Thursday, July 28, 2011

42nd Street (1933)

The movie musical is a unique genre of film that changed so radically in such a short period of time in the early 1930s. The genre was nonexistent before 1927, because all films were silent to that point, but when recorded audio was integrated into motion pictures it was natural for music and the musical film to follow. Musicals had a high point followed by a devastating low before 1933 hit and 42nd Street was released. A large cast, lavish numbers directed by the famed choreographer Busby Berkeley, and a hand full of catchy tunes was the formula for a musical that would be one of the year’s best, not to mention one of the highest revered musicals of all time. 

42nd Street is simply a musical film about the backstage life of a Broadway musical, sharing the adventures of directing, casting, various relationships, the grueling rehearsals, as well as the drama of making sure the show goes on and becomes a hit. The picture is filled with a large cast of characters, which in the future would become a staple for cliques of any backstage play story. There is the stressed director looking for his next big hit, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter). The highly thought of star of the play, Dorothy (Bebe Daniels), but our heroine, and heart of the story, is Peggy (Ruby Keeler), the fresh country girl finding her first job on stage as a chorus girl. We watch Peggy’s struggles with her performance, but would later have to step up to the challenge when she must fill in for the injured Dorothy within twenty four hours of opening night. It is in the final twenty minutes of the film we watch the magic of Busby Berkeley as he brings to life the musical numbers of show as it finally comes together, capped off by the catchy theme song of the movie, 42nd Street

The picture itself is one of simple delight. Its story is straightforward, in no way deep or complicated. It is so simple, in fact, it would appear that it could write itself. This is true today, decades late, because the story is such a clique now, being done and redone in many forms with different settings and characters. But here in, in this film, it works. It is just a classic plot with no surprises. But let’s be honest… The movie is really about the music, the dancing, the choreography, and overall production quality of the numbers that take up to the final quarter of the film. You can say the film’s story ends a little over an hour into the picture, turning into one large Busby Berkeley production with the wonderful tunes and fabulous sets that would became synonymous with the man. The film is a piece of pure cinematic innocence, meant to entertain and brighten the audience’s day. This motion picture was done so well that is would live on for generations, continuing to entertain.

In the short time motion pictures had utilized sound, from 1927 to 1932, the genre of the musical had experienced a rollercoaster ride. In 1930 alone Hollywood released over one hundred musicals, over-saturating the audience with the new, hot style of movie. Audiences quickly became tired of the cheap productions, associating the musical. Even the simple use of musical soundtrack became associated with cheap production, thus studios quickly started to remove music from its productions. Hollywood would only produce 14 musicals in 1931. The genre was next to being dead. But along to help resurrect the musical was a choreographer named Busby Berkeley. First honing in on his craft with his time working in the Army, he discovered the beauty of a large number of individuals moving as one body, and with his use of the motion picture camera we are able to see it from angles not achievable on a Broadway stage. With 42nd Street and the films he would work on later in the year, including Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933, the genre would begin to win the hearts of Depression Era audiences across the land.

Despite the huge impact the picture had on the overall perspective of cinema history, especially in the musical genre, 42nd Street is a rather humble picture with a humble cast and crew. It all begins with the director, Lloyd Bacon. Bacon was a silent movie actor, with credits along side of Charlie Chaplin, who turned to directing. Starting first with shorts, he would become a stable feature director, and with Warner Bros. Bacon would start to director musicals, but was easily over shadowed by the truly talented director of the musical numbers, Busby Berkeley.

The cast would make for an interesting mix as well. Warner Baxter, who played the stressed director, was an Academy Award winning actor, form his work in the film In Old Arizona. Despite his wonderful performance as the frantic character trying to make the show happen, Baxter would never seem to make his way up the list of Hollywood actors as his career went on for a couple of decades, sadly mainly working in B-movies. Bebe Daniels, playing the star that tragically must be removed from the show last minute, was a silent screen star that, in this rare case, made the transition into musicals with the advent of sound. She would retire in 1935 from Hollywood due to her decline in relevance in cinema. Daniels would move to England and spend her later years in television. The star of the picture is Ruby Keeler, who plays Peggy, the shy modest chorus girl that saves the show. 42nd Street would be her first Hollywood picture. (What a way to start, eh?) Then married to the hugely popular Al Jolson, of The Jazz Singer fame, Keeler would start for career at the top, continuing to star in other Warner Bros. musicals, including one with her husband. Her time in film was short as she quit the business just after her divorce to Jolson in 1940.

The supporting cast included the skills of Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, George Brent, and Guy Kibbee. Dick Powell, who plays the show's juvenile lead Billy, was just beginning his time in Hollywood, using his youthful looks and crooning in his role. Ginger Rogers, as the “Anytime Anne,” would play an important and comedic side character in this film, and above all she would enjoy one of Hollywood’s finest careers on screen. George Brent, who plays Pat, a man in a love triangle with Peggy and Dorothy, helps create much of the tension in the film. Guy Kibbee would play a usual role for himself, as a jovial side character. In this case he was a show’s backer, Abner, who too shared a liking for the star Dorothy. Kibbee would more or less be a Warner Bros stock actor, filling in the same type of role when the studio needed it.

The picture would be produced under humble means, but turned a massive profit for its day at over $2 million. The film was recognized as one of the year’s best, including a nomination for best picture along with a nod for best sound recording. Despite not winning an award the movie would live on as one of the best musical of all time, as seen on AFI’s top musicals list, landing itself at #13. The music helped make it the hit it was as well, including the catchy theme song “42nd Street.” The song would be named as 97th best song in American motion picture history, also according to AFI. Beyond that the film is preserved in the Library of Congress as one of America’s finest and significant films, as selected in 1998.

42nd Street is a simple and enjoyable film. It is Hollywood at its finest during the early years of what would become known at “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” Despite a rather clique story, the film still grabs audiences today. The picture explodes with the artistry of Busby Berkeley, which would create the images we think of today when imagining the musical genre. 42nd Street is deeply part of the root system that entrenches the genre of musicals to the history of cinema. For years to come, on to films such as The Wizard of Oz, to Singin' in the Rain, to West Side Story, all the way to Chicago, this is where all of these such films look back to find the genesis of where they came from. But the best contribution this film had for the musical genre was it was only the beginning.

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