42nd Street (U.S., Lloyd Bacon)
As much as I love Gold Diggers of 1933 I have to admit that 42nd Street is probably the better movie, but not by much. We have essentially the same formula we saw in the other two great Warner Bros’ musicals of the year, Gold Diggers and Footlight Parade, but this time Bacon and choreographer Berkeley do a better job of weaving the comedy, drama, and music together into a classic picture about pluck and determination in an indifferent world. There is an underlying desperation throughout 42nd Street that highlights everything we see, from the lowly showgirl up to the director of the show. Warner Baxter plays Julian Marsh, a once great director who’s down on his luck ever since the Crash of ’29 and he needs a hit – or, more to the point, he needs cash. But the financing of the show, “Pretty Lady,” is as capricious as the nation’s economy: the sugar daddy of the show’s star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) agrees to finance it and as long as the wealthy businessman, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), is kept happy with Dorothy’s flirtations the show and the livelihoods of everyone attached to it will go on. Is Abner willing to pull the money when he discovers Dorothy may not have been faithful to him? This is just one of many situations that threaten to derail the show.
The showgirls, regulars Lorraine and Annie (Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers) take newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) under their wing despite tough competition in the auditions. They school the first time but talented performer in the ways of the theater while she flirts with the show’s lead Billy Lawler played by the inexplicably busy actor on the Warner’s lot, Dick Powell. (I mean who liked this guy?) Like in Gold Diggers and Footlight Parade we see how nearly four years of depression toughened up the young women of the United States (because these are really movies about the women, all the men save Julian Marsh are almost incidental except as love interests). Instead of demur girls only working until they can find a man to take care of them, we see women slogging through tough jobs for the love of performing and the necessity of a paycheck. And they aren’t shrinking violets either. They are sharp and caustic. When the stage director snarls at Ginger Rogers to put some feeling into her performance, she simply glares at him and shoots back, “What do you want me to? Bite my nails?” These moments must have been, if not shocking, at least disconcerting to a country that only recently began subverting many Victorian notions about the proper place and demeanor of women.
But 42nd Street’s strongest asset, despite this movie’s focus on the women, is Warner Baxter. He is fantastic as the maniacal director trying to prove himself again while staving off another nervous breakdown. Baxter swings between moments of sheer lunacy and quiet resignation. He is a man desperate to make this show work even if it kills everyone in it and himself. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to say the big show comes off as a success, so it isn’t giving anything away to talk about the nice job Baxter does as he listens to the reactions of the audience as they leave the theater. They all love the show, but diminish his contribution to its success. Clearly the star made the show, they say. Why was he so arrogant as to splash his name all over the show? Without the star, it would have been nothing. Which is true only to a point – we know he put it all together and talent, without good direction, doesn’t add up to much. Baxter subtly evolves through the scene from dejection to resigned acceptance. He wanted recognition, to prove to the world that he could direct a great show without stars getting all the credit, but he sadly accepts his status in the public eye as a guy pretending to direct naturally talented people who could have done it all without him. The show is a success and Jordan Marsh will get the money he so needed, but he still won’t get the recognition he craved – the recognition that in the end may have been more important to him than the money. It’s a bittersweet moment reminding us that success cannot be measured by dollars, but sometimes it’s the best we can do.