Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
44. 42nd Street (1933)
The definitive backstage musical, complete with the dazzling newcomer who goes on for the injured star. Starring Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, and Dick Powell. Screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour. Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
“Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), a tough, demanding Broadway director, ignores his weak heart when he has a chance to earn money he needs desperately by directing Pretty Lady the next musical for producers Jones & Barry. The leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), has been cast already by backer Abner Dillon (Guy Kibble), who is also Dorothy’s sugar daddy. In a highly competitive casting call, Marsh and his stage manager, Andy Lee (George E. Stone), audition the dancers, choosing among them Lee’s girlfriend Loraine Fleming (Una Merkel), a gold digger nick-named Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers), and newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), the play’s juvenile, falls in love with Peggy, but she is more impressed with Pat Denning (George Brent), Dorothy’s lover and ex-partner. Pat is getting tired of living in the shadow of Dorothy’s life and soon leaves for Philadelphia to establish his independence. Coincidentally, the company goes to Philadelphia for its out-of-town opening. During the cast party the night before the opening, Dorothy gets drunk, fights with Pat, and in the struggle, badly sprains her ankle. The next evening, after exhausting rehearsals with Marsh, Peggy goes on in her place and is a star overnight. Now she realizes that she loves Billy, just as Dorothy admits that what she really wants is to retire and marry Pat. In the end, Marsh’s finances are saved, but his accomplishment is overshadowed by Peggy’s new stardom.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The quintessential backstager (as the TCM logline agrees), 42nd Street is probably the best known Warner Brothers musical from the Pre-Code era — effortlessly filled with all the classic tropes we associate with the genre: maniacal directors, lascivious backers, and chorus girls rocketed to stardom. But don’t be fooled into thinking this film is clichéd; there’s a reason that so many of the genre’s archetypes can be traced back (or at least associated in mainstream terms) to 42nd Street: this picture does them better than anything else, naturally and without any sense of camp or B-rated hijinks. Even if future films and television spoofs never existed, there’d be something unalloyed about this presentation and what it has to offer. Of course, the story’s durability has also been reinforced by the 1980 Broadway adaptation, which I’m sure many of my readers are most readily acquainted. (I know the show quite well too — in fact, the 2001 revival was the first production I saw on the Great White Way!) Using four of the five original numbers composed for the score (excluding the chorus’ mundane “It Must Be June”), the famed David Merrick production filled out the plot with other Warren/Dubin standards, but essentially remained a faithful rendering of the original film (although the show has Dorothy Brock injured more musically — during a number, instead of a drunken stumble).
However, for as stellar as the Broadway production managed to be — and believe me, I think it was an excellent adaptation of the original material, with just the right supplemental standards to create a powerhouse property — the 1933 film is a tighter and more effective juncture. In addition to the more authentic sense of time and location, the film doesn’t over-push with regard to any of the characterizations. (While I don’t intend this post to be a comparison of the picture and the stage show, I think a few of these differences ably illustrate the specialness of the film.) While the stage show goes out of its way to make the director Julian Marsh (played here by Warner Baxter) more sympathetic, the film doesn’t give us anything but the narrative, and as it turns out — that’s all we need to understand who he is and what he wants. It’s efficient. Additionally, the presentation of Dorothy Brock is cartoonier on the stage, with her diva-like behaviors enhanced and countered with an intense vulnerability, neither of which is pressed too hard here. Bebe Daniels, who carries the film’s non-musical sequences, can be likable and unlikable all at once, and naturally adds layers to the character without needing gaudy help from the book. In addition to efficiency, again, it’s more honest.
And this notion of honesty is something we discuss a lot here in relation to Pre-Code films, so the picture’s reinforcement of the era’s prime theme ultimately makes it one of my essentials. Sure, I love the Busby Berkeley musical numbers (several of which — “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” “Young And Healthy,” and “42nd Street,” are among his most memorable), but the film is so much more than that; there’s more story here than you might realize. While all the songs are diegetic and explained in the story (either a rehearsal or the show), the thrust of the film is Marsh’s desire to put on a hit production: a mission complicated by various romantic entanglements. The juvenile (Powell) likes a naive chorine (Keeler, in her first picture), who likes Daniels’ boyfriend (Brent), who has been neglected in favor of Daniels’ sugar daddy (Kibbee), who pressures Marsh to keep Daniels and Brent apart. (Throw in Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers as randy chorus girls, and you’ve already got the makings for a classic.)
Yet unlike many of the other Essentials we’ve covered lately, there are no big splashily taboo story points; the film’s Pre-Code-ness is more subtle, evidenced in snappy lines and mildly sexy situations. Once again — it all comes across effortlessly. The musical sequences, while certainly the picture’s highlight, are not rendered more important than the story (as we’ve seen in other Warren-Dubin backstagers from Warner Bros.). Rather, the musical numbers are the culmination of the story points: Marsh’s grand production, Peggy’s big chance, the young lovers’ recognition of their romance, the fruits of the ensemble’s labor, etc. The film has been building to the show — not only functionally (this promotionally, is a musical, after all), but also narratively. This pay-off reveals a tightness in storytelling that makes 42nd Street unique and often the “poster child” for all similarly conceived films. More importantly: it’s better than those similarly conceived films, and deserves to be the representation. And what’s more, it’s a fine embodiment of the Pre-Code era too. An essential. A classic.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Our Pre-Code coverage will continue this year on a monthly basis, but will extend beyond Essentials to include other enjoyable pictures of the era that deserve to be seen and discussed, even if they aren’t stellar — like The Guardsman (1931). Stay tuned…
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in again on Tuesday for my thoughts on the best episodes from the seventh season of Married… With Children!