42nd Street (1933)

"42nd Street" (1933) featured image

42nd Street (1933).  89 minutes.  Directed by Lloyd Bacon.  Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley.  Starring Ruby Keeler (as Peggy Sawyer), Warner Baxter (as Julian Marsh), Bebe Daniels (as Dorothy Brock), George Brent (as Pat Denning), Guy Kibbee (as Abner Dillon), Ginger Rogers (as Ann Lowell), and Dick Powell (as Billy Lawler).  Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

42nd Street is the first of four movies whose musical sequences Busby Berkeley directed for Warner Bros. from 1933 to 1934.  Prior to 42nd Street, Berkeley had directed theatrical productions and short sequences for Eddie Cantor musicals, but 42nd Street was a different sort of vehicle, both for Berkeley and for Hollywood.  According to Leonard Maltin, by 1933 movie-going audiences, which had been inundated with musicals since the birth of sound film technology a few years earlier, had grown tired of song-and-dance productions.  As a musical that was also a backstage story, 42nd Street offered a fresh behind-the-scenes look at the world of Broadway revues that was less idealized than other productions of the time.  It was, as producer Darryl F. Zanuck called it, “a musical exposé,” depicting the struggle of director Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter) as he pushes a Broadway cast to the limits of its endurance in a 1930s New York revue.  Marsh is desperate for a hit to secure his retirement, and he thinks he has found a recipe for success with star Dorothy Brock, but an unfortunate event causes him to replace her with newcomer Peggy Sawyer (played by Ruby Keeler), whom he must train over the course of one day to take over the lead.

A certain amount of the “exposé” quality is evident in the rise of Sawyer from fledgling chorus girl to eventual star of the show, in particular the often grueling rehearsals that she and the rest of the chorus must endure—rehearsals that at one point bring about her physical collapse.  42nd Street’s risqué pre-Code attributes also contribute to this “exposé” feeling.  The character Dorothy Brock, the original star of the revue in question, provides for one romantic interest (Pat Denning) financially, while she at the same time is being kept by another (Abner Dillon) in order to finance her production.  Peggy Sawyer, for her part, agrees to live with a man she has just met when she is forced out of her room in a boarding house because her landlady suspects her of impropriety.  The suggestive possibilities of the movie also relate to its spicy language, which is speckled with the slang of the times, both in Al Dubin’s inventive lyrics and in the dialogue, much of it delivered by sassy Ginger Rogers as the provocatively named Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell.

But before we get too carried away with discussions of the movie’s grit, it is important to remember that this is in other ways very much an idealized production.  It is not often that in real life a chorus girl like Anytime Annie enthusiastically accepts her producer’s decision not to cast her in the lead role of an extravagant revue at the eleventh hour and becomes a fellow chorus girl’s (Sawyer’s) biggest advocate for the part.  It is also not typical for a star like Dorothy Brock to transform into her understudy Sawyer’s greatest cheerleader when moments earlier she seemed ready to kill Sawyer for taking her role.  That is to say, the movie is heavily laden with a fantasy about the universal kindness of show people that seems not only far-fetched but also unfair to audiences and the story being told.  It is strange to stress so heavily the reality of the casting and rehearsal process and then skimp on manifestations of such very real qualities of entertainers as their fierce competitiveness and jealousy.

The Berkeley musical numbers that close the film are a delight, although they are not nearly as extravagant as those of his follow-up features.  42nd Street’s musical conclusion consists of the songs “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” “I’m Young and Healthy,” and the impressive “42 Street.”  “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” features a wonderful train set, shot initially from the rear end of a caboose that splits open to reveal a bifurcated interior with a variety of people in compartments.  In “I’m Young and Healthy,” we are treated to the nascent stages of what would become Berkeley’s trademark choreographic style: the mass arrangement of dancers’ bodies in appealing patterns.  At one point, we watch as the camera moves through a tunnel of chorus girls’ legs.  There is also an aerial shot of a kaleidoscopic formation of dancers—something that would soon become one of Berkeley’s favorite vantage points.

As the star of the revue, Ruby Keeler sings the female lead in the “Buffalo” number, but she shares the screen with many other performers.  Her turn to solo really comes in the titular “42nd Street.”  Yet as Keeler starts to dance in that number, I cannot help but think how awkward a performer she is—there is no way around it.  When she stomps through her solo, she looks down constantly, wearing an expression of ardent concentration as if staring at her feet intensively can will them to move.  She looks uncomfortable in nearly every costume she wears in the movie; her clothes have odd flourishes at the shoulders and upper arms that hang out of place or move disjointedly.  Her singing is not superior to her dancing.

And yet there is something so sweet and cute about Keeler, sweetness and cuteness being qualities that Busby Berkeley musicals showcase and celebrate especially well.  On this point, one is tempted to compare her with her costar, the highly skilled Ginger Rogers.  In 1933, Rogers was also to appear in Flying Down to Rio, her first pairing with Fred Astaire.  Though Rogers can certainly be silly in musicals such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she has the rare privilege of singing “We’re in the Money” in pig Latin, she is decidedly un-Keeler-like in her own musical vehicles.  Rogers moves sleekly and completely naturally in all of her films, never looking distracted or overly concentrated as she does so.  I think of her famous performance of “Cheek to Cheek” in the movie Top Hat: even her feathered costume movies precisely in sync with her fluid steps.  Keeler could never have co-starred in a movie like Top Hat—she is too roughly hewn—and yet I know men who harbor secret crushes on Keeler, not on Rogers.  Berkeley was on to something.  With Keeler cast as the up-and-coming star in the movie’s revue, her awkward movements potentially come across charmingly as the performance of a newcomer.  In successive pictures, we are meant to embrace her gawkiness as a kind of loveliness in its own right.

The original 1933 trailer for 42nd Street, in the bombastic language characteristic of the promos of the time, boasts of “luxurious settings, spectacular dance routines set to the rhythm of inspiring music in scenes never before attempted…”  It also repeatedly stresses the movie’s many beautiful women—“the greatest aggregation of dancing beauties ever seen together on stage or screen”—thus acknowledging a preoccupation of many of Berkeley’s projects.  The film in its final moments also makes a claim that must be regarded carefully, as it similarly relates to a typical Berkeley theme: after Peggy Sawyer has made her stage debut in the big revue, we see the director of the revue, Marsh, standing near the entrance to the theater.  He overhears people commenting as they emerge from the show; they praise Sawyer’s performance and observe, to his chagrin, that the director is unworthy of the show’s success—credit for that should go to Sawyer.  We see Marsh retreat with an expression of defeat as the film ends.

It follows that 42nd Street ultimately reminds us of how the public sympathizes with the star in an extraordinary way, but really this final scene is a set up, a test.  At first we may agree with the audience.  We know that Sawyer has worked hard, but having watched the movie, can we say that she is necessarily more deserving than the man who worked her so hard?  The movie’s take on what makes a show great is egalitarian, and just because the revue audience is unwilling to accept this concept does not mean that we should be similarly unwilling.  Ultimately, the story is about many different people banding together to do creative work.  In this way, 42nd Street is consistent with subsequent Busby Berkeley films, particularly with their obsessive emphasis on group formations and the beauty that resides in collectivity; consider once again the camera shot through the neatly arranged tunnel of dancers’ legs in “I’m Young and Healthy.”  The musical sequences of 42nd Street thus serve as an encouragement to find artistic merit in and to appreciate more fully the collaborative aspect of dramatic media, both as it is expressed behind the scenes and in front of the audience.