Thursday, March 10, 2016

42nd Street Danced and Sang Its Way into the Heart of Depression America

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, the breakout stars of 42nd Street received fourth and fifth billing respectively on the movie poster.

When it premiered at the Strand Theater in New York City on March 9, 1933 42nd Street broke new ground for the American movie musical and struck a chord with Depression weary audiences.  The reviews which came out in the morning papers the next day they were practically ecstatic and when it opened nationwide on Mach 11 there were lines at the box offices.  The movie went on to earn Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound.  It became the template for a slew of film and stage musicals down to this day which is why many who see it now for the first time think it is cliché ridden.  It was not—it invented those clichés.  When audience first saw it, it was as fresh as a strawberry off the vine.
It was produced by Warner Bros. which was then challenging mighty MGM with its seemingly limitless resources, vast stable of stars, and glossy product as the most influential Hollywood studio.  Warner/First National had come on strong since it introduced practical sound in 1928 with Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer.  Although the Vitaphone process was soon technologically superseded by sound on film, the early edge gave the studio a chance to establish an audience with musicals.  When the Depression it, it nimbly responded.  While MGM continued to churn out prestige costume dramas and drawing room tales replete with vast art deco mansions, white tie and tails, and ladies swathed in silks and furs, Warner countered with struggling shop girls, down on their luck big city Joes, and gangsters.  It developed its own set of rising young stars who did not speak in the cultured Mid-Atlantic accent so common in MGM films, but in the clipped slang of the streets—James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Barbara Stanwick.  It reveled in the license of the pre-motion picture code era to push the envelope on sexual themes, innuendo, and as much pulchritude and flesh as possible without inviting police raids.
But by the early Thirties, audiences had tired of Warner’s stiff and stage-bound musicals.  MGM had joined the fray with new musicals with splashy production numbers.  It was known to have a backstage musical, Dancing Lady with its hottest stars Joan Crawford and Clark Gable in the early stages of development.

Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, and Una Merkle join the chorus.

In a bid to win back the musical audience, Warner Bros. turned to a popular novel, 42nd Street by Bradford Ropes.  It quickly snapped up the rights to the theatrical romance and named one of its top directors, Mervin LeRoy, to helm the project.  The first thing LeRoy did was to suggest bright young starlet Ginger Rogers as “Anytime” Annie Lowell, the sexually easy chorine who was a key supporting character.  LeRoy was dating Rogers at the time.  But he was not able to complete the casting or make the film.  When he fell ill, Warner assigned less prestigious journeyman Lloyd Bacon to take over behind the camera.  More critically Busby Berkley, who had worked on the popular Eddie Cantor musicals at the Samuel Goldwyn studio where he had invented the parade of faces of chorus girls, was brought on to choreograph and supervise the musical numbers.  That gave him complete control of the most critical elements of the film from camera placement and movement to editing.
For the songs Warner paired Broadway composer and hit maker Harry Warren with veteran lyricist Al Dubin who had penned among other songs Tip Toe Through the Tulips.  It was the first collaboration of the duo who would go on to write 60 hits together and work on many of the most successful musicals of the ’30’s.
With Daryl F. Zanuck as the producer even though he never got screen credit, virtually every star on the Warner lot was considered or tested for the cast.  Ginger Rogers nearly lost her part to established star and Jack Warner favorite Joan Blondell, but Zanuck stood up for LeRoy’s original choice.   Suave silent movie carryover Warren William was considered for the demanding and harried stage director Julian Marsh.  But William had recently been typed as a ruthless, caddish businessman in a series of Pre-code pot boilers and it was feared audiences would expect him to seduce a naïve chorus girl.  Instead the part went to another silent era veteran, the square jawed Warner Baxter who exuded integrity as he struggled with illness, cast melodrama, and financial disaster to get the show to production.

Bebe Daniels was the ostensible female lead and got top billing.
The ostensible female lead role was Dorothy Brock, an ambitious actress/singer who leads along show angel Abner Dilton (Guy Kibbee) who bankrolls the show on the condition that Brock get the starring part.  Brock, meanwhile, still carries a torch for and secretly sees her out of work former Vaudeville partner Pat Denning.  Denning was played by Warner’s fall back leading man through the ‘30’s, the ever wooden George Brent.  Kay Francis and Ruth Chatterton were both considered to play Dorothy but the part ultimately went to Bebe Daniels.  Daniels was a former child star who broke out as leading lady opposite Rudolph Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire.   When talkies came in she showed that she could sing when she starred in the hit Rio Rita in 1929.  Warner picked up her contract from Radio Pictures in 1930 and cast her in dramas, most notably as the murderous vixen in the first version of the Maltese Falcon opposite Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade.   After the success of 42nd Street Daniels was one of the top Warner female stars until her retirement from films in 1935 to live in London with her husband.
The key role of the female juvenile lead, Peggy Sawyer, was first shopped to Loretta Young who had some ballet training but not the tap dancing skills necessary to carry Berkley’s elaborate production numbers and her singing voice would have to be dubbed.  Zanuck cast the relatively unknown Broadway chorus girl and hoofer Ruby Keeler who happened to be married to Al Jolson.  Keeler exuded youthful fresh faced charm as the naïve country girl in the big city.  She had a pleasant, but not spectacular singing voice of somewhat limited range but could dance up a storm.  Although she would later be eclipsed by tap queens like Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller she wowed audiences in 1933. From the waist down she tapped flawlessly but she sometimes seemed to flail her arms as if she was about to lose balance and fall over.  She remained a big star at Warner through the early and mid ‘30’s but her star began to fade at the end of the decade when she was dropped by the studio and was reduced to cheapo productions like Columbia’s Sweetheart of the Campus with Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard in 1941.  After that humiliation she retired.  After making a 1963 TV series version of The Greatest Show on Earth with Jack Palance and doing a cameo in one forgettable 1970 film, Keeler made a spectacular comeback in 1972 in the Broadway revival of No, No, Nannette.

Juvenile leads Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler rehearse.
In the film the green behind the ears Peggy Sawyer is taken under the wings of been-there-done-that chorus girls “Anytime Annie” and Lorraine Fleming played by Una Merkel, Warner’s ubiquitous best friend in all films where that part was not taken by Joan Blondell.  Early on she runs afoul of director Julian Marsh but ultimately wins his respect.
The male juvenile lead, Billy Lawler, always belonged to boyishly handsome Dick Powell, a former band singer and Vocalion recording star who had a strong light tenor voice.  It was his second film, following a minor role as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event a year earlier.  He would sing his way through a string of Warner hit musicals often teamed with Keeler and/or Blondell before reinventing himself as a film noir tough guy after World War II and as a television producer/director/host/guest star in the ‘50’s.  He died of cancer in 1963 at the age of 53.  His cancer may have been caused by exposure to radiation while directing the John Wayne in the Genghis Kahn mess The Conqueror on location near the Nevada nuclear test sites.
In the book director Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler were lovers.  Although Warner often used apparently gay characters mostly as comic relief in the pre-Code era it was a bridge too far for sympathetic lead characters.  Lawler romantic attention was shifted to Peggy Sawyer, who was also his partner in the most important production numbers.
In the film, the plot, such as it is, turns on the guilt ridden triangle between the backer Dalton, star Dorothy Brock, and old flame Pat Demming.  When Marsh discovers that Brock is “cheating” on the angle by secretly seeing Demming, he desperately sends some hoodlum pals to rough up and scare Demming away.  The boyfriend decides to leave rather than jeopardize his lover’s chance at stardom.  Meanwhile during rehearsals we see Brock sing You Are Getting to be a Habit With Me which we realize has a double meaning for her.  She also does a run through of It Must Be June with Billy Lawler and the chorus.
Right before the crucial out of town opening in Philadelphia Brock breaks her ankle and is unable to go on the same night she quarrels with Dalton and ends their relationship.  The eager “Anytime” Annie is right there to move in on the rich man.  Dalton insists to the desperate Marsh that Annie now get the lead.  But Annie surprises everyone by saying that she can’t carry the show but knows who can—the here-to-fore timid Peggy Sawyer.  Marsh is dubious but has no choice.  He has less than a day to drill Sawyer in the part.  He tells her “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl.”  Then we see a montage of him mercilessly driving her right up to an hour before curtain time.

Keeler gets the final pep talk from Warner Baxter.
As the show is about to go on Dorothy Brock arrives to give her blessing to Sawyer and the show and to announce that she and Pat Demming are getting married.  So, apparently are “Anytime” Annie and her bald fat cat.  With romance in the air Billy Lawler, who has mooned over Peggy but been too shy to make a move gets up the nerve to tell her he loves her and give her a passionate kiss.  Just before the show goes on Marsh takes Peggy aside for one last pep talk—the most memorable line of the film, “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”
With all of the plot threads tied up in pretty bows, the last twenty minutes of the film are given over entirely to three Berkley production numbers which blend into one another featuring Keeler, Powel, and the chorus—Shuffle off to Buffalo, I’m Young and Healthy, and the title number.

In a moment Busby Berkley will make the buildings dance with Ruby Keeler.

Just as the movie ends with a cheering audience, so did the film in countless theaters.  Warner Bros. was so confident that they had a hit that much of the same creative team and cast were already working on an even bigger follow-up, Gold Diggers of 1933.
The movie was listed as #13 on the American Film Institute (AFI) and was selected by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
It inspired the David Merrick Broadway production of 42nd Street in 1980 that was directed by Gower Champion.  It was Champion’s last show.  After curtain call for the instant hit, Merrick took to the stage to announce that Champion had died that afternoon.  The show had a successful run in London’s West End and on national tour.  It was revived on Broadway in 2001.
And when it pops up on TCM, I stop whatever I am doing and sit down to watch.  I am never disappointed.



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