“Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you.”
42nd Street is one of the best musicals and best pre-codes I have seen. The film is full of musical clichés that were most likely old even in 1933. It is no wonder the musical was all but dead besides bad camera angles and sound. By the time 42nd Street was released cameras had become more sophisticated and sound had greatly improved. Along with Gold Diggers of 1933 I think 42nd Street is the best musical of that year. It is not the story but the performances that pull you into the film.
Famed stage director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a new show. Hundreds of girls audition for the part. Seasoned vets like Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel). The two women have been through the ringer so much they personally know Marsh’s assistant Andy with Lorraine constantly trying to get his attention. There is a new young naïve face among the girls named Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). This is her first time auditioning for anything. By accident she runs into Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) an actor with the company. Billy is a nice guy and immediately has a sweet spot for Peggy. He puts her in the front lines and she gets chosen for the chorus.
The only reason the show is going on during the Depression is because some small town guy named Abner Dillon forked over seventy-thousand dollars and only if stage star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) was the star. Marsh and his men are concerned with Dorothy because she needs to be sweet with Dillon to keep his money in the show but she always sees her old vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side. Dorothy loves Pat she feels terrible that she has been a success when he was the one who taught her how to be a performer. He says does not want to be an anchor around her neck anymore.
At rehearsals one day Peggy collapses from exhaustion. Pat is there waiting for Dorothy so he sits and talks to Peggy. They hit it off very nicely. When Dorothy blows Pat off because she is with Dillon, he takes Peggy out for dinner. Dorothy sees them leave together and she gets jealous. When Pat takes Peggy home he is attacked by men that Marsh hired to scare him away from Dorothy during the play. Dorothy comes by Pat’s place the next day. He has his bags packed to go to Philadelphia to find some work. She tells him that is for the best they should not see each other anymore.
At a party in her hotel room Dorothy has enough of Dillon. She is upset that Pat was with Peggy. Dillon is drunk and acting like a moron along with another woman. Dorothy calls Pat to come over but by the time he comes she is drunk. Peggy is in the hotel too where she was at a party. She runs away from the party and runs into two men who want to hurt Pat again. Peggy followed Pat to Dorothy’s room and tries to warn him but Dorothy in a jealous drunkenness tries to get at the poor girl. Dorothy falls and breaks her ankle.
The show is in a spiral. Dillon says he can save the day he has just the girl to take over the lead part. Apparently in just one day he has fallen for Ann and wants her to be the lead. Ann herself knows she cannot play the lead and suggests Peggy for the part. Marsh has nothing else to do and puts Peggy in. For the five hours leading up to the show Marsh works Peggy to bone.
The hard work pays off and Peggy does a great job.
As I said the performances are what saves this film from being too clichéd. All the praise in the world goes to Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel. These two completely steel the film in every one of their roles. The moment Rogers comes on the screen she is hysterical. She is wearing a monocle, a big hat, and carries a small dog and a cane and speaks with a British accent. Merkel picks Rogers out right away and just gives her grief. Every line Rogers and Merkel utter is snarky, sarcastic, quick, and witty. Bebe Daniels I have never seen in a film before but I have heard of her from researching silent films. Daniels was a very good actress and very pretty. Her singing and dancing were alright. George Brent I just love. He is the type of man I want to meet and fall in love with. He was handsome and his character was so sweet and nice. Dick Powell’s role is small. He has a few dancing and singing numbers. Warner Baxter I have seen in only one film before, he is a good actor but kind of forgettable. Ruby Keeler is just bad. Her singing is terrible and her acting gets annoying after a while. But I will say she was a good dancer.
42nd Street is a great musical and 1930s pre-code. It was so successful it saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy. The studio really knew how to make really good racy pre-code musicals. 42nd Street is a mix of cute musical with subtle sexual comments or suggestions and quick mean remarks. I loved sitting through the film not just for things I mentioned but also for the direction. Some of the camera angles were really good. 42nd Street is a musical to just be enjoyed and to have a great laugh.