Wednesday, October 12, 2016

42nd Street (1933)

Ginger deadpans with a monocle and dog.
The real world is too depressing. So the Bear will linger in the reel world a bit longer.

42nd Street gets the coveted 5 out of 5 Fresh Salmon rating. Fast-paced, big production numbers, good music, pretty girls, and for all that, a realistic peek behind the curtains at a musical production. And Ginger Rogers, in a supporting role, who is funny and good-hearted. There is really no downside, except the inevitable light treatment of the casting couch.

This is pre-Code, so there is some adult humor that the Bear would blush to recite before the tender ears of his readers. Hardly a joke misfires, though, even if most go for smirks, instead of laughs.

Legendary theater director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) was wiped out in the Crash of 1929. He's sick, and figures he has one last chance to create a hit that will let him retire before he dies of a mysterious illness. And has another nervous breakdown. Indeed, Marsh is possibly the screen's greatest Type A Personality.

The musical is called Pretty Lady. It is financed by the banker from the Monopoly Game, who would even have a monocle if he stole Ginger Rogers'. (Really. And whatever accent she was trying for, she sounds eerily like Katherine Hepburn.) Ginger has a relatively small part, but she once again demonstrates her versatility in the comedic role of "Anytime Annie," who "only said 'no' once and that was because she didn't understand the question." Monopoly Banker is bankrolling the production, but the quid pro quo is a relationship with the star, played by Bebe Daniels. (She began her career in the silent movie era, and made a total of 230 films, but her legacy did not survive into the modern consciousness.)

The star is really in love with her old vaudeville partner, and seems to keep Monopoly Banker (okay, Guy Kibbee) at arm's length. When her old boyfriend is seen as a threat to the financial arrangement (and thus the production itself) the desperate director calls in the mob. They punch the boyfriend and he leaves town. As fate (and a drunken party) would have it, the night before the opening, the lead breaks her ankle.

The Leg Cam
Mr. Moneybags is quickly snagged by Ginger, and he sees her as the new lead. Ginger honestly tells the director that she is not up to it, but suggests a rank newcomer in the chorus line: Peggy Sawyer, played by Ruby Keeler. The substitution proves inspired, and the rest of the movie consists of three big Busby Berkeley dance numbers, including a cute, understated Shuffle Off to Buffalo. And the "Leg Cam." The camera tracks along the floor beneath the chorus girls' legs. Yep. Yes, it does.

As goofy as all of this sounds, it nonetheless communicates the excitement, hard work, and risks of the theater. Ginger is laugh-out-loud funny, and has an outrageous wardrobe that makes her look like a half-plucked goose in one scene. (What is it with her and feathers?) Ruby Keeler is winsome as the dewy-eyed newcomer. It is fast-paced, funny, and provides an interesting showcase for the kind of dubious content that Hollywood figured it needed to control before the government stepped in and did it.

It is also emblematic of another change. Cinematic dance would be redefined by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, as Hollywood put less reliance on the big production numbers of 42nd Street, and introduced the more intimate - and, ironically, sexier - Hays Code numbers by the now-famous dance couple.

Taylor Swift's version of the Leg Cam ("Shake It Off")


  1. Have you noticed Bear, how terribly political TCM is becoming? Augh, they are doing all the things that causes one to flee regular network programming, touting feminism, lauding "cultures".
    All that is going to be left is DVD's, but thank God for them.

  2. We don't have TV. We stream everything, so don't have to worry a about that. I busted a gut when I saw Ginger with the monocle and using the goofy accent. She was known for insisting on her own little additions.

  3. I love this movie, but the idea of Ruby Keeler being the better choice to replace Bebe Daniels than Ginger Rogers is a little improbable to me.

    1. I forgot what movie it was, but Ruby got a role that had been promised to Ginger because Ruby was involved with Al Jolson. I read that in her autobiography. Ginger doesn't dish much in it, so it must have really torqued her off. I never got Ruby Keeler, to tell the truth. She is a more wholesome girl-next-door "aw gee" type and probably the better tapper before Eleanor Powell came along stomped all the competition into to oblivion. Ruby Keeler may have been just more established at the time of 42nd Street.


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