The joyous, almost buoyant Depression-era musical maintains its charm with rapid-fire wit, sometimes jarringly frank innuendo, and a generous dose of aesthetically and industrially significant Hollywood history.
In 42nd Street (1933), newbie “hoofer” Peggy (Ruby Keeler)–that’s 30s speak for tap-dancer, got me?–breaks her way into the chorus line of a Broadway production. In between grueling rehearsals, she learns the varieties of backstage romance from the well-intentioned to the gold-digging with a few others in-between. Her character’s story as a young gal adapting to life in the Big City is paralleled by a plot concerning threats to the financial future of the show and the secret affair of its female star. These plots converge when Peggy becomes a last minute replacement for the lead and must push herself to discover what she’s made of.
As a “backstage musical” 42nd Street‘s musical numbers occur within the confines of putting on a show rather than the any-minute-now-someone-might-break-into-song type that many non-musical theater types find off-putting. It’s also a Warner Brother’s picture, the studio whose brand was films for “the working man” and also included the original cycle of Hollywood gangster pictures. (Yes: this explains how Jimmy Cagney of Public Enemy (1931) was also famous for his tap dancing a la Footlight Parade (1933): WB had him under contract for the bulk of his career.)
Why else should you see 42nd Street–even or maybe especially if you’ve seen a live-production of the musical version? Some long-time readers of this blog may recall my fondness for Busby Berkeley from a previous post. He choreographed the production scenes and the directing will no doubt appear gimmicky to today’s viewers, but it also appeared gimmicky to his original audiences in the 1930s. A choreographer and director, the gimmick of Berkeley’s unusual positioning of the camera and sometimes bizarre tracking shots were precisely the point as very few in Hollywood were really experimenting with where a camera could take us. Sure, it could show us someone’s point of view or maybe take our imaginations on an escape to the “wrong side of the tracks” but Busby Berkeley was thinking more “I wonder what this would like if we suspended the camera from the ceiling?” or “how can I get a track shot that goes under women’s skirts?” You know, the Big Questions.
But seriously, in an era before an opening pan of the scenery or a crane shot of an exploding vehicle were anything close to de rigeur, Berkeley’s production numbers–as 42nd Street attests–were pioneering without really taking themselves too seriously ([cough] James Cameron). He was coming up with all these great setups and visual effects simply to dish up more chorus-line-cuties per linear foot of film than, well, anyone. This was also a significant development for the industry. The multitude of leg shots, up the skirt shots, “look at those belly buttons” shots etc, etc, in Berkeley’s oeuvre and the relatively scanty, often-flesh-toned showgirl outfits that went with them were targets for moral outrage by Hollywood’s detractors. Those great gam shots were part of what the notorious Hollywood Production Code (or Hays Code) sought to stifle as it was written and ultimately enforced in 1934, just a year after this film.
Also, the cast is a terrific lineup of 1930s talent. Yes, 42nd Street is a true prototype of the Hollywood “backstage musical” subgenre. Yes, Busby Berkeley is, I dunno, a little like the 1933 Baz Luhrmann. Now add Ginger Rogers as the gold-digging comic foil (yes, the one that goes with Fred Astaire.) And Ruby Keeler, my grandmother’s favorite tap dancer. And, Dick Powell in the “male youth” role–who is so sweet it goes down as pure cane sugar, rather than saccharin. Weird fact: Powell was credited among the Hollywood elite as the man who turned Ronald Reagan into a Republican. I suppose he’d say, “You’re welcome, America.”
Protip: A song that’s chorus includes among the greatest pick up lines of all time (“I’m young and healthy, and you’ve got charm.”) is a real ear worm. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.