Sunday, March 18, 2012

42nd Street (1932) - Sure, it's a Classic, but.....

"42nd Street" is enjoyable not so much for the plot or the characters as it is for the visuals.  Busby Berkeley practically invented a new art form with his army of chorus girls, and bare legs became the raison d'etre for musicals.  Seeing dancers behind the scenes, sweating and arguing and winning and losing, is a wonderful peek behind the curtains.  This is well worth your time for those reasons alone, with the timeless songs and hokey but inspiring plot as nice bonuses.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. "42nd Street" is an outright classic, the kind of genre-creating film that comes along maybe once a decade, if that. "Airport" started the disaster craze of the early Seventies, "A Hard Day's Night" created the mold for the modern rock film in the Sixties, and "42nd Street" brought us the Busby Berkeley musical. Criticizing "42nd Street" is like saying Mount Rushmore is in bad taste. Can't do it. Not allowed, and not fair in any event.

Someone's about to shuffle off to Buffalo

But.... There are a lot of things about this film that I find annoying. Not enough to make me not enjoy it, but sufficient to keep it off of any list of greatest films. And the sad thing is that, with a few changes, this could have been perhaps the greatest musical of all time (and certainly many would put it there already).

Most people already know the basic plot, which is a classic of showbiz lore, and if you don't, telling it here shouldn't spoil the film for you.  A troupe of performers during the Great Depression is about to put on a show called "Pretty Lady" (NOT called 42nd Street).  Everybody's finances hang in the balance, careers hang in the balance, everything is at risk.  A famous lead actress is hired, and a tough stage manager whips the chorus girls into shape to do dramatically outlandish maneuvers on stage.

My main problem is with the two leads, Julian Marsh as played by Warner Baxter, and Peggy Sawyer as played by Ruby Keeler. Julian Marsh comes across as your standard benevolent dictator, which from experience I can vouch is quite accurate for a director. However, he goes over the top a few times too often with his melodramatic harangues. Yes, it is heresy to criticize Baxter's performance, but it also is almost malpractice for a director to take an untried actor aside before her debut and grind into the poor girl how many mouths depend on her making the audience like her. Blame it on the script, blame it on the times, but such scenes completely ruin the mood for me. And perhaps it's just me. Generations of comics have had fun with this, playing with it as the ultimate in camp. But I find it annoying.

Look at those gams!

Ruby Keeler is cute and for most of the film does carry off the part of the doe-eyed newcomer who finally gets that magical big break. In reality, that would never happen, at least not as shown in the film, and there is only the barest hint earlier in the film that Sawyer knows anything about the lead role. And why a chorus girl in her first show would be asked to understudy the lead, no matter what she looks like, when there is a cast of what looks like hundreds in the production, most of whom are probably veterans, well, seems highly unlikely. And the odds that another backup would willingly demure to Sawyer because she's so much better, um....

But putting that script issue aside, Keeler is stunningly mediocre when shown playing the lead. She looks at her feet while tapping, practically trying to dig a hole in the floor, and her singing voice is, to be charitable, weak. She looks the part, and that is about it. I found the raves by the audience leaving the theater to be unsupported by anything we saw of the show, though simply managing to remember all her lines and songs would have been considered a major triumph to show insiders.

I do like the rest of the show. Bebe Daniels is brilliant as unhappy star Dorothy Brock, and Dick Powell nails the part of Billy Lawler. George Brent comes real close to stealing the film as Brock's secret lover who ultimately sets the events in motion that give Sawyer her opportunity. The atmosphere of a Broadway show behind the scenes is about as accurate as I can imagine, especially the pre-opening night tension as reflected in almost panicky partying.  The costumes are top-notch, and several are decades ahead of their time (Ruby Keeler's pantsuit in the "Shuffle off to Buffalo" number looks ripped from the 1970s).

Several of the numbers, such as "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title song, are brilliant, though the rehearsing that occupies about 90 percent of the film doesn't appear to have much to do with the final show. It eventually does become clear why the only requirement for casting the chorus girls is the shape of their legs. Berkeley was not shy at all about showing off the charms of his ladies. If you like his style but find it perhaps a bit over the top at times, try his much later "Million Dollar Mermaid," which shows that he learned the value of subtlety.

Let me emphasize this: the definitive versions of "Lullabye of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and the title song are in this film.  They have never been done better since.  Ruby Keeler really did do a fantastic job on those numbers, showing a youthful exuberance that more than makes up for any technical lapses.  The song often thought to be in this film, "We're in the Money," is in the same year's "Gold Diggers of 1933," so you won't find it here, unfortunately.

Yes, I like "42nd Street." It deserves its accolades as a game-changing hit during the Depression. But a casting change or two, a few easy script changes, and it could have been so much better....

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