks for commenting on my blog, by the way.
    I saw another one of your posts, and I really want to see Hands Across the Table as well! I'm trying to get a hold of it - hopefully I will soon.


    PS I would have posted sooner, but Internet Explorer doesn't let me post on blogger so I had to download another web browser.

  20. Rupert,
    You have done a splendid job indeed. This movie is worthy, entertaining, ambitious and cleverly done.

    I always know I am going to enjoy your posts before I click on the link.



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