“Jones and Barry are doing a show”
For being the American Film Institute’s 13th best musical on its 2006 list, 42nd Street is surprisingly devoid of song. Depicting the behind the scenes comings and goings of a big scale production, the fact its subject is a musical seems more relevant than it being one itself. The first bit of singing from the show within the show’s star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), isn’t until about twenty-five minutes in and it’s not until the final ten minutes where we are treated with two complete songs in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and “Forty-Second Street” from Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Those two tracks are superb and the choreography from Busby Berkeley is spectacular, but besides this rousing finale, the film is really more a testament to the craft of musicals rather than one itself. With that said, 42nd Street is still a great time at the movies.
Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1934, you can’t deny its appeal. Between the solid acting, the exciting dance moves and aerial synchronicity—which is fantastic on screen, but a bit far-fetched for ‘stage performance’ realism since audience members wouldn’t be able to see the medallion-like rotations—and some really fun comedy, I had a blast. Filmed not too long after The Jazz Singer introduced sound to cinema, a couple performances do get bogged down in broadly expressive over-compensating, but for the most part carry on smoothly to prevent it being a dated work today’s audiences would find tedious. With its love triangles, its egos, and its fair share of follies, not too much is exactly uniquely original, but then you also have to remember this is the start of such tropes.
My girlfriend made the observation concerning the fictional production’s director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) and how this could very well be the first filmic portrayal of the taskmaster we now see everywhere in backstage films—the ‘genius’ we’ve come to label what outsiders may simply call insanity. Looking at it through such a lens does vault the performance to great heights as Baxter plays the drill sergeant with exhaustive tenacity, minimum compassion, and a sense of failure’s crippling fear his driving force. He tells producing team Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks) at the start that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to once and for all make a name for himself. Years of being the volatile auteur turning no-name actresses into stars by pushing them to the brink would be forgotten. His rendition of Pretty Lady was to have veteran stars and extravagant set pieces—this was to be a final farewell where audiences could do nothing but applaud the man at its center.
You can imagine how far from the truth that hope will be when you factor in the emotionally unstable star (Daniels); her patron of the arts and wannabe lover fronting the plays budget, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee); the hidden boyfriend feeling a bit used in George Brent’s Pat Denning; and, of course, Ruby Keeler’s young ingénue, Peggy Sawyer—off the streets to not only luck her way into the production, but also into the hearts of her castmates to earn a chance at becoming a star. We watch these deliberate character types from the very beginning, a plethora of long-legged girls looking for work during the Depression while Marsh and his stage manager Andy Lee (George E. Stone) attempt to mold them into a winning company. There’s playful cattiness, fainting spells from dehydration, and a never-ending stream of exasperated pleas from the director. Five weeks to prepare is hardly enough time without the distractions plaguing it from within.
Everyone carries on, some with knowledge of the possible problems lingering, others oblivious to anything but the paycheck they are to receive. We get to watch Daniels become more and more frustrated with Kibbee—his Abner a perfect mix of creepy womanizer and delicate psyche unused to rejection—just as Brent gets tired of sneaking around, a gangster warning to skip town the last straw, his infatuation with both Dorothy and Peggy not worth staying. We see Keeler’s wide-eyed naïveté as she works three different men at once, promises nothing to any of them, and may actually be unaware of her damsel in distress tease. She is the weakest link, perhaps playing the innocence too strong, her acting sadly lacking any sense of naturalism. But while these four carry on as Baxter’s Marsh risks another nervous breakdown, it is the supporting turns from Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers who consistently steal laughs as playful showgirls, the cigar-chomping Sparks closely behind on the entertainment scale with his unwavering honesty and unchecked vitriol.
42nd Street is a well-paced tale of the hard work necessary to put on a show, finding all the beats and comedy to still elicit laughs almost a century later despite lacking any real surprises as love triangles conveniently work themselves out amicably and wronged parties end up with consolation prizes in the end. While it lacks the type of song volume you’d expect from a musical, I can accept its portrayal of one as reason to keep it in the genre. It becomes about Dorothy Brock creeping closer to the edge of her career’s end—a broken ankle the fateful straw to break her haughty demeanor—and Peggy Sawyer’s big break surely to make her famous even though it’s the show’s director, Marsh, who drives the story and events shown. But as the film’s end attests, despite stunning dance numbers and top-notch art direction, the man behind the scenes is often forgotten. I guess I’m just as bad as those patrons leaving Marsh’s Philadelphia premiere too—I completely failed to mention director Lloyd Bacon once; the man who put it all together.
 Ruby Keeler as ingenue Peggy Sawyer, with others of the cast, in the backstage musical 42nd Street (1933). Warner Brothers/The Kobal Collection
 The movie musical “42nd Street”, directed by Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley for the musical numbers. Seen here, from left, Harry Akst as Jerry (at piano), Bebe Daniels as Dorothy Brock and Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh. Initial theatrical wide release March 11, 1933. Screen capture. © 1933 Warner Bros. Credit: © 1933 Warner Bros. / Courtesy Pyxurz.
 The movie musical “42nd Street”, directed by Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley for the musical numbers. Seen here, from above, the synchronized dance pattern of the chorus. Initial theatrical wide release March 11, 1933. Screen capture. © 1933 Warner Bros. Credit: © 1933 Warner Bros. / Courtesy Pyxurz.