It may not have glorious Technicolor, its leading lady may be completely out of her depth, and it may have been made by a studio better known for its gangster movies, but 42nd Street is undoubtedly the grand-daddy of the Hollywood musical. Not only did this 1933 film reinvent and revitalise the movie musical, but it also championed a new way of filming song and dance numbers, and became a template for generations of musicals that followed.
The story of a Broadway production, from the auditions through to the end of opening night, 42nd Street was not the first backstage musical. However, it was the first to contrast the dazzlingly flamboyant dance numbers with the grim, offstage reality of life in the chorus. It was the first to boast a one-liner-packed script (“She only said ‘no’ once – and that was when she didn’t hear the question…”) which was every bit as impressive as its songs. Most importantly, it was the film which changed the way the camera was used in the musical.
Before 42nd Street, the Hollywood musical was a stodgy, unimaginative affair. Studios bought hit Broadway shows and recreated them in front of movie cameras. There was nothing cinematic about the experience; the camera observed but barely moved. In 42nd Street, the camera moved almost as much as the dancers – thanks to the extraordinary vision of choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose embryonic style was first glimpsed in the 1930 Eddie Cantor film Whoopee.
Thanks to Berkeley’s work in 42nd Street, the camera in the movie musical graduated from being an observer to a participant. In the film’s Young and Healthy number, it looks down from high above the heads of the dancers and watches them move in military-inspired formations to create kaleidoscopic patterns and geometric shapes.
These immediately became a hallmark of the Berkeley style, which has been affectionately parodied in everything from Mel Brooks’s The Producers (its showstopping Springtime for Hitler number featured dancers forming swastika shapes) to the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (when the Dude’s pot-induced fantasy sees him floating down a tunnel of chorus girls’ legs).
The title number of 42nd Street is an entirely different matter. Whereas Young and Healthy is all about symmetry, and features its dancers clad in identical white costumes against a shiny, plain black background, in 42nd Street, everyone “onstage” is involved in their own little drama. The camera swoops and soars, glides from one cluster of people on the teeming street set to another, scales a building to the first floor room then pans right out to show the whole, breathtaking, scene. It darts about the way the viewer’s eyes would move about if he or she were in a theatre.
With its jazzy feel, bold staging and catchy, exhilarating tune, it is still exciting to watch – despite the fact that the main solo performer, Ruby Keeler (AKA Mrs Al Jolson), sings flat and tap dances like a marionette needing its joints oiled. It was unlike anything that had ever been seen in a movie musical, and it showed that anything goes.
It wasn’t just the style of the musical numbers that made 42nd Street stand out, but the contents of them. In the title song, which, unusually for a closing number, is sung in a minor key, everything from assault to murder is depicted. It fits in beautifully with the rest of the film which is populated with less than scrupulous characters and a surprisingly sordid storyline: the show is being bankrolled by the leading lady’s sugar daddy in return for her personal services. When the show’s desperate producer learns that his star is two-timing the backer, he gets a gangster contact to put the frighteners on her secret lover.
Not only did 42nd Street have a profound impact on the musical generally; it also put Warners Bros on the musicals map, with the result that the studio produced a collection of musicals in the 1930s which is as distinct and worthy of attention as the elegant Astaire-Rogers musicals made by RKO around the same time, or the Technicolor musicals produced by the Freed Unit at MGM from the late 1940s.
All subsequent Warners musicals starred players drawn from a pool which included Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and James Cagney; all boasted ever more ambitious flights of fantasy from Busby Berkeley as well as sassy, ballsy scripts, and all showcased the songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The antithesis of the upmarket, escapist musicals being produced elsewhere in the 1930s, such Warners musicals as the Gold Diggers films, Footlight Parade and Dames were characterised by the studio’s gritty, realistic house style and were unique in their acknowledgement of the on-going Depression.
While MGM was making operettas with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and Fred and Ginger (who played Anytime Annie in 42nd Street) were introducing audiences to the exotic moves of the Carioca or the Continental
at RKO, Warners’ musicals had a sense of urgency about them: the characters’ very lives depended on their shows being hit. “You’re going out there a
youngster,” the producer tells Ruby Keeler’s character in 42nd Street, “but you’ve got to come back a star.” No pressure then..
Warners didn’t just allude to the Depression; they shoved it right in the audience’s collective face: Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with Ginger Rogers and a chorus line (pictured below) clad only in oversized coins, singing We’re In the Money. Before they finish the number, the bailiffs have moved in and are stripping the stage – and the girls. The movie ends with the spine-tingling, bluesy number Remember My Forgotten Man, a plea for dignity which became a Depression anthem and which, with its chorus line of down and out war heroes (there isn’t a scantily clad chorine in sight), is one of the highest high points of the Warners musical.
42nd Street is not the greatest musical ever made, but it is certainly one of the most daring and influential. The big parade goes on for years/ It’s a rhapsody of laughter and tears/Bawdy, gaudy, naughty, sporty – 42nd Street!
* 42nd Street (screening on Monday at the Glasgow Film Theatre at 11am) kicks off the Ginger Rogers retrospective at the Glasgow Film Festival (February 17-27; www.glasgowfilm.org/festival).