42nd Street: Review
42nd Street is the prime examples of the “backstage” musical. The crazy over-the-top dance numbers involving dazzling choreography by Busby Berkeley really caught the attention of 1933 audiences, and historians ever since. Add the effervescent charm of Ruby Keeler and an un-repressible Dick Powell as the young stars in a stock story of Broadway backstage shenanigans and you’ve got the standard by which all other similar films of the genre are gauged.
The plot should sound familiar even if you’ve never seen one of these types of films. Peggy (Keeler) is a naïve newcomer to the great white way. She faces all the typical hardships while looking for her big break on Broadway. Along the way she meets all the personalities the theater has to offer, from the jaded producer (played to perfection by Warner Baxter), to the hard-boiled dames of the chorus (a young Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel), to the up-and-comer who happens to be a nice young man who becomes her ally and love interest (Powell). Does Peggy realize her dreams? I don’t want to give anything away, but this is a musical made during the height of the depression, so you do the math.
Interestingly, Ruby Keeler (Gold Diggers of 1933, Flirtation Walk), who at the time was most famous for being Al Jolson’s wife, played the all-important role of Peggy even though she was a newcomer to movies. Just like the character she plays in the film, she truly went into her first billed role as a youngster, but when the picture opened she came back a star. Which is a little strange because even though Keeler had a loveliness about her that was unmatched by other actresses of the day, her actual abilities are perhaps the movies greatest deficit. Her acting is questionable, her baby doll voice straddles the line between endearing and annoying, and her dancing is truly laughable by today’s standards and contrasts mightily against the showmanship of Busby’s elaborate dance numbers.
I realize Keeler is a victim of the times, but that doesn’t make it any less silly to see her flapping her arms and stamping her feet as if she were attempting to put out a fire. Hers is a very stylized form of stage dancing that went out of fashion before the end of the decade, thus contributing to the decline of her career. Keeler herself was known to have said, “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”. Just calling it like it is here folks.
On the other hand, Dick Powell is worth his weight in gold. He is positively exceptional in the exuberant role for which he was born to portray again and again – the earnest young man who believes that hard work will pay off in good breaks. In fact, during the 1930s Powell was the so-called juvenile lead in many Warner Bros. backstage musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1935, Stage Struck, Gold Diggers of 1937, etc.). He continued to fill this role long after his real age should have allowed, frequently playing opposite such rising stars as Keeler and Joan Blondell. It is a testament to his talent and appeal that audiences accepted Powell as the plucky go-getter well into his late thirties. In fact it wasn’t until he was forty that he finally shook off the wet behind his ears and did a complete 180 to play hard boiled detectives in such films as Murder My Sweet and The Tall Target. But in 42nd we still have the beguiling youth with a smile that will put the spirit back into anyone’s step.
As for Berkeley (Gold Diggers of 1935, For Me and My Gal), although he is not the director of 42nd Street (that honor belongs to Lloyd Bacon), his influence is indelible. Supposedly he had been on the verge of quitting Hollywood when he created the series of grandiose, over-produced, eye-popping show stoppers for 42nd. It is this film and Berkeley’s work in particular that demonstrated a broader potential of the film musical as it was known at the time. Before Berkeley worked his magic on 42nd musical numbers played out as they would on stage. With his penchant for creating numbers that, though ostensibly part of a big Broadway show, could never fit on any stage (think about it), Berkeley changed the game forever. The difference in quality between this new style and that of previous movie musicals, including the second film to receive the Oscar for Best Picture, Broadway Melody, is substantial (seriously, Melody is sucky). The public’s tremendous reaction to the film also allowed the choreographer to transition to a full fledged director, helming his own projects from that point forward.
Rounding out the cast is an impressive list of soon to be stars and notable character actors such as George Brent (Dark Victory, Jezebel), Guy Kibbee (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Captain Blood), and Allen Jenkins (Ball of Fire, Pillow Talk). These actors (and many more within the cast) represent the mainstay of personalities seen week to week at theaters across the country. Not to put too fine a point on it, but watching 42nd Street is like basking in the memorable Hollywood era that was the 1930s. And there’s no doubt you’ll have the theme song stuck in your head for days as you recall the stems of all those lovely dancing ladies. I’m not sure there’s any other film that so acutely defines a sub-genre as 42nd does the backstage musical. If for no other reason than contextualizing history, this is a must see for all classic film fans.
As it so happens a world premiere of a new restoration of 42nd Street will be presented at the 2015 TCMFF in late March. This is an ideal opportunity to see on the big screen just what it was that dazzled the eyes of audiences in the 1930s. I can’t think of a better way of experiencing cultural history.