Thursday, August 2, 2012

#717. 42nd Street (1933)

Directed By: Lloyd Bacon

Starring: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent

Trivia: Ginger Rogers took the role of Anytime Annie at the urging of director Mervyn LeRoy, whom she was dating at the time

A movie about putting on a show, 1933’s 42nd Street managed to put on quite a show of its own!

A new musical titled Pretty Lady, which will star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) and be directed by Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), is coming to Broadway. With every dancer in New York vying for a role, veteran showgirls like Lorraine (Una Merkel) and Annie (Ginger Rogers) are veritable shoe-ins, while newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is going to need a little luck to land a part in what’s sure to be the city's next hit show. 

Yet when Dorothy twists her ankle late in rehearsals, Marsh has little choice but to give her understudy, the inexperienced Peggy, the lead role, turning the premiere of Pretty Lady into the most nerve-wracking night of his professional life!

Made during the Great Depression, 42nd Street has a noticeably gritty feel to it, a roughness that permeates through to its characters. None more so than Julian Marsh, the tempestuous director played superbly by Warren Baxter. Marsh is a hard-nosed Broadway tyrant, a career showbiz man whose health is failing, and who knows Pretty Lady will be his grand finale. After signing his contract, Marsh tells the producers, Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks), that he’s agreed to do the show for one reason and one reason only: the money! Having lost a fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, Pretty Lady needs to be a hit if he’s to retire in style. “You’re counting on me”, he says to them, “Well, I’m counting on Pretty Lady. It’s got to support me for a long time to come”. 

Per the terms of his contract, Marsh is the one calling all the shots, and he wields his power with an iron fist, from cast selection straight through to the moment the curtain goes up on opening night. “You’re going to work, sweat, and work some more”, he bellows during the first day of rehearsals, “You’re going to dance until your feet fall off, and you’re not able to stand any longer. But five weeks from now, we’re going to have a show!”. 

The various dancers who make up the cast of Pretty Lady are a street-wise bunch of ladies. Ginger Rogers’ character has been around long enough to earn the nickname “Anytime Annie” (“She only said no once”, one character quips, “and then because she didn’t hear the question”). But 42nd Street sizzles when Baxter himself is center-stage. He gives the movie its heart, its soul, and its decidedly sharp edge.

As for the musical numbers, 42nd Street boasts some great ones. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, sequences like “Young and Healthy” practically leap off the screen, but for me, it’s the title number that stands out as the movie's finest, not to mention one of the best song and dance routines ever committed to film. With an urban sensibility, punctuated by moments of random violence, this rendition of "42nd Street" is simultaneously unflinching and entertaining.

Much like the motion picture that bears its name.

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