And Busby Berkeley week comes to a close with a review of the film that put him on the map and brought Warner Brothers back from the brink of bankruptcy. I was surprised at the change in my perspective in watching this after Gold Diggers of 1933, as actors who had a bigger role in the latter film snagged bit parts in the former; you also have jokes in this film that carried over to the second. In the end, the advantage goes to Gold Diggers of 1933 as the script, jokes, acting, and music felt more confident; however, 42nd Street is an amazingly uncompromising story of the harsh realities of stardom and the struggles to maintain community during the Depression.
An ill director (Warner Baxter) living on borrowed time is determined to craft one final show. He assembles a successful actress (Bebe Daniels) whose sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee) has put up the financing, as well as a gaggle of chorus girls; one ingenue in particular (Ruby Keeler) just might have what it takes to become a star.
Everything that would translate into a stronger film in Gold Diggers of 1933 is in evidenced in (and on) 42nd Street. The script takes note of urban slang while injecting bitterness and ribaldry into events. There’s not the level of lasciviousness that was on display in Gold Diggers, but you’ll be taken aback by some of the song lyrics. “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me” makes no bones about equating love to drug addiction, it’s in the title; “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is all about sex and divorce with Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel acting as as Greek chorus to the cynical view of marriage. The production number culminates (no pun intended) with Keeler’s hand coming out and giving audiences a hint of the deflowering taking place behind the curtain. Berkeley’s always been adept at blending eroticism into his production values and 42nd Street is no different. One of the ending production numbers has the camera act like a train, thrusting its way through the legs of the various chorus girls. And surprisingly, Guy Kibbee removes all traces of cuteness to play a lecherous sugar daddy who has no shame in stating his sexual desires for Daniels’ character, Dorothy. He does redeem himself somewhat by the end, but it’s hard to remove the image of his sweaty, red face in the beginning from your mind. I did smile at seeing him walk around with a Pekingese, which Gold Diggers of 1933 referenced to hilarious effect (I used the photo in my review). Having watched this last, I was able to be “in” on the joke than if I watched this first.
Where 42nd Street soars is in presenting a warts and all (sorta) depiction of the entertainment industry that’s in contrast to the escapist musicals also out around the same time. 42nd Street is a unglamorized look at the reality of the Broadway industry, especially in its treatment of women. The cattle-call for chorus girls is just that, with the menfolk proclaiming that “half are dumb and the other half are dumber.” (Unfortunately, as delightful as Una Merkel is, she fails to dispel this notion through her dippy performance.) The camera suggests that the ladies are only as good as their body parts, panning down to look at their legs. While never focused on expressly – and limiting its potential to be as grim as possible in its presentation of reality – there is a taste of sexual harassment depicted when Lorraine (Merkel) is goosed by two separate men during a rehearsal. The admonishing storyline boils down to women being victims of harassment and men either being harassers or allowing it to go on. As the rehearsals rise to a feverish pace and the show looms ever closer, you watch the cast work like dogs in brutal dance sequences that appear real (I’m sure none of these were filmed in one take). Baxter’s Julian Marsh berates the dancers, and even those sitting in the auditorium are sweating. Eventually, a blurred sequence involving kicking legs and faces describes the impersonal tone of events.
Warner Baxter’s Julian is the captain, director, and overall messiah of the movie. Baxter screams himself hoarse and yet his dyspeptic personality remains elegant. He’s a man living on borrowed time, his heart acting like a clock leading up to showtime. As director, the show begins and ends with him, as does the movie itself. He’s given the news about his imminent demise during the opening minutes, and after the show is a smash he’s just as alone as he started, sitting in an alley with no one to support him. He’s unrecognized for his contributions and there’s an ominous feeling that this alleyway will represent the lonely death that awaits him (although his shows and discovery of Keeler’s Peggy will live on). While his stage career and life are coming to a close, the audience understands that it is only through teamwork that change can come together and a common good can arise. The Great Depression looms large in 42nd Street as it did in Gold Diggers of 1933 (although that film was overt about it from beginning to end). The ending image of a lonely Marsh inspires the audience to look to their fellow man (their “forgotten man”) and help. Furthermore, the story of Peggy Sawyer’s rise from ingenue to superstar tells audiences that it’s not luck that brings success, but hard work and perseverance. The performance of the title song presents a view of the modern city with the bustle being mimed through the mass dancing of people, segueing into a bizarre murder scene that I assumed was representing the dark underbelly within the supposed happy confines of the city of dreams? All of this escapist fun within the musical sequences casts a keen eye on the reality of the world before and after the show ends.
The female cast are all decent but this is Keeler’s film. I’m still on the fence about whether she has talent or can only play the doe-eyed innocent who makes good. This is Keeler’s début and her nerves are in evidence through her constantly shifting eyes and tendency to whine her lines. I was happy that the script didn’t veer into an After School special about the dangers of going home with strange men during her relationship with George Brent’s character, Pat. Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers provide comic relief as gossipy, hardened chorines; Rogers’ faux aristocratic background, complete with affected accent and monocle (that she conveniently has several replacements for) create a lot of laughter. Bebe Daniels is the veteran of the female cast, playing the older star overshadowed by the ingenue. She remains a somewhat mature adult through the events, especially once she realizes her relationship with Pat is doomed; that’s not to say she isn’t given some scenery to chew on during a drunken rampage that’s amazing. Ned Sparks continues to be the master of insults, and Dick Powell is practically unnecessary in the movie, as evidenced by his lone romantic sequence with Keeler at the end.
Gold Diggers of 1933 is still my favorite of the Berkeley films for this week, but 42nd Street runs a close second. A rather stark (for 1933) depiction of the American Dream achieved through fame, the cast is filled with a broad spectrum of talent. The musical numbers aren’t as grandiose as they would become, but it all ends up being a delightful romp.
NEXT WEEK: The July Five series comes to its conclusion, but not before spending a little time with William Powell and Myrna Loy!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.