Saturday, October 17, 2009

Target #283: 42nd Street (1933, Lloyd Bacon)

TSPDT placing: #438

Directed by: Lloyd Bacon
Written by: Bradford Ropes (novel), Rian James (screenplay), James Seymour (screenplay),
Whitney Bolton (contribution to treatment) (uncredited)

The backstage Broadway show has always been a staple of the Hollywood musical, and Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933) might just be the grandfather of them all. The concept itself is appealingly self- reflexive: the process of manufacturing drama creates its own drama. Behind the theatre curtains, unbeknownst to the waiting audience, lives are being changed forever – love blossoms, hearts are broken, and directors wearily await the public verdict. Similar structures were later used in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) – in which the backstage drama is foreshadowed by the ballet being performed – and Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953). Better still, Singin' in the Rain (1951) took the same premise and applied it to movies themselves, a direct brand of self-reflexion that would only grow more overt with the likes of Federico Fellini and Charlie Kaufman. In any case, it is sufficient to say that the film's storytelling approach proved hugely influential, and many musicals have carried forth its various clichés.

In Depression-era New York, overstrained Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) vows to make his final stage-show his greatest of all. It won't be easy: his leading lady, the glamorous but snooty Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) is torn between love and stardom, bouncing between her wealthy benefactor (Guy Kibbee) and an old vaudeville partner (George Brent). Into the show comes shy, fresh-faced Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who learns the art of the Broadway musical, and incidentally becomes a star in the process. Among the supporting cast there are a few very familiar faces, including a sprightly Dick Powell (a decade before he toughened up with Murder, My Sweet (1944)) and Ginger Rogers, who proves her comedic spark even before pairing up with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933). For the most part, 42nd Street has an incredibly optimistic outlook, making it ideal for a lonely winter night. There's not a single unlikable character in the mix: even the snobbish Dorothy Brock has a few words of encouragement for Peggy before her nervous debut.

Audiences are more likely to connect with the adorably innocent Ruby Keeler, but the film revolves most strongly around Warner Baxter's disenchanted Broadway director, whose body and mind is gradually but inevitably failing him. At first, Marsh seems determined to do whatever it takes to taste acclaim one more time. In a scene borrowed straight out of Warner Brothers' contemporary gangster films, he orders hired thugs to intimidate Pat Denning, Brock's secret sweetheart, but Denning gets away with little more than a cut forehead. Marsh's eventual triumph is heartening, but bittersweet, as he anonymously enjoys the poetry of critical praise just one last time. It's the only moment in 42nd Street that strays from the film's otherwise-buoyant mood, and so it leaves an indelible mark. Most impressive of all, however, is Busby Berkeley's choreography, which really only arrives in the final act. It's remarkable how he uses human bodies like the cogs in a machine, melding human figures and movement, shot from above, into stunningly liquid abstract shapes and tessellations.

Currently my #3 film of 1933:
1) King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
2) The Invisible Man (James Whale)
3) 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon)
4) Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)
5) Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland)