Hear that beat of dancing feet in 42nd Street.
Here it is… all the glitz and glamour of that naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty, 42nd Street. This is one of the original backstage musicals. Ruby Keeler made her movie debut as stage struck ingénue Peggy Sawyer who gets her big break when the star of the show twists her ankle on the eve of the out-of-town opening night. She frantically rehearses all day and is ready to go when the curtain goes up. Right before she takes the stage Warner Baxter delivers the most famous pep talk in movie history, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've GOT to come back a star!"
42nd Street is grittier than I remembered it and the characters are vividly portrayed. You have the obsessively driven stage director (Warner Baxter), the catty showgirls (Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie and Una Merkel), the bitchy star (Bebe Daniels who had been making pictures since 1910), there's the rich producer (Guy Kibbee), the handsome young bachelor (a boyish George Brent) and the gee-whiz tenor (Dick Powell).
The timeless score by Harry Warren and Al Dubin boasts 'Shuffle off to Buffalo', 'You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me' and the classic title song. Busby Berkeley pushes the game chorus girls to their tap-dancing limit, creating some incredibly indelible screen images in the process.
The movie covers the putting on of a Broadway show from concept to casting, through the long arduous rehearsals, to the glorious opening night triumph. This is not a traditional musical in the sense that the songs are all saved to the end of the movie. They exist only in the context of the show being staged.
How interesting that 42nd Street the movie, created and filmed in Hollywood, is now the most quintessential of Broadway Musicals.
Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street.
One of the most surprising things to me about 42nd Street is its racy humor. Released prior to the enforcement of the Hayes Code, it's allowed such dialogue as this between a male and female dancer when she's sitting on his lap during rehearsal, "What are you sitting on?" "A flag pole I think," she replies with a wink. In another scene, Ruby Keeler's character spends the night in a man's apartment and he carries her to his bedroom. He spends the night on the couch of course, but it's a scene that never would have made it past the censors just a few years later. Because of this, it seems more modern and fresher than movies released decades after it.
While Keeler is charming as the star, it's the antics of the supporting cast that get the most laughs. "Were your parents disappointed that they never had any children?" quips Anytime Annie (even that name wouldn't have made it past the Hayes Code) to a rival chorus girl. In many ways, this movie is a very early version of A Chorus Line.
My favorite character though is Julian Marsh. His down on his luck, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, chain smoking director is the heart of the show and appropriately the movie ends with a shot of him outside the theater listening to the reactions of the patrons as they exit after opening night. It adds a touch of poignancy to the film.
While Patrick's right that Busby Berkely creates some indelible images, his dance numbers feel out of place. There's no way they could ever be produced on an actual stage and while the whole movie is pure show business fantasy, his dances take the fantasy to a whole other level that pushes them out of the movie all together.
A feel good movie of the most classic kind, 42nd Street will have you wishing you'd taken tap dancing lessons by the end of it.
Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street.
Not only is there plenty of sexual innuendoes but the whole film is filled with sexual situations. Sex is the motivation for Abner to sponsor the play. Dorothy gives up the booty for stardom. The girls all arrive for the audition prepared to flirt with any guy working there who might get them in. Some of the guys are not shy about taking advantage of it. During one rehearsal a guy dancer cops a feel on a female dancer he is holding up.
The scene where the girls are auditioning must have originally caused a stir. The director tells them all to raise their skirts so as to get a look at their legs. A couple of scenes later the girls are all in very short shorts for rehearsal. Later in the film Daniels almost falls out of the top of her dress when she breaks her ankle.
As my brothers pointed out this early talkie has some good lines. Referring to Anytime Annie, one guy said, "She only said "No" once, and Then she didn't hear the question!" Early in the movie Ruby Keeler walked in on Dick Powell getting dressed. Near the end of the movie he says to her, "Hey, I've been for you ever since you walked in on me in my BVD's."
I was glad to recognize a couple of the songs. I do however, prefer the Frank Sinatra version of 'You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me.' The dances are elaborate and ridiculous. Not only are they too big for a stage, but parts of them can only be appreciated from above, looking down. Not exactly theater audience access able.
Still, 42nd Street is a great old fashioned film that inspired many future musicals.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1933)