“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler
42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).
There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.
Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.
With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.
Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.
It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.
The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.
But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”
That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.
In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.
Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.
“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.
The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.
While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.