Sunday, March 18, 2012

42nd Street (1933) - Sure, it's a Classic, but.....

42nd Street 1932 film poster
"42nd Street" (1932).

Warner Bros. "42nd Street" (1933) came along at the height of Hollywood films oriented around Broadway stage productions. It offers the classic "behind the scenes" viewpoint first introduced in "The Broadway Melody of 1929." Due largely to the fact that "42nd Street" has classic songs and an archetypal plot, it is remembered while "Broadway Melody" is largely forgotten except by historians. Aside from the hummable tunes, "42nd Street" also is enjoyable not so much for the plot or the characters as it is for its stunning visuals. Choreographer 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.

42nd Street 1932 publicity photo
Ruby Keeler, George Brent and Bebe Daniels in "42nd Street." One of the many reasons that "42nd Street" remains so enjoyable is because of the backstage rivalry and catfights. This was taken to extremes in Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls" (1995), one of many later riffs on the basic "42nd Street" plot.

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. "42nd Street" is legendary for a reason. Actually, for several reasons, including the fact that Jack Warner, Jr. promoted the film like no other. But "42nd Street" is remembered because it is a solid film in its own right, too. We'll get to all that.

42nd Street 1932 Shuffle Off to Buffalo
Someone's about to shuffle off to Buffalo in "42nd Street." Buffalo - with Niagara Falls nearby - was a prime spot for honeymoons during the 1930s. The song also references Reno, Nevada - an easy place to get divorced.

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).

42nd Street 1932 Warner Baxter
Warner Baxter plays the hard-as-nails director of the show-within-the-show.

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.

42nd Street 1932 chorus girls
Look at those gams! Another reason that "42nd Street" entered Hollywood lore is its seminal use of dancers to create iconic scenes.

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....
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.
But putting that script issue aside, Keeler is stunningly mediocre when shown playing the lead. While her later candor as quote above is endearing, what she said also was quite true. Keeler 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's not the prettiest girl in the show, either - that honor could go to uncredited 17-year-old Toby Wing (who, incidentally, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, too).

42nd Street 1932 Toby Wing
True fans of "42nd Street" love Toby Wing's silent performance that almost steals her number with Dick Powell. One thing that old films like "42nd Street" teach you is that beauty endures.

Ruby is adequate in the role, and no more. Keeler looks the part, which undoubtedly is why she was cast, and that is about it. I found the raves by the audience leaving the theater following the show-within-the-show in "42nd Street" to be unsupported by anything we saw of the show, though Keeler simply managing to remember all her lines, routines and songs after getting the call at the last minute would have been considered a major triumph to show insiders. What Keeler did have was youthful exuberance, and that counts for a lot. There was a much better actress/singer/dancer in the film named Ginger Rogers, but she plays supporting character Ann Lowell ("Anytime Annie") and was still a year away from her true breakthrough with Fred Astaire. In fact, if Warner had wanted to do a "42nd Street"-style overnight success in real life, he also could have given Rogers the Ruby Keeler part - though unknown Keeler got the opportunity instead.

42nd Street 1932 backstage
It is all about the behind-the-scenes action in "42nd Street."

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).

42nd Street 1932 chorus girls
Chorus girls showed a lot of leg in the early 1930s.

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 "42nd Street." 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 technical lapses elsewhere. 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 in "42nd Street," unfortunately. But there are plenty of classic tunes to keep you entertained in "42nd Street."

42nd Street 1932 Dick Powell
Dick Powell having a moment in "42nd Street."

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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