Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Trailer Tuesday: 42nd Street

I always manage to get the plots to 42nd STREET and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 mixed up, because both have amazing Busby Berkeley dance numbers and both share the same casts and both deal with survival during the Great Depression... so instead I'm just going to look at both films: 42nd STREET this week and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 next week. You might wonder why a guy who has a book on writing action movies is a huge fan of Warner Bros musicals from the 30s, but that would be thinking in cliches... so stop that right now! Oddly enough, the big set pieces in Busby Berkeley films have much in common with big action set pieces in today’s films... and probably even more in common with martial arts films (since both deal with graceful physical actions). There is an amazing stunt in 42nd STREET that is better than anything I’ve seen outside of Jackie Chan movies. But my main love for these films comes from their gritty reality base... these are movies from the Great Depression *about* the Great Depression. While MGM was turning out glossy fantasy musicals, Warner Brothers was known for gritty social issues film... and that extended to their musicals. Just as I love the WB long haul trucker movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and their film about guys stringing power lines across the country MANPOWER, these musicals are about real people struggling to pay the rent and doing hard physical work (dancing).

Busby Berkeley basically reinvented the musical with his amazing production numbers, and went from Broadway choreographer to film choreographer to director of film musicals to... director of THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, one of the best crime films of the 1930s and probably John Garfield’s best film. After that, he invented Carmen Miranda’s hat of fruit before heading to MGM where he directed Ester Williams’ *underwater* dance numbers.


Directed by: Lloyd Bacon (SAN QUENTIN, BROTHER ORCHID)
Written by: Rian James and James Seymour based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.
Musical Numbers by: Busby Berkeley.
Songs by: Al Dubin & Harry Warren.
Starring: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Alan Jenkins, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers.

Best Picture nominee.

Warner Baxter gives an Oscar calibre performance as famous stage director Julian Marsh who has lost *everything* in the Stock Market Crash *then* discovered he has health problems and may not have long to live. Basically, he’s screwed unless he can get a job, and his medical condition makes it impossible for him to get hired. Baxter manages to look and act as if every moment on screen may be his last while still playing a very physical strong willed man. He pulls off playing weak and strong at the same time.

Struggling Broadway producers Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (the always pessimistic Ned Sparks) discover that Broadway star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels, 1931 version of THE MALTESE FALCON) has a wealthy boyfriend Abner Dillon (the pudgy Guy Kibbee) who would do *anything* to get her into bed... even produce a Broadway show! These two schemers put together the pieces of the show, including director Marsh. But they need to cast 40 girls for the chorus, and that’s where we meet our protagonist Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a girl who literally just stepped off the bus from the Midwest with dreams of being a Broadway star. She brings her luggage to the audition!

The other girls at the audition are old pros, and make fun of Peggy and play cruel jokes on her (like telling her the casting will be done through the door to your left, which is the men’s room). But sending her to the wrong room results in her meeting perpetual Juvenile lead Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) in his underpants (this film is pre code, which means there is no shortage of chorus girl side boob, under boob, top boob, and barely covered by a lace undergarment boob... so Powell in his BVDs is equal time.) Lawler takes Peggy under his wing and does his best to prevent her from walking in on any other men in their underpants. Peggy is the #40 pick for the chorus line.

Because this is precode, the chorus girls don’t just jiggle a lot, they also make no bones about sleeping around (that seems contradictory). Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) has slept her way to the chorus line, and because she is sleeping with the Assistant Director, she instantly becomes the understudy. Where the other girls in the chorus have unfair advantages, Peggy only has her talent and determination. She practices harder and longer than any of the other girls, and passes out from exhaustion at one point. When she comes to, the first thing she does is try to get back to rehearsal. She’s a trooper! Soon Annie and the other chorus girls grow to respect her and accept her.

But a romance threatens the show. Star Dorothy Brock *hasn’t* slept with investor Dillon, despite him continuing to drop subtle hints like “I did something for you, now you need to do something for me.” The reason why: Dorothy is still hung up on her old boyfriend Denning (George Brent) who is flat broke and kind of her kept man. The producers fear that their investor will discover that their star is sleeping with this other guy instead of him and pull all of the money. When Denning decides to try and break up with Dorothy and find a manual labor job in Philly, he begins taking out Peggy... which pisses off Lawler. Kind of a double love triangle. All of this comes to a head when the show does a try out in Philly... and Dorothy discovers Denning and Peggy have hooked up.

Dorothy gets drunk the night before the big out of town opening... and breaks her ankle. Now we get two amazing story beats almost back to back. With Dorothy in a cast, Anytime Annie becomes the lead in the show. She has slept her way to the *top*! But when they break the news to her of her big break, she says she’d love to play the lead... but her main talents are *not* singing and dancing, and that kid off the bus Peggy is the best dancer in the show... Peggy should play the lead. Director Marsh goes to Peggy and tells her that she is now the lead, and coaches her basically around the clock until opening night. And when he leaves, Dorothy enters. Dorothy faces off against the woman who stole her man *and* stole her part... and you know this is going to be the cat fight to end all cat fights. Except, Dorothy tells her that no matter how Dorothy may feel about her, Peggy now has the lead in the show. Dorothy was once the understudy who had to step up to play the lead, and now it is Peggy’s turn and she needs to make the most of it. This is Peggy’s chance to become the star she has always dreamed of becoming, and Dorothy encourages her to *go for it*. Two unexpected story beats in a row!

Of course, Peggy gives it her all and the show is a success, and she ends up on Billy’s arms in the end... and the man who comes to Dorothy’s side while she’s injured is Denning... and when Dillon realizes that Dorothy isn’t going to sleep with him, he notices all of those hot young chorus girls like Anytime Annie and gets the booby prize. As in, those jiggling boobies.

The film is filled with amazing dance numbers, along with the signature Berkeley shot where every single beautiful chorus girl gets a close up... but the most amazing number is a long continuous take during the 42nd Street song that moves throughout a street set going inside and outside buildings, craning up and going through a 2nd story window to see a scene of domestic violence as a man beats a woman, she pushes him away, climbs out the window onto the ledge and *jumps* all the way down to the street where a dancer catches her and then dances with her. I look at that stunt and wonder how many dancers they went through before they got the take right. She freakin’ jumps off a 2nd story ledge and a guy *catches her*. It’s *pavement* below (hard surface so they can tap dance). These days no one would do a stunt that dangerous. It’s crazy!

The great thing about 42nd STREET is that it not only shows the gritty side of Great Depression life where people struggle to keep a roof over their heads *and* has these lavish completely visual dance numbers that are pure spectacle *and* show that hard work and determination pays off.


Thanks to Warner Archive, now on beautiful BluRay!

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