Forty-Second Street (aka 42ND Street): Best-Known Backstage Musical of Depression Era, Starring Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler

“42nd Street” may not be the best backstage musical ever made, but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable and enduring movies of that genre. The musical seems to be constantly revived, on Broadway or in national tours, attesting to its long-standing popularity with audiences of various generations.
Hon Huntley’s 1966 review explained the picture’s durable appeal: “It has been copied a hundred times since, but never has the backstage atmosphere been so honestly and felicitously caught.” In 1980, Gower Champion’s glorious production, which won the Tony Award and ran for years, gave new credence to the notion of life imitates art. Champion died of heart attack, just like the film’s producer, days after the premiere. Most recently, “42nd Street” won the 2001 Tony Award for Best Revival.
Loosely based on Bradford Ropes’s novel, “42nd Street” was an unofficial remake of “On With he Show” (1929). Released in 1933, at the height of the Depression, the musical contains all the typical characters (by now clichs) we have come to expect in a backstage story: the fading star, the fresh ingnue, the pressuring producer, the cynical director.
Mervyn LeRoy was originally assigned to direct the narrative segments, but he got ill and had to be replaced quickly. The assignment was then handed to Lloyd Bacon, a Warner’s contract director, who made the same year the Jimmy Cagney musical starrer, “Footlight Parade.” Bacon was a less ambitious and accomplished director than Le Roy, but he had a good sense of pacing. Compared with that era’s musicals, “42nd Street,” meager as its story is, moves at a brisk pace. Those interested in stylistic directorial differences should check LeRoy’s musicals, particularly “Gold Diggers of 1933,” produced in the same year as “42nd Street.”
The musical is now mostly known for three elements: Its corny plot, its dance numbers, choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and its appealing cast, headed by the enormously likable Ruby Keeler. Keller played Peggy Sawyer, the understudy who wears puffed sleeves (standing for small-town innocence) even in her rehearsal clothes.
By today standards, the text is insipid, corny, and even banal. Warner Baxter as the Broadway producer-director (with heart troubles) who makes the memorable and much satirized speech: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star! Bebe Daniels is the fading star (in fox furs) that breaks her ankle, and George Brent is her lover. Dick Powell is the singing and smiling twerp juvenile. Ginger Rogers, as Anytime Annie, is the gold-digging chorine, known as the countess, and Guy Kibee is the sleazy sugar daddy. One can also spot in the chorus Una Merkel and Toby Wing.

With Warner’s big budgets and technical facilities at his command, and his own inventive genius, dance director (and later filmmaker) Busby Berkeley overwhelmed audiences with his larger-than-life lavish entertainment. His gaudy, and for some viewers erotic, vision was reflected in “42nd Street,” “Gold Diggers of 1933,” and other depression musicals. In a documentary about Berkeley, Jim Hoberman astutely comments on Berkeley’s pre-MTV style, his elaborate engineering of colossal geometrically patterned dance routines.
It was at Warners that Berkeley developed the grandeur of his vision, the inimitable extravaganza of his mass choreography. His lavish numbers employed dozens of girls in a spectacular array of rhythmic movement, described by one film critic as “kaleidoscopic patterns of female flesh, dissolving into artichokes, exploding stars, snowflakes, and leaves of water lilies.”


However, it wasn’t only the choreography that made Berkeley’s dance numbers exciting. His use of the camera was just as inventive and daring, with its diagonal angles, incredible traveling shots, and impeccable rhythmic cutting. Berkeley invented a monorail to give the cameras mobility and devised his shots from directly above the action, which became known as the “Berkeley top shot.” In his pursuit of the right perspective for his complex shots, Berkeley drilled holes through stage floors and bored through the ceilings of Warner’s sound stage, causing an angry executive to exclaim: “Jesus, now Berkeley’s going through the roof!”

David Thomson sees an irony in the fact that, as the cinema institutionalized its own morality, it promoted a visionary whose work was showed cinema’s built-in lascivious disposition toward orgy. Sexual daydream had found its medium, and Berkeley’s was the cool gaze that made an endlessly flowering in those Warners dance routines. As Jean Comolli argued, “people do not dance in his films, they evolve, they move about, they make a circle, the circle tightens or is released, bursts forward and forms again.”

Berkeley was a lyricist of eroticism, the high-angle shot, and the moving camera, which had the thrust of a sexual act. His Warner movies are more downright suggestive than most of the films he later made at MGM. At Warners, he showed lagoons of water-lily vaginas, opening and closing with delirious facility.

As for Keeler, in the 1930s, she starred in a string of Warner musicals that have become classics, but she’s most closely associated with “42nd Street.” In the naive backstage plots of these musicals, Keeler typically played a sweet-natured girl, picked from the chorus line at the last possible moment to replace the temperamental, ailing star. Some viewers thought that Keeler was romantically involved with Dick Powell, her frequent co-star, a notion that Warners publicity encouraged.

In 1937, Keeler left Warners at the insistence of her then husband, Al Jolson; they divorced in 1940. She appeared in two more films (at RKO in 1938, and Columbia in 1941), and then married a real estate broker and retired. Keeler made no public appearances until the late 1960s, when she enjoyed a comeback thanks to the re-release of Berkeley films. In 1970, after a 40-year absence, she returned triumphantly to Broadway, on the wings of nostalgia, in a revival of the 1925 musical, “No No Nanette.”

Considering that Keeler made only 12 films, it’s odd that she’s so widely remembered as the pert sweetheart of Warners musicals. Her dancing was clunky, her line delivery amateurish, yet she was extremely likable. Keeler’s charisma depended on her ordinary looks, the fact that she was not glamorous. As a screen presence, Keeler’s combination of sweet naivet and aggressive ambitiousness contrasted with Dick Powell’s lewdness, and also expressed the secret fantasies of girls during the Depression.

“42nd Street” is one of the first movies to use a full backstage narrative, though it doesn’t take full advantage of its locale. Structurally, it’s a severely flawed musical, for two major reasons: There are not many song-and dance numbers, and the few number it has all appear in the last reel. Bits and pieces of upcoming musical numbers (including “42nd Street”) are heard in rehearsal early in the film. And one song, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” is performed on a bare stage. But the numbers serve as preparation, sort of aperitif for the three big numbers that are stacked together at the end.

The scale of these final numbers is relatively restrained and almost entirely stage-bound, with the notable exception of “Young and Healthy, and the trick cut that moves a dancing Keeler from the apron of the stage to the roof of a taxicab in 42nd Street. As Rubin has noted, there is little in the film’s numbers that could not be presented within the confines of the theatrical stage. Only occasionally do the dimensions of the sets stretch credibility. The clever mounting of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is conceived vis–vis the limitations of the stage.

“Young and Healthy” was built primarily on cinematic effects, such as overhead shots, a through-the-legs tracking shot. The use of frame line to conceal the chorus behind Powell and his costar after they kiss. But the staging of the number is within stage dimensions. As in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” the scene shifts via a theatrical device: A prop bench sinks below the floor and becomes part of a revolving platform.

The climactic number, “42nd Street,” strains against the confines of realistic stage address, with the trick cut to the taxicab roof, and the exploration of continually expanding stage space, initially established through a simple backdrop. The tightness and fluidity of the camerawork are far in advance of anything Berkeley had done before. In this number, fast and sweeping crane shots pick put a rapid-fire series of brief vignettes that depict life on the “naughty, bawdy” street with some dazzling transitions.

The film embodied the ideological contradictions inherent in the American Dream during the Depression. Peggy is rewarded not only for hard work but also by fate, namely, the leading lady’s injury and incapacity to perform. Depression audiences were eager to see rag-to-riches, overnight success stories. It’s tempting to see Keeler’s Peggy as a Horatio Alger type. The epilogue, like other segments of the film, was ambiguous. The manic-depressive Julian Marsh (Baxter) sits alone, exhausted and unappreciated in the alley outside the theater, where his show has just succeeded. Depression audiences probably viewed it as happy ending, though recent screening of the film to my students, they pointed out the ambiguous tone of closure.

“42nd Street” became a breakthrough in the musical genre: Berkeley had succeeded in creating a nouvelle vague for musicals. The screen was satiated with a steady stream of screen musicals, usually revues, that were little more than a collection of staged production numbers and a series of song cues enhancing a meager scenario. Warners had declared a moratorium on musicals, until production head Darryl Zanuck signed Rian James and James Seymour to write a more “substantial musical grounded in reality.” To make sure that no other studio benefit from Berkeley’s unparalleled visual flair, Zanuck signed the genius to a 7-year-contract.

The production was budgeted for $400,000, a then mammoth amount, but the film was highly profitable, grossing over $2 million in its initial release.

The score was composed by the talented team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren, and Hal Wallis supervised the production.

Uncredited Cast

The film’s uncredited cast included Guy Kibbee’s brother Milton, Ruby Keeler’s two sisters, Louise Beavers, Lyle Talbot,¬†George Irvng¬†and Charles Lane. Dubin and Warren, who wrote the film’s songs, made cameo appearances.