Monday, September 27, 2010

42nd Street (1933)

Here they are, ladies and gents: Lads and lassies, sassy and brassy, singing and swaying as Broadway sensations of 1933 while they tap-tap-tap their way into your hearts.

There’s Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), the delightful diva who juggles a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee) and a hunky hoofer (George Brent) while celebrating her own superstardom. There’s Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), an all-American “juvenile” who’s catnip to ladies of all ages. There’s Ann Lowell (Ginger Rogers), a chorus girl with an eye for the boys and a naughty nickname – Anytime Annie – she’s bent over backwards to earn. There’s Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a starry-eyed novice who’s ever-so-excited to be just another pretty face (and a pair of flashy gams) in the background of the big show.

And folks, we’re talking a really, really big show: The latest and greatest produced and directed by Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), the living legend who’s fading fast, who’s determined to score once last triumph before he takes his final bow. Always the most demanding of taskmasters, Marsh is even more unforgivingly ferocious than usual as he hand-picks his cast, nitpicks his material – “Sure, I liked that number! I liked it in 1905! What do you think we’re putting on, a revival?” – and rants and raves through rehearsals that push everyone, including Marsh, to egregious extremes.

Through sheer force of will, Marsh bends everyone and everything to his design. Even when fate tosses him a nasty curve – Dorothy breaks her ankle just before opening night – he barely slows his breakneck progress. Left without a suitable star, he simply plucks a replacement from the chorus: Peggy, the fresh-faced first-timer. Is she nervous? Sure. Is she game? You bet. But just to make sure she’s fully aware that it’s not just a show she is shouldering – after all, there is a Great Depression going on -- Marsh shoves her toward the spotlight with a last-minute pep talk:

“Miss Sawyer, you listen to me… and you listen hard! Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you! It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you! You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give! They’ve got to like you – got to! You understand? You can’t fall down, you can’t! Because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you! All right now, I’m through! But you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours! And Sawyer – you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”


Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street, the exuberantly campy classic in which chorus girls become overnight sensations and Broadway extravaganzas are literally matters of life or death, is widely viewed as the mother of all backstage musicals, as well as the lexicon containing every cliché of the genre. As such, it’s an easy target for cynics and satirists. But it’s quite capable of raising your spirit and touching your heart if you give it half a chance, because even the moldiest clichés can be surprisingly potent when you confront them in their original context. To put it another way: The characters here are so intensely sincere, even when they’re well aware of how silly they might seem, that it’s almost inconceivably cruel not to take them seriously.

To be sure, audiences of the 1930s were inclined to take 42nd Street very seriously indeed. As Martin Scorsese perceptively notes in his Personal Journey Through American Movies, the rise of the musical paralleled that of the gangster melodrama in early ’30s cinema. And just as dire economic conditions and widespread unemployment often figured into the motives of movie mobsters, Scorsese writes, “The harshness of the times, the Depression, colored this most escapist of film genres… In those times, if one showed any ambition, one either became a gangster or a showbiz performer – at least in the fantasy world of Warner Bros. Broadway offered a metaphor for a desperate, shattered country. Director or chorus girl, your life depended on the show’s success.”

All of which helps explain why, even during the leanest and meanest years of the Great Depression, movie attendance remained remarkably steady as anxious masses sought Hollywood products that either promised escape from hard realities of the day, or encouraged audiences by reinforcing a sense of solidarity in the face of adversity. To its considerable credit, 42nd Street did both.

Just as important – from a film historian’s view, at least -- 42nd Street did much to define the movie musical as an art form separate and distinct from the stage-bound variety, by introducing an aesthetic of dance conceived for the camera. Like him or loathe him, cheer him or jeer him, dance master Busby Berkeley envisioned a vigorously spectacular form of choreography involving beautifully leggy chorines, machine-like precision, intricate geometric design, surrealistic excess – and, what the hell, as much sexually charged imagery as he could slip past the Production Code bluenoses.

Film historian David Thomson may have said it best: “Berkeley was a lyricist of eroticism, the high-angle shot and the moving camera; he made it explicit that when the camera moves it has the thrust of the sexual act with it. It is only remarkable that some viewers smile on what they consider the ‘period charm’ of such libertinage.”

In the final third of 42nd Street – and even more so throughout Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 and other films that employed him as choreographer and/or director – Berkeley devised elaborate musical sequences that could never be contained in a Broadway production. Nor could they ever appear as impressive on the Great White Way as they do in one of Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots. The grand and glorious irony of Berkeley’s career is that he brought to backstage musicals the type of spectacle that could never be replicated on stage. (No, not even in the popular Broadway musical adapted from the 1933 film.) By doing that, he earned a place of honor in the pantheon of those visionaries who helped establish the wondrous ways that movies move.

Of course, critics don’t always appreciate, or even understand, revolutionary innovation. Consider this snippy pan of 42nd Street, written by an uncredited (and, apparently, unqualified) movie critic for the March 18, 1933 edition of Newsweek: “Busby Berkeley, the dance director, has gone to a lot of ineffectual bother about his intricate formations, not having been told that masses of chorus girls mean something only in the flesh. His talent is wasted in the films.” Yeah, right.


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