Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: 42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street (1933)
Directed by: Lloyd Bacon.
Written by: Rian James & James Seymour based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.
Starring: Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh), Bebe Daniels (Dorothy Brock), George Brent (Pat Denning), Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer), Guy Kibbee (Abner Dillon), Una Merkel (Lorraine Fleming), Ginger Rogers (Ann 'Anytime Annie' Lowell), Ned Sparks (Barry), Dick Powell (Billy Lawler), Allen Jenkins (Mac Elroy), Edward J. Nugent (Terry), Robert McWade (Jones), George E. Stone (Andy Lee).

42nd Street has for better and worse become one of the prototypical movie musicals. We can see echoes of this movie in most of the Astaire-Rogers pairings of the 1930s, and on through movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon in the 1950s, and even All the Jazz in the 1970s. If you wanted to look for the most clichéd movie musical in history, you couldn’t do much better than 42nd Street. It’s all here – the egotiscal director (Warner Baxter), trying for one final hit, the star (Bebe Daniels) who gets hurt right before the show, the young upstart (Ruby Keeler) who becomes a star, the chattering background dancers (including Ginger Rogers) and on and on and on. There aren’t many musical clichés that 42nd Street doesn’t exploit. The thing is, in 1933, they weren’t necessarily clichés, but because of the success of the movie, they now seem like it. The influence of 42nd Street cannot be overstated, and yet watching it today, after seeing everything that has come since, it does appear to be slightly cheesy. Sure, much of it still works, but not like it most likely did back in 1933.

The highlights of the movie are the musical numbers that take up the majority of the final third of the film. In the hour leading up to those numbers, we are treated to witty backstage banter, and numerous romantic entanglements. This part is clichéd, yet fun. Warner Baxter was never a subtle actor, and here, he’s perfectly suited for the egotistical Julian Marsh, who was once the finest musical comedy director on Broadway, but has squandered all of his money. He wants one last big hit before he retires. Luckily, he’s able to cast Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), in the lead role for his new production, which means financing is secure because the exceedingly rich Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is in love with her, and will give any amount of money to a show with her in it. But Dorothy is in love with Pat Denning (George Brent), her old vaudeville partner, who never did become a star, and is tired of mooching off of Dorothy. He meets Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a young, talented chorus girl in the show, and the two flirt. Peggy also flirts with Billy Lawlor (Dick Powell), more of her age bracket. Observing all of this with wry smiles and witty comments are two aging chorus girls (Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel).

We know what is going to happen before the characters do. These early scenes are handled well by director Lloyd Bacon and his cast – which makes everything lighthearted and witty. Even the various love triangles don’t really provide much in the way of tension, because we can tell from the beginning who belongs with who. These are fine, but nothing all that special. They work, but are largely forgettable.

What isn’t forgettable are the musical numbers that mainly come at the end of the film. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, who also supervised building of the massive sets, Berkeley created the modern movie musical numbers as we now know them. Intricately choreographed, and shot from above (so the chorus girls can make out various shapes, which of course wouldn’t work on stage, but are Berkley’s main innovation), the musical numbers – including “You’re Getting to Be a Habit to Me”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “It Must Be June” and the title song make up the backbone of the film – and are the main reason to see it. Although the numbers may strike you as clichéd now, in 1933, they were hugely innovative, and were the reason why the film was an enormous success for Warner Bros. The film is credited with saving the then struggling studio, as well as ushering in the modern movie musical.  If for no other reason, 42nd Street should be seen by film buffs to know how musicals started. True, the movie does not seem as good today as I’m sure it did in 1933. But that doesn’t mean there are not delights to be had in watching it.

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