42nd Street (1933)
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent
Synopsis: A producer puts on what may be his last Broadway show, and at the last moment a chorus girl has to replace the star…
“…and Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” Thus says seriously ill Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) piling on the kind of pressure that would have most green understudies fainting in his arms, but which inspires young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) to dance her socks off after the leading lady breaks her ankle. It’s a line which, like the movie in which it appears, is both a legend and a cliche. 42nd Street became a template for every backstage musical of the next decade, so it’s easy to forget that the stereotypical characters and situations that it brought to the screen were as new to audiences as fresh greasepaint in 1932. In fact, 42nd Street was so successful it single-handedly resurrected the moribund musical genre and saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.
After his fortune is wiped out by the stock market crash, famed director Julian Marsh (Baxter) negotiates a deal with a couple of theatrical impresarios to direct a stage musical which he intends to have provide for his retirement. It might not be a long retirement though because, just as he seals the deal, he receives a phone call from his doctor informing him that his body won’t take much more of the kind of punishment he’s been putting it through. That’s right, he’s suffering from a terminal case of vague-us sicky-us, which means this show just has to be a hit. Marsh immediately sets about casting for the show, but its’ prospects are endangered from the outset when it comes to light that his leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels — Male and Female, The Maltese Falcon) is cheating on her Sugar Daddy (Guy Kibbee — Mr Smith Goes to Washington) with penniless playboy, Pat Denning (George Brent — The Great Lie). Normally, Brock’s romantic dalliances would be of no concern to Marsh, but the Sugar Daddy she’s cheating on just happens to be bankrolling the show…
The plot of 42nd Street is nothing to write home about, but the way it captures the sweaty backstage atmosphere of the staging of a show is what sticks in the mind. Chorus girls trade laconic insults with acerbic wit, as they dance themselves to a frazzle under Marsh’s punishing schedule. A young Ginger Rogers (Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee) plays Anytime Annie who “only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question.” She has this easy-going attitude which sums up the movie’s own pre-code attitude towards sex and its use as a currency and bargaining tool in a world in which girls dance not for fun but to survive. The film was made in 1933, when the world was in the depths of the Great Depression, and Warners was the studio of the working class, which meant that, until the Production Code slipped the muzzle in place in 1934, it didn’t shy away from stating things with a candidness that is sometimes disarming even today. The girls — and there are hundreds of them — are viewed as objects whose sole purpose is to gratify the male eye, and who are judged on the shape of their legs. Busby Berkeley’s superlative choreography positions them in such a way that the camera can share in his well-publicised salaciousness, affording glimpses of forbidden areas that would be off limits a matter of months after 42nd Street was released.
The cast is the other aspect of 42nd Street that catches the eye. Warner Baxter, looking older than his age of 43, gives arguably the best performance of his career as the tough but fading director desperately fighting against time and his own failing health to put the show together. As well as a young Rogers, there’s an equally young Dick Powell, although his character almost feels as if it’s been tacked on as an afterthought. He has one number to sing, but he fails to make an impression and on the evidence of his performance here, contemporary viewers might have been forgiven for expecting him to fade into obscurity. The smaller roles are filled by character actors with faces that are wonderfully expressive even when in repose: Robert McWade (Grand Hotel, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) and Ned Sparks (Alice in Wonderland) are a pair of theatrical impresarios, Una Merkel (Abraham Lincoln, The Maltese Falcon) is Rogers’ friend and fellow showgirl; Allen Jenkins (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) is a stage manager, sleepy and harassed in equal measure, while Charles Lane (It’s a Wonderful Life, Papa’s Delicate Condition), who would make his last film in 2006, makes a brief appearance as the author of the show.
(Reviewed 26th August 2014)