Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Rian James and James Seymour, based upon the novel by Bradford Ropes
Starring Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks and Dick Powell
Fact #1: My daughter is a student at my alma mater, Michigan State University. She lives on-campus and during her freshmen year she had no car, which meant if she wanted to come home, my wife or I had to go get her. You get no prize for correctly guessing what my wife and I did every other weekend last year.
Fact #2: I am a runner. I run four times a week, at least 7 miles each of those days, and make my longest run on Sunday’s. Typically, the Sunday run is in the 11-12 mile range, though as I’m training for a 34-mile trail run in April, the Sunday run has lately been closer to 20-22 miles. Either way, on Sunday’s I run a lot and this means I’m always hungry.
So, one Sunday last year we took my daughter back to school after one of my long runs and, because I was starving, the wife and I stopped at an Arby’s. We ordered sandwiches and fries, and being the only customers there – it was late in the evening on a Sunday when we came in – the staff really tried to sell us on our sandwiches being good. Well, as we were leaving the person working the counter asked, “How was it?” Meaning, how was that sandwich they promised would be good?
My answer? “Fine.”
Did the employee seem pleased by my answer? Nope. In fact, he seemed crushed, as if the word ‘fine’ was an insult. Which it wasn’t.
Fact #3: My wife has known me long enough to understand when I say something is ‘fine’ I’m really saying, “It’s not great, it’s not bad.” Or, “It’s whatever.” Or, “It’s acceptable.” And two of those three possibilities could have applied here.
Did the employee know this? Nope, even though he should, because the definition of ‘fine’ is basically universal.
Now, I don’t want to bag on Arby’s or their people, though this encounter does raise some greater questions about society today, in which we are inexplicably offended when something is referred to as ‘Fine,’ rather than with some bleating, insincere, “Excellent!” Which makes no sense. After all, shouldn’t people be happy with ‘fine’? I mean, ‘fine’ is fine, so why not take it?
Anyway, the relevance of all this is it directly relates to my attitude about 42nd Street: How was it? Fine. It’s neither stellar, nor awful. Neither blew me away for how great it was – which it wasn’t – nor blew me away for it’s awfulness – which it wasn’t. It was good enough and sometimes, good enough will just have to be enough.
What’s It About?
42nd Street is a backstage story about putting together a Broadway show, spending time on the nuts-and-bolts of arranging songs and choreography, filled out with vignettes of personal stories from the cast and crew, from the lowest chorus girls, to the stars, the director, and financier. And at the end of the film, we are treated to an abridged version of the show they’ve created.
Evolution Happens Quick
42nd Street was not the first musical nominated for Best Picture – The Broadway Melody was first, in 1928/29, just four years prior. The Broadway Melody was also the first musical to win Best Picture. Now, I have no doubts that in its day The Broadway Melody was a show-stopping, mind-blowing piece of work, a true step forward in the making of movies, and that’s why it won.
People just weren’t use to singing and dancing in movies.
In hindsight, those steps-forward look more like stumbles and it seems The Broadway Melody won less for any of its actual-quality, as opposed to being the first moderately-competent musical to hit the silver-screen. And I use the descriptor ‘moderately-competent’ in the most generous way, given the film looks like a musical made by people who had no idea what the hell a musical was, or how to stage one. It has lousy camera work, is mostly shot with the camera nailed to the floor at some great distance from the actors, making the film feel static, lacking in visceral effect, and distanced almost to the point of feeling removed from itself.
In comparison, 42nd Street is transformative, stepping directly away from those things which hindered the earlier film. It uprooted the camera from the floor and let it move, giving the film a little bit of liveliness – if there’s one thing a musical should try to be, it’s lively. It tries to play with the form of the movies, introducing small, expressive flourishes, and adding other bits of visual interest, like shooting some montages as if through a kaleidoscope.
The biggest transformative trick 42nd Street has up its sleeve, though, is Busby Berkeley on dance direction. When his name popped up in the credits I was sure I was in for something good – after all, the man is legendary. Except, the movie withheld him and for the longest time the dancing in the movie was rough and informal and small – it was almost thrown away. But, come the end, when we see an abridged version of the show, it climaxes with a fantastic dance sequence set atop turntables and filmed from above so as to admire the geometry and movement. Berkeley really shines in this sequence, and it’s easy to see how this film inspired the dream sequence choreography of The Big Lebowski.
Perhaps the freshest part of 42nd Street, even after all these years, is how it lets you see the sweat, which is fitting in a backstage story. Too often musicals show the singing and dancing as effortless – after all, musicals are the ultimate fantasy, and nobody ever sweats in their fantasy even when dancing they’re hearts out. But 42nd Street doesn’t bother to mask such things and it makes for one the rare musical where you can actually see the effort on the performers foreheads and faces.
In spite of what the film manages to get right, it got two things straight up wrong. One is the film is a musical where, for the better part of it, has limited singing and dancing – it has plenty of melodrama, but is light on everything else. After all, it isn’t until 25 minutes in we get the first bit of choreography and even then, it’s only a bit.
The second thing is that, because it’s from the early-1930s, it has some cringe-worthy race issues. A stereotypical mammy-type walk through the picture at one point – not of the Hattie McDaniel variety, but the other, subservient and stereotyped variety. It gives us a picture of an African-American performer relegated to the role of shoeshine-boy, playing it with all the wide-smiling, high-stepping, shucking-and-jiving grossness that can be mustered.
But don’t despair, the racism isn’t spent only on the black characters. Indeed, when a cigar-store Indian comes to life in one of the musical numbers, it’s clearly played by a white-man in makeup, which would go out of style until sometime in the late-60s.
Oh, and did I mention that at barely-90 minutes long, it still feels a little bit on the long side?
Usually musicals live and die on the performances of the cast – particularly the singing and dancing. When they’re good, you get All That Jazz. When they’re bad, they’re forgotten.
And with 42nd Street…?
Look, in general the cast is fine. Sure, some of the acting is off. Ruby Keeler is especially flat, reading her lines in an almost monotone-happy-go-lucky way, as if somebody told her to play every scene with extreme pluck, but devoid of any emotion. In general, everything she does is the same, whether happy or sad, and there is only one instance where she manages to pull it all together, during the sequence where she’s been tapped to be the star on the night of the big opening and has to learn all the lines and dance steps in a marathon rehearsal. It’s only in that moment we get one line reading that’s in any way special.
Warner Baxter is about the same, only in the opposite direction. While Keeler has one note, Baxter has all of them and he’s determined to use them. Perhaps this was because he’d only just won the Oscar for Best Actor – he was your second ever winner of Best Actor – and he felt emboldened by the validation an Oscar gives. Or, maybe that’s just his style. No matter what it is, he acts all over the damn place. He acts with his face, acts with his voice – there is no part of him that doesn’t make an effort. In fact, he’s so big it seems his only goal is to prove he’s the star of the movie.
Thankfully, while some performances are uneven, the performers themselves have good chemistry with one another. Too often in a film the love-story fails because the actors can’t sell their attraction – not so here. In 42nd Street everybody that’s supposed to be friendly, or in love, genuinely seems like they are.
Better than Best
42nd Street is a slight film, about the purity of art, which means if it were released today it’d have a good shot at being nominated for Best Picture – after all, there’s nothing the Academy loves more than rewarding movies about movies. Or movies about movie-adjacent things, like a Broadway show. That said, I don’t think it could win.
But for it’s time…?
The Best Picture winner of 1932/33 was Cavalcade, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, which I outright loathed. And I mean loathed. Given that, you’re damn right I think 42nd Street is better than best – I think just about every other movie ever made is better than Cavalcade, including all those dreadful Pirates of The Caribbean sequels. That said, while 42nd Street is better-than-best, it’s not actually best itself – for 1932/33 that would be a delightful little Charles Laughton flick called The Private Life of Henry VIII.
Dick Powell has a part here as one of the lesser-stars of the show and he’s perfectly understated in it. Twenty years later he would go on to co-star in The Bad and the Beautiful, the movie that boasts the most Oscar wins for a film not nominated for Best Picture. He would follow this up by directing The Conqueror, the John-Wayne-in-yellow-face-as-Genghis-Khan vehicle. That movie is supposedly terrible, but I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t seen it. That said, because the film was shot downwind of a nuclear testing site it’s believed to have caused an inordinate number of the cast and crew to come down with, and die from, cancer. If the fact that the movie gave the people working on it cancer doesn’t prove The Conqueror is a terrible film, nothing else will.
Another costar in the film was Una Merkel, playing one of the chorus girls. She’s almost unrecognizable to me for being so young, when the best memory I have of her was from her part 30 years later as Verbina in one of my favorite films, The Parent Trap.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Actually, she’s a student at one of my alma mater, as I have degrees from both MSU and the world-famous Western Michigan University.
 Now that she has a car – and a boyfriend – she almost never comes home.
 As an aside, Arby’s has this bell located in their store for people to ring when they’ve been satisfied by the food and, even though Arby’s food is okay, I doubt anybody who rings the bell is actually satisfied with it.
 Relatively transformative.
 Interestingly, I was watching an extra on my DVD of The 39 Steps lately, the best film of Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood oeuvre. The extra was an old installment of the Janus Film series, The Art of Film: Vintage Hitchcock. It’s an otherwise interesting extra, giving some hint to the breadth of Hitchcock’s early films that people are usually unfamiliar with, while at the same time showing that even old Hitchcock movies weren’t immune from the casual racism of the time. After all, in the scene pulled from Young and Innocent, we get an epic tracking shot across a dancing ballroom to a bandstand, culminating with the camera pushing in to reveal the twitching eyes of the drummer. Everything about the shot is spot-on-masterful, except that the drummer is made-up in black-face.
 Apparently this fact doesn’t apply to La La Land, which got 14 Oscar noms despite two leads who can hardly sing and are indifferent dancers.
 Casual racism again
 Except for its actual qualities as a film.