25 January 2009

Dueling Musicals, Part I: 42nd Street (1933)

In 1933, Warner Bros. released a trilogy of Busby Berkeley-directed musicals: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of '33 and Footlight Parade. Aside from having largely identical storylines, all three of the films featured eerily similar casts--Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as the showstoppers, Guy Kibbee as the plutocrat and Ned Sparks as the same deadpan character he always seems to play. Though each of the three films is notable in its own right--Gold Diggers spawned a trio of follow-ups and Footlight Parade was insturmental in provoking Will Hays and company to bring down the production code hammer--42nd Street is the primary focus here.

The cliff notes version of the plot is this: Broadway Director Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter) is placed in charge of Pretty Lady, a forthcoming production that, it is hoped, will be a smashing success. Dorothy Brock (played by Bebe Daniels) is slated to be the leading lady, thanks to the machinations of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), her patron and the financial backer of the production. A hopeful young ingenue named Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) arrives at the tryouts and manages to make the cut, after befriending a pair of chorines (Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers) and making the acquaintance of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), an up-and-coming young player. Trouble ensues as word gets out of Dorothy Brock's ongoing tryst with Pat Denning (George Brent), an old vaudeville partner of hers. At the same time, Denning is trying to get into Peggy's panties. One thing leads to another, and Dorothy winds up breaking her ankle in a drunken spat with Peggy and Pat. At the last minute, Peggy is chosen to replace Dorothy as the lead, and the fate of the entire production is in her hands.

42nd Street was an immense success, and made a star of Hollywood newcomer Ruby Keeler. Showbusiness, of course, was hardly anything new for Ruby, who has been onstage since the tender young age of fourteen (being Mrs. Al Jolson probably didn't hurt her either). She was also quite the dancer, although there are times when she does seem a bit stiff as actress. In any event, she would be paired with Dick Powell in several more pictures. 42nd Street was also an important early success for Ginger Rogers, who (as we all well know) would go on to achieve considerable fame as the dancing partner of Fred Astaire (more on him in Part II).

On the other hand, 42nd Street was one of the last major roles for Bebe Daniels. Bebe's portrayal of Dorothy Brock is one of my favorite aspects of 42nd Street (not that that should come as a surprise to anyone). By the time 42nd Street was released in 1933, Bebe had been in pictures for 23 years and was a true veteran. Her excellent singing voice allowed her to weather the transition to talking pictures, and is featured here in the song "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me." It seems somehow very poignant that Bebe, as Dorothy Brock, gracefully steps aside and lets the younger actress capture the limelight.

Aside from being a resounding hit in its own right, 42nd Street also revitalized the market for movie musicals, thanks in no small part to the mad genius of Busby Berkeley. The coming of sound saw the film industry inundated with musicals, many of which were rather forgettable (anyone who has had the fortitude to sit through the Hollywood Revue of 1929 can attest to this). With 42nd Street and its successors, Warner Bros. Studios had struck gold. It remained to be seen how Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would respond.

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