Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - 42nd Street (#63)

The Favorites - 42nd Street (#63)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. 42nd Street (1933/USA/dir. Lloyd Bacon, chor. Busby Berkeley) appeared at #63 on my original list.

What it is • There's a show going up, but it's no big deal. Just another Broadway spectacular, and anyway, tonight's the Philadelphia opening not the big New York premiere. Besides, the big star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) has fractured her ankle and some ingenue named Peggy (Ruby Keeler) is going on in her place, a kid who has no previous experience and is guaranteed to flop. At best, it will be a good night's entertainment - who cares? Well, just about everyone. Everyone involved with the show anyway, which means several hundred people from the chorus girls who are one dance step away from sleeping on a park bench to the pathetic producers who want to play sugar daddy for queens of the stage to the not-even-understudy-turned-star whose life is about to change to the strained, exhausted, but dedicated director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) whose life is maybe about to end (when we meet him, he's receiving a call from his doctor, warning him that if he proceeds with this new production he very well may have a heart attack and drop dead). Even when the show, against all odds, turns out to be a rousing success, Marsh hovers near the exit and listens to the audience members dismiss his accomplishment, claiming that Peggy - whom Marsh tirelessly trained at the last minute - deserves all the credit. He doesn't get mad or frustrated or depressed, he just sighs and chuckles to himself and sits down on the fire exit, unable to move after tossing his body and soul into the raging fire of this performance. If there's any film that better demonstrates the blood, sweat, tears and perverse sense of satisfaction that go into creative endeavors, I don't know of it. Beyond just demonstrating all of the hard work, 42nd Street mythologizes the result: the climax of the film is choreographed by Busby Berkeley to resemble nothing that could ever actually be accomplished on a theater stage (and even if it could, you'd lose the thrill of what we see, reliant as it is on cutting, angle, and camera movement). Instead, it's the fever dream of what these desperate adventures look like in the imaginations of those who envision and enact them. This is pure cinema, but it's a tribute to all forms of artistic accomplishment or, in the parlance of the unpretentious characters of this movie, show biz.

Why I like it •
This is just so entertaining. Obviously, the musical sequences are brilliant - although Berkeley's follow-ups in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade are probably even better - but even as a backstage comedy 42nd Street pulses with life. The quips come a mile a minute and they're all hysterical (all of Una Merkel's and Ginger Rogers' exchanges have me in stitches). The crisscrossing romances and flings are electric with sexual tension; this is as pre-Code as they come (at one point, as Merkel shifts around a chorus boy's lap, he asks her where she's sitting and she answers, "A flagpole!"). And as discussed above, the stakes seem incredibly high if only because the characters themselves regard them as such: Marsh is one of the quintessential creators-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown. Francois Truffaut famously said, "Today, I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse." 42nd Street exuberantly demonstrates both the joy and the agony of making cinema - or anything that requires the creator/performer to tap into something beyond a formula, something more fundamental that simultaneously exhausts and exalts their nervous system. By the way, lest it seem that 42nd Street is a tightrope walk across an electric wire, the film is tremendously fun. The ensemble is rich with energetic flourishes and memorable mugs (Ned Sparks chomping on his cigar is alone worth the price of admission), and lest we forget in our celebration of the rehearsal process, the film has absolutely extraordinary musical setpieces. "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" is cute and clever, as much for its lyrics as its staging (though the train car that folds out is wonderfully displayed). "Young and Healthy" is the first real evidence of Berkeley's genius, at least in his Warners films (full confession: I've yet to see most of his Eddie Cantor films, aside from Roman Scandals - which I don't recall rivaling this - or any of his other eight pre-42nd Street ventures), with the spectacular overhead kaleidoscope of legs and ribbons topped only by the trip through the legs from ground view. And "42nd Street" itself is the moment that cements the film's status as a masterpiece, allowing the entire screen to pulse with the dynamism usually reserved for the dancers themselves. On another day, I might consider Gold Diggers of 1933 or Footlight Parade to be Berkeley's masterpiece but no other film of his that I've seen better balances the build-up and the pay-off than 42nd Street.
How you can see it • 42nd Street is available on DVD from Netflix. I created a dual video essay/prose essay on the film for the Wonders in the Dark musical countdown in 2011 (with some comments, near the end of the thread, discussing a stunning real-life analogue to 42nd Street's scenario). It also features at 3:02 in "Talking, Singing, Dancing Pictures", chapter 3 of my video-clip series "32 Days of Movies".

What do you think? • Is this Busby Berkeley's finest moment? If not, what is? Have you seen his earlier films, and if so how do you feel they build up to this? What do you think of his later works, particularly anything post-Footlight, and post-Code? Do you think director Lloyd Bacon's (and writers Rian James' and James Seymour's, and who knows whoever else's - you know how the thirties were) contribution is underrated? Have you seen the stage show and if so, how effectively did you feel it translated the cinematic conceptions of the film? Do you enjoy Ruby Keeler's performance or do you find her underwhelming? What is your favorite musical number in the film? What is your favorite non-musical scene? If a question is asked in a blog post and no one answers it, was is it really read? (I kid, kinda - these are intended as food for thought, not homework assignments, but at times you do have to wonder...)

• • •

Next week: Barry Lyndon (#62)

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