Lost in the Movies: Musical Countdown - 42nd Street

Musical Countdown - 42nd Street

This is an entry in the Wonders in the Dark musical countdown - an epic enterprise; make sure you check out the whole thing!

This post consists of an essay and a video piece (not just a scene from the movie intended as an addendum, but something I actually created as an important part of my contribution to the countdown). You can take it any order, but I open with the video to highlight its relevance to this entry. It shows through juxtaposition and structure what I am saying in the essay itself, and maybe makes my point better than words can do.

The five-minute video opens with dialogue from the film, follows with a rehearsal montage set to "Getting to Be a Habit With Me" (showing the progression from casting call to finished production), and closes with the dance sequence of "Young and Healthy" in its entirety, just to show what the film was building up to. Altogether the video demonstrates how the raw and often frustrated urges of the characters for sex and power are sublimated and transmuted into the discipline of a creative act, and then shows the end result in all its glory. The essay pursues the same theme.

And don't worry - they're both fun!

42nd Street (1933/United States/directed by Lloyd Bacon & choreographed by Busby Berkeley)

stars Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers

written by Rian James, James Seymour and Whitney Bolton from Bradford Ropes' novel • photographed by Sol Polito • designed by Jack Oakey • music by Al Dubin & Harry Warren • edited by Thomas Pratt & Frank Ware

The Story: Determined to direct a hit show, even if it kills him, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) struggles with romantic entanglements, last-minute injuries, and a nervous ingenue named Peggy (Ruby Keeler). Will the curtain open or come crashing down on "Pretty Lady"?

"Pretty Lady" - the stage extravaganza at the center of 42nd Street - owes its existence solely to sex. Well, don't we all? Some musicals present themselves as good, clean fun but 42nd Street, God bless its dirty face, is not one of those musicals. At the root of its massive appeal, kinetic energy, and increasingly exciting narrative and musical structure are three simple motivating factors: sex, sex, and sex. Well, a fourth too: money – and in this film the two are wound around each like the two strands of DNA.

As Chaos Theory holds that a butterfly need just flap its wings to spawn a typhoon halfway around the world, so Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) has only to spread her legs. Thus is birthed a larger-than-life production, upon which the career of a broken, possibly dying director relies, through which a naïve young ingénue will become the biggest name on Broadway, and from which two hundred hustling, horny, hungry human beings will draw their daily bread (and dreams of glory). Dirty old man, sugar daddy, and cuckold Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) tells Dorothy he’ll do something for her (finance the show she wants to star in) if she’ll do something for him (guess what?). And with that, we’re off!

Yet the film proceeds to remind us that the whole operation is too complex for one man to hold all the strings; as already noted, Dorothy is playing Abner behind his back, hooking up with an old flame, a burnt-old vaudevillian named Pat Denning (George Brent) who once made her and now lets her make him. The cast and crew tease Abner, and then cajole and flatter him into sticking around – by the end he seems less like a power broker and more like another body caught up in the whirlwind, bigger than any one person yet keyed in to the energy of them all.

Through wearying hardbitten rehearsals, spitfire dialogue, and little tantalizing tastes of catchy songs (“Getting to Be a Habit With Me” alone must play a dozen times as background music), 42nd Street works us up into a state of nearly feverish anticipation that seems insatiable. In the more than capable Lloyd Bacon’s hands, the backstage drama and cynical comedy serve their purpose, and then in from the wings sweeps Busby Berkeley, the great lover-turned-choreographer, to give the film the orgasm it so yearns for – three big ones, just for good measure.

So many movies about creative types coyly keep their characters’ actual achievements offscreen, as if they would disappoint after all the talking-up. 42nd Street goes in the opposite direction – giving us musical sequences so outlandish, memorable, and exciting, that they make us wonder how those down-to-earth, skeptical, weary actors and directors we’ve been watching for ninety minutes managed to create something so outstanding.

No film better captures the transfiguration of blood, sweat, and tears into transcendent entertainment. Of the three classic Busby Berkeley films released by Warner Brothers in 1933, Footlight Parade has the most astonishing numbers and Gold Diggers of 1933 probably has the best story (axe the music and you’d still have a comedic gem – only who the hell would want to axe the music?!). But it’s 42nd Street that best fuses story and song, so that the two are indispensable to one another.

As with any Berkeley musical, it’s rather an absurdity that the climactic, uber-cinematic spectacles could arise from the situation developed in the plot. Where to begin? (spoilers in this paragraph) The day before, at the dress rehearsal, the performance disappoints the director – “not good, not bad.” A day later everyone's, well, in a Busby Berkeley movie, flawlessly executing complicated movements. But that’s not all. The very lady dancing her heart out is a last-minute replacement, and we’re expected to believe that in a few hours she mastered all the dialogue, songs, and dance steps (we also wonder why they didn't already have an understudy in place). These turns are improbable if still remotely in the realm of possibility.

Then there’s the numbers themselves. They only make sense if conceived for the silver screen, not from a theatrical standpoint, even if one was able to pull off the complex engineering and arrangement (in a show that can’t even make a Broadway opening, relegated to Philadelphia!). Yet as Berkeley enjoys reminding us, we aren’t watching a play, we’re watching a movie. And so the unreality escalates – first a train splits down the middle and opens wide, so we can see the inside. Then we’re observing small props and subtle facial expressions, impossible for a theatrical spectator to perceive. Before long, dancers are swiveling their legs in patterns revealed only when viewed overhead (this aspect actually was solved for stage audiences when 42nd Street was revived as a Broadway musical – a mirror was placed at an angle behind the proscenium so that audiences could enjoy the full spectacle).

Finally comes the capper: the camera glides through the open legs of numerous chorus girls, coming to rest on an extreme close-up of the two leads. By the time we get to the title number, the camera and the editors’ scissors are completely dictating our point of view, surprising us by placing Ruby Keeler on a car top (and then pulling out to reveal a street full of jiving giants and midgets), shifting tone gracefully by swooping upwards to catch Dick Powell in a window (after following a no-good dame in a suicidal swan dive, from which she is saved and then stabbed in the street below), and climbing a trick-angle skyscraper painting so that we really seem to be gliding up towards the stars – an apt metaphor for the journey 42nd Street takes us on.

If the numbers don’t make logical sense, they make perfect emotional sense, because after the windup we’ve undergone, only something this explosive could give us what we came for. A true climax.

In order to give you a taste of the sustained anticipation and release this great film provides, I’ve created a video piece (see above), using “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” as the baseline over which the dialogue, action, and eventually dances escalate - before concluding with a whole number from the film (maybe its best, though it's really hard to say). Enjoy – and then seek out the film if you haven’t yet. The full film must be seen, savored, and celebrated. Afterwards, you may want a cigarette.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

How 42nd Street made the "Elite 70"
Judy Geater's No. 9 choice
Greg Ferrara's No. 9 choice
Allan Fish's No. 17 choice
Pat Perry's No. 26 choice
Dennis Polifroni's No. 29 choice
Sam Juliano's No. 46 choice

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review/video essay was originally published.


STinG said...

To me, the sole flaw of 42nd Street as a movie is Ruby Keeler. I'll be damned if she can act her way out a paper bag and her false inflection and empty facial expressions nearly sucked the emotion and life out of the movie, especially when the climax, if not the movie overall, revolved around her character.

Julian Marsh's energy covered for her enough, though.

Joel Bocko said...

You are far from the only one to recoil from Keeler (I've also heard her singing & dancing criticized). I guess I can see where the criticism comes from but somehow she's never bothered me, and I even find her kind of charming. To me she makes up in energy what she may lack in finesse (and I kind of like her dancing style, fwiw). But yeah, the ensemble has a lot to offer even those who can't abide Keeler: Warner Baxter's just fantastic in this - and Powell has a lot of gusto too. And of course Merkel & Rogers are a thrill as the foxy, sniping chorus girls.

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