May 12, 2015


When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.


Warner Brothers hitched itself to to the coattails of FDR, and in the publicity for 42nd Street declared the film “A New Deal in Entertainment!”.  The studio pitched their films at the working class, with James Cagney their pugnacious stand-in (he would star in WB’s next musical, Footlight Parade (’33)). These films depicted musicals as acts of labor, as groups of dancers, actors, singers, stagehands and directors worked together to make the show sing. Every character in the movie is looking for work, even the show’s star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who remarks early on how the Depression has ruined her career. On the opposite end of the class spectrum is “Anytime Annie” (Ginger Rogers), who dresses up as an upper class twit, monocle and all, in order to fool the casting directors into hiring her (they see through her ruse – but cast her anyway).


Darryl Zanuck was the man who set it in motion. Studio head Harry Warner was still opposed to the musical genre after a series of flops, but Zanuck convinced him to take a chance, and assigned Rian James and James Seymour to adapt Bradford Ropes’ unpublished novel into a screenplay. Daniel Eagan suggests, in America’s Film Legacy, that Zanuck may have “fooled Harry and his other brothers into thinking the film would be a drama without songs and dances.” Whatever his rhetorical tricks, he was able to get the project greenlit. The story was about a director who risks his health to mount an expensive Broadway production. For the role of the hard-driving director Julian Marsh, Zanuck borrowed Warner Baxter from Fox, who had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1930 for In Old Arizona. The rest of the cast was filled out by WB contractees. Marsh’s leading lady Dorothy Brock was played by Bebe Daniels, who grew up on the stage, while the young ingenue role of Peggy Sawyer was given to Ruby Keeler, who was then married to talkie pioneer Al Jolson. Keeler had been offered the lead alongside Jolson in Fox’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, but turned it down because Jolson, according to Keeler, “would be worrying about my part as well as his own.” There was no such concern with 42nd Street, which made her a short-term star. Familiar, welcome faces like Guy Kibbee, George Brent and Dick Powell lent their inimitable support.

Julian Marsh is a sick man, but powers through a fraught rehearsal period to get the musical revue “Pretty Lady” into shape for the opening. But when star Dorothy Brock gets into a spat with the producer and source of cash, the whole production grinds to a halt. It’s up to fresh-faced newbie Peggy to step into the leading role, and it’s up to her whether “Pretty Lady” ever gets beyond previews.


The director was originally intended to be Mervyn LeRoy, but he got ill like Julian Marsh, after exhausting himself on the set of I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang (1932).  Lloyd Bacon sat in the director’s chair instead. One of Zanuck’s cost-cutting maneuvers was to split up production – Bacon would handle all the dialogue scenes, while Busby Berkeley would get his own production unit for the musical sequences that would close the film. They worked different days on different stages, but both shared DP Sol Polito. Berkeley was coming off a trio of films choreographing dance numbers for Samuel Goldwyn, but it was at Warner that Berkeley would develop his soon-to-be famous style of overhead shots of abstracted gams moving in patterned unison. His routines in 42nd Street are fairly tame compared to what came later in his career, staying tethered to stage musical reality. Though he and Polito manage to wend a camera through the legs of a throng of lined up models, and in the final “42nd Street” number recreates the fabled NYC block with a cutout skyline and a remarkably realistic apartment block, complete with stabbings.


The movie was a huge hit, and though it is filled with enthusiasm and sunny can-do spirit, there is an undertone of resignation veined throughout, present in the character of Julian Marsh. In one of the biggest downers in backstage musical history, instead of wrapping up with the triumphant opening night performance, it ends with a slumped over Marsh, sitting half dead on the back stairs, listening as the theater goers praise Peggy and demean him, crediting her with the show’s success. Future entries in the backstage cycle always sync the culmination of backstage romance with the on-stage performance, with both narrative strands uniting in a super-happy climax. But in 42nd Street there’s a disorienting disjunct between on and off stage, admitting that during the Depression hard work might not get you anything.



James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.


Winner Take All was the last of three James Cagney films in 1932, following Taxi! (in which the New York boy famously speaks Yiddish) and Howard Hawks’ race car drama The Crowd Roars. The script was adapted from a 1921 story originally published in Redbook magazine by Gerald Beaumont, “133 at 3″. One of the screenwriters was Wilson “Bill” Mizner, a true American character who was a playwright, opium addict and entrepreneur who was a co-owner of the Brown Derby restaurant. In his autobiography Cagney fondly remembers how story conferences turned into bull sessions. One time Cagney was complaining how the boxing scenes were ruining his hands. Bill responded by showing his, which “looked as if someone had battered them with a sledgehammer.” Cagney said, “In the name of God, Bill, how did you get those?” Mizner responded, “Oh, hitting whores up in Alaska.” Mizner would die soon after in 1933. Winner Take All has the feel of one of Mizner’s tall tales, though with a smidgen less misogyny.


Cagney plays Jim Kane, a punch-drunk boxer in need of a break. His manager Pop (Guy Kibbee) sends him to a Western “health ranch” where he can breathe clean air and stay away from booze and women. A city boy spooked by the great outdoors, especially the howling coyotes, Kane falls into the arms of Peggy (Marian Nixon), a widow whose son is recovering at the same spa. They make promises of starting a life together, which get lost in the fog of parties and money that greet Kane upon his return. Hitting an unbeaten streak inside the ring, he is recruited by socialite Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce) to act as a kind of lumpen proletariat mascot for her circle of nouveau riche friends. He lends an air of the streets to their penthouses, but Kane doesn’t realized he’s being used. He’s just trying to get into Joan’s pants, enough to get plastic surgery on his broken nose and cauliflower ears. No longer looking the brute, Joan ditches him, and Kane has to justify his self-centered actions to win Peggy back.


It’s a lot to pack into 67 minutes, but director Roy Del Ruth (Blonde Crazy, Taxi!) had become adept at such story compression, and had no qualms about spinning Cagney like a top and letting him go. He’s at his most boyish in this one, his selfish acts borne out of ignorance rather than ill-will, Joan the latest shiny object to distract his attention. Upon arriving at the health ranch, Cagney picks up a bellows and stares at it with wonder, as if it were an alien artifact. When the butler informs of its name he pretends knowledge, but still walks around with it at his groin, perhaps hoping it was some elaborate sex toy. It is in this state that he wanders outside, gets spooked by the howling coyotes, and first glimpses Peggy. She is the first familiar thing he sees, having met her briefly at a NYC nightclub the previous year. In a flashback we see how Cagney was distracted by Peggy, ignoring his huffy date, an exchange of jealous glances that ends with a soda stream to the face.


In the fight scenes Cagney is a windmilling bulldog, attacking with speed if not much precision. After his plastic surgery, he is afraid to sustain damage to his new mug, so he adapts his style into a constant rope-a-dope, avoiding contact but eliciting boos from the crowd. He’s vain and insecure, only returning to Peggy when he discovers that Joan is shacked up on a travel liner with an upper class twit. But he turns on the aw shucks charm and Peggy welcomes him back. There is no indication that he’s learned any lessons, other than he can manipulate his boyishness to seem innocent instead of self-centered.


After completing Winner Take All, Cagney went on strike with Warner Brothers over his wages, his second in over a year. The first time he went on strike, after the huge success of The Public Enemy, he received a raise from $400 to around $1,400. Now he wanted $3,000 a month. It was not just a matter of fairness, but Cagney’s recognition that fame was fleeting. He thought that there were “only so many successful pictures in a personality…when you are washed up in pictures you are really through. You can’t get a bit, let alone a decent part.” It was a matter of securing an uncertain future. He received a bump in pay to $1,750 a week. Part of this uncertainty was the enforcement of the production code. It existed as a widely ignored suggestion in 1930, but in 1934 the Production Code Administration was formed, requiring that each film receive a certificate of approval before release. The head of the PCA, Joseph Breen, would be doing the approving, clamping down on the frank depictions of sex and violence in the pre-code era. All films released after July 1st, 1934 required a certificate. Here Comes the Navy, directed by Lloyd Bacon, was released on July 21st.


A knockabout armed forces comedy in the vein of Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory (1926) it pairs Cagney and Pat O’Brien for the first time as a feuding iron worker and Navy officer. In Walsh’s film the two U.S. Marines battle women as they are stationed around the world. In the post-code era, this sexual licentiousness wouldn’t fly, so instead O’Brien fumes at Cagney for dating his sister. Their rivalry starts on land, as Chesty O’ Conner (Cagney), a union welder on a Navy project, harasses Biff Martin (O’Brien) as he walks by with the other officer brass. They keep running afoul of each other in town, with Biff flirting with Chesty’s girl at the Iron Workers’ dance. Chesty plots revenge by joining the Navy, hoping to find Biff and light him up. The love triangle plot strand is dropped, and Biff’s virginal sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), emerges as the main love interest instead. She rejects Chesty’s advances on their first date, one that would have ended with a wink and a tumble if made only a few months earlier.


The film is split in two, between the love triangle opening, filled with brawling and Cagney’s anti-authoritarian swagger, as he thumbs his nose at the entire Navy establishment, only joining for a cockeyed chance at revenge. But once the joins the Navy, the film swiftly turns into a recruitment film (made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy), with long sequences of military maneuvers and Chesty’s slow conversion into a disciplined soldier. Any hint of sex or subversion is leached out of the film, although the code deemed a Cagney-in-blackface scene to be more than acceptable. The end of the film finds Cagney in an unlikely action hero mode, rescuing Biff from a dangling dirigible and parachuting to safety. Cagney seems stifled in this first entry, which the New York Times lauded. They considered it “beyond censorial reproach”, and praised how the “restraining hand of the producer, writer, director (or all three), never is relinquished.”  Cagney would later find a way to smuggle in his art through the lens of Raoul Walsh, ripping off furious performances in The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949), while reclaiming some his graceful, dancers movement in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). In the pre-codes it didn’t matter who the director was or what the story entailed, the films bent to his will. He was a genre unto himself.