42nd Street

When the subject of movie musicals come up three films from Hollywood’s golden age get the lion’s share of attention. One is Singing In The Rain the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen masterpiece that gave audiences such classics as the title song, Donald O’Connor’s Make Em Laugh sequence and a whole host of others built around the premise of sound coming to Hollywood.

The other is West Side Story with its Romeo and Juliet story set in the world of New York street gangs. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins co-directed (And as you would imagine there was friction) this film to ten Academy Awards including Best Picture.

The third film was also directed by Robert Wise alone. It came four years after the triumph of West Side Story. The Sound of Music starring Julie Andrews was originally a Broadway play written by the two giants of the American theater: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It too included one memorable song after another.

But there should be room for a fourth musical. One that is much older than the others mentioned but holds up quite well in narrative, music and choreography. Warner Brothers released 42nd Street in 1933.

It is the first and arguably still the best when it comes to showing the goings on backstage of a theater troupe and the work it takes to put on a show.

42nd Street 1933.

Starring Warner Baxter as a successful yet frightfully tyrannical Broadway director Julian Marsh who due to his failing health vows to mount one more show so he can retire in luxury.

There are moments where Baxter paces around like a caged tiger ready to get everything up, running and over with.

He drives himself and his cast relentlessly in order to reach perfection. You feel like you’re in the theater when Baxter yells out “It’s brutal!” voicing his displeasure at the troupe’s efforts in rehearsal.

Warner Baxter had been in movies for roughly 20 years by the time he made 42nd Street.

The Academy Award winner (1929 for his portrayal of the Cisco Kid in the film In Old Arizona) was on his way to becoming the highest paid actor in Hollywood.

This was the same year as Footlight Parade also made by Warner Brothers.  It’s basically the same story as 42nd Street with James Cagney on the role of the maniacal producer.

While Cagney is the more remembered of the two actors his performance in my opinion pales next to Baxter’s. Cagney’s character is more energetic. Baxter is a volcano rumbling one minute exploding the next then all quiet again or somewhat at least.

The troupe in 42nd is a talented cast led by Bebe Daniels,a major star during the silent movie era who easily made the transition to sound, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel and Dick Powell.

Warner Baxter on getting into show business: “I discovered a boy a block away who would eat worms and swallow flies for a penny. For one-third of the profits, I exhibited him in a tent.”

This isn’t young people running around saying gee let’s put on a show so we can save the university.

These are professionals who if they can’t make the cut are going to be in a world of hurt. Meaning in the depths of The Great Depression they can easily find themselves out on the street.

There’s camaraderie mixed with petty jealousy and open hostility.

If some members of the company fall by the wayside that’s their hard luck.

Take Ginger Rogers getting catty with a rival chorus girl:

“It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.”

Ouch!

This film also marks the debut of Ruby Keeler. She and Dick Powell would become one of the most popular musical duos of the early to mid thirties. The reason why seemed to elude Keeler for years

It’s really amazing. I couldn’t act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn’t the greatest tap dancer in the world, either.

Is she good enough to pull off the dramatic scenes required of her character. frankly no. But like many stars then and now she had that something.

As would expect with Pre-code things can get quite racy. Ginger’s character is known as Anytime Annie. You can pretty much guess where this is going.

Loraine: You remember Anne Lowell?

Andy Lee: Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget ‘er? She only said “No” once, and THEN she didn’t hear the question!

Innuendos, double entendres and sometimes just saying it straight out.

The score was written by the great songwriting team of Al Dubbin and Harry Warren. They may not be mentioned in the same breath as Rodgers and Hammerstein (truth to tell so few are) but they produced a number of gems for this film including You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me, the two mentioned previously as well as the title tune which seems to not only typify this movie but the entire Pre-code era.

But it’s choreographer Busby Berkley who deserves mad props for his contributions to not only 42nd Street but movie musicals in general.

An innovative choreographer who freed dance in the cinema from the constraints of theatrical space, Busby Berkeley directed musical numbers that removed the confining proscenium of the stage to incorporate the fluid frame of the motion picture image. His geometrically unique dances were choreographed for that ideal. After a successful career on Broadway, Berkeley helped revolutionize the musical at a time when the genre first took off, thanks to the advent of sound.

In other words movie musicals before Berkeley looked like this

Nice backdrop. The singing and dancing is not bad. And while I don’t know the two dancers the one who had the sharp exchange (“One more crack from you bimbo and you’ll be holding a lily”) was quite good. But you are definitely sitting in the theater taking it all in.

42nd Street changed that forever.

It was revolutionary and startling in execution. There was no way to get the same effect on the Broadway stage. Berkeley with this film had created a musical that was totally exclusive to movies.

Expertly directed by Lloyd Bacon with great support from George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Allen Jenkins and Ned Sparks, 42nd Street is an innovative movie musical with grit that should rightfully take its place as one of the best.

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