Tuesday, June 14, 2016
"42ND STREET" (1933) Review
"42ND STREET" (1933) Review
I have always been a major fan of movie musicals. My favorite period for musicals stretched between the years 1945 and 1969. I find this ironic, considering that one of my all time favorite movie musicals is "42ND STREET", which was first released over a decade earlier, at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.
When talking pictures first arrived in the late 1920s, the Hollywood industry did not hesitate to produce musicals. One of the earliest films to win the Best Picture Academy Award was the 1929 musical, "THE BROADWAY MELODY". I have never seen this film, but I had a few glimpses of other musicals made during the first four or five years of the talkies. At worst, they were just awful. At best, they were mediocre. Then along came "42ND STREET" in March 1933 and Hollywood musicals have never been the same . . . well, almost.
Based upon Bradford Ropes' 1932 novel and written by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Whitney Bolton; "42ND STREET" was originally slated to be directed by Mervyn Leroy. However, the director of Depression-era hits like "LITTLE CAESAR"and "I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG" found himself unable to helm the movie, due to illness. The directing assignment went to Lloyd Bacon, a contract director at Warner Brothers Studios. In addition, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired choreographer Busby Berkeley to direct the film's big musical numbers near the end of the film.
"42ND STREET" begins when a pair of Broadway producers decide to put on a musical show called "Pretty Lady", starring stage star Dorothy Brock. The latter is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon, the show's financial backer. But while Dorothy busies herself with playing hot and cold with Dillon, she is secretly dating her former vaudeville partner, the out-of-work Pat Denning. The producers hire Julian Marsh to direct the play. However, Marsh's health is in bad shape, due to the high stress of his job. And he is also broke, due to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He needs "Pretty Lady" to be a hit in order to secure enough cash for retirement. The competition for casting selection becomes fierce, especially for some the chorines, whose desperation for a job leads them to resort to sexual promises. Lorraine Fleming manages to get hired, due to her relationship with dance director Andy Lee. Both she and Ann "Anytime Annie" Lowell help a young woman named Peggy Sawyer to get hired. Peggy is a hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who finds difficulty in getting a job due to her naivety and inexperience. Not only does she managed to befriend Lorraine and Ann, but also the show's juvenile lead, Billy Lawler. Peggy also acquires another friend - namely Pat Denning. Her friendship with Pat nearly affects his romance with Dorothy Brock and also the show.
When most fans and critics discuss "42ND STREET", they tend to focus on Busby Berkeley's direction of the musical numbers and the sexual innuendo that seems to permeate the film's narrative. What do I think of "42ND STREET"? Well . . . just as I had earlier hinted, it is one of my favorite musicals. Because it is regarded as a "backstage musical", most of the performances are limited to the film's last act, when Pretty Lady" has its opening night in Philadelphia. The only exception is the "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" number, which was performed by Bebe Daniels in a rehearsal sequence. Overall, I have no problems with the musical numbers. Songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin created some memorable tunes. My favorites tend to be "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" and "Young and Healthy". The first number is a personal favorite, thanks to Daniels' charming and slightly wicked performance. And between Dick Powell's energetic performance and the dazzling choreography directed by Busby Berkeley, the second number holds a special place in my heart. Ironically, when mentioning Berkeley's choreography, I do not mean actual dancing. I was referring to the number's complex geometric patterns created by the dancers moving or marching in place. Berkeley was known for this kind of choreography. I also enjoyed "Shuffle Off to Buffalo", due to its sexual innuendos, but it is not a big favorite of mine. I do love the movie's main and final song, "42nd Street". I find it energetic and entertaining - including the instrumental version during the number's New York Street montage. But I am not particularly in love with the actual choreography in the last number that features the song.
But more than anything, I really enjoyed the narrative behind "42ND STREET". Recently, I came across an article in which the blogger revealed that he or she had read the source material behind the 1933 movie - namely Bradford Ropes' 1932 novel. The blogger also revealed that the screenwriters had changed a good deal of Ropes' story. The novel mainly focused upon the personal lives of the show's cast and crew. It barely focused upon rehearsals or any of the backstage hang ups, until the last act. In a way, this structure reminds me of the 1933 movie, "DINNER AT EIGHT", which focused on the lives of a family planning a dinner party and their guests. According to the blogger, Ropes' novel was even racier than the movie. In fact, one subplot dealt with a romance between Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler. But since overt homosexuality was not tolerated in the old Hollywood films - even during the Pre-Code era - the movie's screenwriters developed a budding romance between Lawler and Peggy Sawyer, kick starting the first of several on-screen teamings between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.
The lack of a romance between two of the three leading male characters did not exactly make "42ND STREET" squeaky clean. The sexual innuendos that flew between the chorine characters provided plenty of ammunition for the Moral Brigade to raise their eyebrows. The movie is filled with memorable lines like:
*"Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget 'er? She only said "No" once, and THEN she didn't hear the question!"
*"It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.".
But what I found really interesting . . . and somewhat disturbing about "42ND STREET" is that the film went beyond mere innuendos.
I was slightly taken aback by the sheer number of sexual politics that seemed to dominate the movie's narrative. "42ND STREET"featured chorus girls like Ann "Anytime Annie" Lowell and Lorraine Fleming willing to promise anything in order to become part of the show's chorus. Even leading lady Dorothy Brock seemed willing to subject herself to the slimy attentions of the show's money bags, Abner Dillon, in order to maintain her job with this show. The movie also featured one male character - namely the unemployed Pat Denning - who seemed willing to be Dorothy's boy toy, while she services Dillon. However in Pat's case, I suspect love may be the reason behind his willingness to be Dorothy's personal bed warmer. In one or two cases, the prostitution that went on in this movie seemed to go beyond sex. A good example of this proved to be a decision made by the show's two producers, Barry and Jones, and Marsh. Desperate for Dillon's continuing finances, the three men were not only willing to hire Dorothy for the lead, but also hire local gangsters to rough up Pat Denning, when they learn about his affair with Dorothy.
However, the movie's sexual politics not only feature prostitution, but also another ugly subject. Sexual harassment. The movie did not hesitate to reveal the sexual manhandling and harassment of the female chorus members. In one scene, Lorraine Fleming had to resort to a caustic one-liner to stop a male dancer from groping her. From the moment she arrived at the theater, Peggy was either subjected to groping by male chorus dancers and crewmen, or propositioned. Most of this is handled with humor by the movie's screenwriters. But there was one scene in which I found particular scary. At a pre-show party at a Philadelphia hotel, Peggy had to fend off the unwelcome groping of a drunken chorus boy named Terry, who had been presented himself as a friend during the show's rehearsals. Worse, Terry hunted Peggy down throughout the hotel after she fled the party, leading me to suspect that he had intended to rape her all along.
Some people have commented that one of the movie's flaws is that it has become dated over the past eighty years or so. Personally, I feel that the march of time has not made "42ND STREET" dated. Despite the 1930s musical numbers and dialogue, the movie's story and theme is as fresh today as it was eighty years ago. More importantly, the Great Depression background gave the movie's narrative an earthy, yet realistic aura that still resonates today. But the movie does have its flaws. And for me, those flaws centered around the casting of Ruby Keeler and the final musical number, "42nd Street".
It occurred to me that I could have accepted Ruby Keeler as the movie's talented ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, if it not for the presence of . . . Ginger Rogers. I read somewhere that the movie's original director, Mervyn LeRoy, had suggested Rogers for the role of "Anytime Annie". Why "Anytime Annie"? Rogers could have easily portrayed the wide-eyed naivety of Peggy Sawyer. She was only 21 years-old when the movie was shot. She had portrayed similar characters in a few of her early movies with Fred Astaire. More importantly, she could both act and dance circles around Keeler. The latter, on the other hand, had a decent singing voice and was a damn good hoofer. But a hoofer only dances with his or her feet and not the entire body. And when it came to using her entire body, Keeler seemed rather sluggish. Keeler's performance was also rather stiff. This is not surprising, since this was her first movie. So why on earth did Warner Brothers settled on Keeler, when they had a bigger talent in Rogers? Then I remembered . . . Rogers was dating Mervyn LeRoy at the time this movie was made. But Keeler was married to Al Jolson, who was still a top Warners Brothers contract player at the time.
My other major problem with "42ND STREET" is the final musical number. As I had previously stated, I enjoy Harry Warren and Al Dubin's song very much. It may be 82 to 83 years old, but I still find it very catchy. I had no problems with the song. On the other hand, I had a lot of problems with the dancing featured in this number. I did not find it particularly impressive. Yes, I was impressed by Berkeley's precision-style choreography and use of the camera to display it in the "Young and Healthy" number. I was not impressed by the actual dancing featured in "42nd Street". Ruby Keeler's solo dancing led me to wince a bit. Well, perhaps more than a bit. I noticed that the . . . um, "strutting" done by the extras in the New York street montage segment seemed a bit offbeat. And the final segment featuring the background dancers seemed rather awkward and not particularly mind-blowing. I have seen better dancing in other Berkeley films, especially the "Lullaby of Broadway" dance number in 1935's "GOLDIGGERS OF 1935".
"42ND STREET" featured some fine performances from the cast. Most of them not only gave it their all, but also provided a great deal of energy to the movie. Both Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel were hilarious as the two showgirls who befriend Ruby Keeler's character. I also impressed by the energetic performances provided by George E. Stone and Guy Kibbee, who portrayed dance director Andy Lee and the wealthy Abner Dillon, respectively. However, I was not that impressed by Ruby Keeler's portrayal of Peggy Sawyer, which I found rather stilted. And I thought both George Brent and Dick Powell were particularly wasted in this film as Pat Denning and Billy Lawler. Fortunately, both men will go on to proved their real talent in later films. I personally thought the best performances came from the movie's two leads - Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels. Baxter walked a fine line between indulging in borderline hamminess and conveying a world weary desperation in his portrayal of the tough-minded director, Julian Marsh, who is determined to produce one last hit. And he did it with a seamless skill that still leaves me breathless with admiration. I was also impressed by Bebe Daniels, who did an excellent job in her portrayal of the ambitious Dorothy Brock, who found herself torn between her love for Pat and her willingness to be Dillon's plaything, despite her personal disgust toward him.
It is a miracle that after 82-83 years, "42ND STREET" still holds up well for me. Ironically, it was not the musical numbers or Busby Berkeley's choreography that really impressed me. It was the backstage story filled with sharp humor, sexual politics and desperation that I believe resonates even to this day. It was the story, along with Lloyd Bacon's solid direction and a talented cast led by Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels that still makes "42ND STREET" a favorite of mine, even to this day.