This entry is a contribution to the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Be sure to check out the other great posts and thanks to Jill and Michael for hosting!
Today is Ginger Rogers’ SUTS day, and she is definitely a favorite of mine (and we share a birthday). While Rogers is probably best known for her 10 film partnership with Fred Astaire, she was an Oscar winner for Kitty Foyle, proving she had dramatic chops in addition to her fine sense of comedy and dancing abilities.
42nd Street is one of Rogers’ breakthrough films from her early days. In 1933, Rogers appeared in 10 movies, including the supporting role she had with Astaire in Flying Down to Rio which launched their legendary partnership. She would have a small role in Warner Brothers Gold Diggers of 1933, and the combined popularity of these films propelled Rogers into stardom.
42nd Street follows director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), one of the most famous and brilliant Broadway musical directors, as he attempts to bring his latest stage production, Pretty Lady, to life. Marsh, who is in questionable health, is a taskmaster and seems always on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Financing the show is Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), who has put up the money in exchange for the companionship of the show’s star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). However, she is secretly seeing her old vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent), thus jeopardizing the show’s future.
Doe-eyed Ruby Keeler (in her screen debut) plays chorus girl Peggy Sawyer, who falls for both Pat and the production’s juvenile, Billy (Dick Powell). While Powell sees less screen time than Keeler, it would be the beginning of their long screen relationship in other Warner Brothers musicals. At the eleventh hour, having been somewhat caught up in the Abner/Dorothy/Pat love triangle, Peggy is pulled from the chorus line to take Dorothy’s place after the latter breaks an ankle, and the show becomes a hit with her as its star.
Rogers plays Ann Lowell, who is referred to throughout the film as “Anytime Annie.” It is here that I must point out that I find it a little amusing that this is the TCM Essentials Jr. pick for tonight, as it has plenty of sly Pre-Code sexual references. Anytime Annie is the wisecracking chorus girl who’s been around the block, moving from production to production without a starring role. The part gives Rogers a chance to show off her comedic talent, as seen in this scene:
The plot of 42nd Street isn’t complicated as it mainly follows the trials and tribulations of getting a musical to the stage, but the people associated with the film in front of and behind the camera are what make it work. I wouldn’t say there is much being asked from the cast acting-wise, but everyone fits perfectly into their roles. Baxter is especially good as Marsh, giving off the right air of desperation. The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon, a Warners regular, while the musical scenes were choreographed by Busby Berkeley. The partnership of Harry Warren and Al Dubin provided the film’s music.
Like many of the later Warner Brothers musicals, except for a few snippets of rehearsal musical numbers, the three major musical sequences are backloaded to the end of the film. Young and Healthy features Berkeley’s signature geometric patterns, while Shuffle Off to Buffaloretains more of a stage musical feel. But is the title musical number that closes the film that is the showstopper, as Berkeley takes us on a journey through the busy New York streets.
42nd Street became one of the big hits of the year, and gave incentive to Warner Brothers to continue cranking out similar musicals. It is the ultimate “backstage musical,” as most of the plot centers around getting Pretty Lady to the stage, and the romances and other plot lines are secondary. I’ve always enjoyed the film because for some reason it still feels fresh to me, even after seeing tons of Warner Brothers musicals, many with the same cast and very similar plots. Perhaps its the fact that it is the movie that created the demand for all those other films, and its stars themselves became famous because of it. There is also a darker layer to all of the big musical numbers and the happy story of chorus girl making good. For every star that rises, one falls, and here with Sawyer and Brock it’s no different. Also, in a musical that is made up of cheerful, upbeat numbers, it ends with an elaborate routine showing the seedy and deadly side of the city.
Before she steps onto the stage, Julian Marsh famously says to Peggy Sawyer, “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.” Many of the film’s stars came into the production as supporting actors, but emerged as stars in their own right, and the movie itself remains a bright star in the classic film canon to this day.
42nd Street airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on TCM for The Essentials Jr.