In 1932, the Depression held the United States in a firm grip. Its nationwide effect seeped into every aspect of life, including the cinema. When Warner Brothers hired Busby Berkeley, a renowned Broadway choreographer, for four upcoming pictures, it would turn out to be one of the decisions that helped propel the studio to financial security in these unfortunate times. One of those films was the highly profitable 42nd Street, detailing the drama behind the scenes of a Broadway musical. The results are certainly an inspiration for what was to come… but not automatically a masterpiece.
A musical called “Pretty Lady” is being planned for Broadway, with financial backing from an industrialist called Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) who’s fooling around with the show’s intended star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to helm the production; one of the best, he nevertheless lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash and desperately needs “Pretty Lady” to be a hit. As he keeps tormenting the cast and crew, we follow some of them and their tribulations. Dorothy is secretly meeting with an old lover and former vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (George Brent).
Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is fresh off the bus from Allentown, Pennsylvania and quickly learns that if you’re going to get the director’s attention you need support from allies; one of them is potential lover Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), who’s also the show’s male lead. Eventually, “Pretty Lady” is all set for its premiere in Philadelphia… when the unthinkable happens.
Acidity to the sweetness
All right, “the unthinkable” turns out to be the greatest cliché in the book… but clichés are born somewhere and this film has often been labeled the original backstage musical. Nothing you see here feels fresh, especially not if you’ve seen all the greatest examples from Hollywood’s golden era of musicals, in my view the 1950s. Looking back at 42nd Street, Lloyd Bacon’s film moves along briskly, is charming and has a few jokes worthy of chuckles, but its story is anything but thrilling. Still, this is compensated for by a certain added acidity to the sweetness; the Depression really does play a key part in the character of Marsh who becomes more interesting over the course of the film.
That real-life crisis actually lends some weight to the portrayal of how the show’s primary backer, Dillon, feels free to take advantage of the female star. Apparently, these are times when anyone who has a job should accept whatever comes with it. Then there’s also the star-making performances of Keeler and Powell who are both terrific, especially in their best musical numbers (“Forty-Second Street” and “Young and Healthy”). Several supporting actors also make an impact, including Ginger Rogers as “Anytime” Annie Lowell and Ned Sparks as a cigar-chewing producer.
In the end, Berkeley’s geometric stylings are probably what Depression-era audiences remembered the most about this film. Accompanied by foot-tapping music, the final presentation of “Pretty Lady” is twenty minutes of magic, right up to the fall of the (asbestos) curtain.
42nd Street 1933-U.S. 89 min. B/W. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay: Rian James, James Seymour. Novel: Bradford Ropes. Cinematography: Sol Polito. Songs: Al Dubin, Harry Warren (“Forty-Second Street”, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”, “Young and Healthy”). Cast: Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh), Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer), George Brent (Pat Denning), Bebe Daniels, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee… Ginger Rogers.
Trivia: Richard Barthelmess, Loretta Young and Joan Blondell were allegedly considered for roles. The movie was later turned into a Broadway musical.
Quote: “Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give. They’ve got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can’t fall down. You can’t because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I’m through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” (Baxter to Keeler)