Pre-Code Crazy: 42nd Street (1933)
By now, you probably know that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals. But there are some musicals that I simply adore, and I have to admit that 42nd Street is one of them.
In fact, until I popped in my DVD to watch the film for this post, I’d actually forgotten just how much I love this film, and how deeply its music is ingrained in my heart. From the first strains of the title song, I could feel my heart start to quicken, just a little, and before the opening credits had finished running, I was singing aloud to “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me.” (I then remembered that the first time I saw the film, many years ago, I fell in such instant love with this song that I played my tape over and over again, writing down the words so I could learn them all. I used to do things like that, back in the day. I also did it with the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” from the 1951 noir, The Strip. But I REALLY digress.)
What’s it all about, Alfie?
42nd Street, in a nutshell, serves up a very simple showbiz story, with a fairly standard cast of characters. There’s the intense and hot-tempered Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) “the greatest musical comedy director in the world today,” who’s not only in financial straits, but is also suffering from health problems. (“It’s my last show, and it’s got to be my best,” he tells the producer. “It’s got to support me for a long time to come.”) There’s the leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), a diva who’s stringing along the play’s love-struck financial backer, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), while she plays footsie with her old vaudeville partner (George Brent). And Peggy Sawyer, the plucky chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) who’s thrilled to be in her first show, and is poised to ride the serendipity train to stardom. And don’t forget Dick Powell as the aw-shucks crooner who only has eyes for Peggy.
Interwoven throughout this basic story, you’ll find a love pentagon (if you will), along with a passel of emotional sacrifices and misunderstandings. There’s never a dull moment. The dialogue is chock-full of memorable zingers, the songs are catchy, and the first-rate dance numbers by Busby Berkeley are just what you’d expect. (Incidentally, I’ve read several reviews that remark on the improbability of the dance routines, and how they would be impossible to actually carry out on a stage, but who cares? They’re great!)
This film was the screen debut of Ruby Keeler. Known for her “hoofing,” the actress was married at the time of the film to singer-dancer Al Jolson.
Warner Baxter is not exactly my favorite actor of all time. He’s not as wooden as, say, John Boles, but he’s definitely got some lumber tendencies, if you know what I mean. Still, I have to concede that 42nd Street contains my favorite Warner Baxter performance. He’s perfect for the high-strung director who seems like he’s going to have a stroke any second.
Ginger Rogers is a scene-stealing hoot. We first meet her at a casting call, where she shows up in a tweed suit, accessorized with a monocle, a Pekinese pooch, and a faux British accent. Her close pal (and fellow scene thief) is played by Una Merkel, who uses her relationship with an assistant director to snag spots in the chorus for her and her friends.
This film was my introduction to Bebe Daniels. I was an instant fan. It was also my first exposure to Ned Sparks, who delivers one of my favorite lines when he says that the play’s financial backer looks like “a Bulgarian boll weevil mourning its first born.”
As always, I marvel at how Ruby Keeler got to be so popular. She’s so unrefined, even ungainly, in the dancing department – Cyd Charisse, she ain’t – and her singing certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Still, she’s the type of performer that you can’t take your eyes off of (pardon my dangling preposition), and you can’t deny that she’s charming, likable, and cute as the proverbial bug’s ear.
The film contains one of those lines that’s been modified by history and frequently incorrectly entered in the annals of film (in the tradition of Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” in White Heat, and Bogart’s “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca). Warren Baxter’s Julian Marsh tells Peggy: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
Speaking of quotes, here are a few more of my favorites!
“You’re supposed to be a dancer. All you need is a couple of license plates, and you’ll look like a Model T Ford.”
“It must have been tough on your mother, not having any children.”
“Not anytime Annie? Say, who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ once, and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”
42nd Street airs February 8th on TCM – whether you’ve never seen it before, or it’s an old favorite, give yourself a treat and tune in.
You only owe it to yourself.
And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!