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.