Tonight: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in the five-star musical 42nd Street.
Motion pictures were born at the start of the 20th Century. But they didn’t learn to talk until the latter 1920s. And the first “talkie” was a musical.
Al Jolson caused a sensation in The Jazz Singer in 1927 and brought an end to the silent era.
By 1929, everyone was making sound movies, and all the major studios were making musicals. In fact, the first Academy Award went to a musical: The Broadway Melody in 1929.
But by 1933, musicals had lost their popularity. The novelty had worn off because most of them were little more than stage shows on film.
The movie that changed all that was 42nd Street!
And the man responsible for resurrecting the Hollywood musical—and making it one of the most popular movie genres for the next generation—was choreographer Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley came from Broadway. Samuel Goldwyn brought him to Hollywood to choreograph the Eddie Cantor musical Whoopee in 1930.
It was Darryl F. Zanuck, then the head of production at Warner Bros., who lured Berkeley away from Goldwyn with the promise of a backstage musical like none before it.
When Zanuck first mentioned the idea to Jack Warner, he hated it. “Oh, Christ, no!” Warner said. “We can’t give them away.”
So Zanuck developed the property on the Q.T.: Berkeley drove over the hill, back to the original Vitaphone lot on Sunset Boulevard, where he staged elaborate production numbers without Warner’s knowledge.
When Warner finally saw a rough cut, “Jack went out of his mind,” Zanuck recalled. “He never knew until it was screened, that it was a musical!”
And what a trend-setting musical it was.
It was Mervyn LeRoy who first persuaded Zanuck to hire Berkeley as choreographer. During the shooting, Zanuck told his staff, “Give Berkeley whatever he wants in the way of sets, props, costumes. Anything he wants, he can have!”
Warner Baxter plays the Broadway director who wants one more hit before he retires. Baxter had won an Oscar for his role in 1929’s In Old Arizona.
Kay Francis was supposed to play the prima-donna star in tonight’s film, but she was replaced by Bebe Daniels when Francis’s role in the Ernst Lubitsch classic Trouble in Paradise went over schedule at Paramount.
Daniels began her career in Hal Roach comedies, playing adult roles at the age of 14, opposite Harold Lloyd.
42nd Street was Ruby Keeler’s first film. She was married to Al Jolson at the time. Her role opposite Dick Powell proved so popular that they made seven films together.
Powell would say later: “I was so insipid [in those musicals] I wanted to throw up. . . . It took me five years of fighting to get out of those roles.”
He managed to change his crooner image dramatically in 1945 by playing the tough, sardonic private eye Phillip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet.
LeRoy gave his girlfriend a small role in this picture—her 13th in two years. He gave her a bigger part in his next picture, Gold Diggers of 1933. Her name: Ginger Rogers.
Wearing the monocle as “Anytime Annie” was Ginger’s idea.
A favorite line in the film about her character: “She only said ‘No’ once, and that was because she didn’t understand the question.”
42nd Street was the first of nine films that Ginger made in 1933. Later that same year, she made Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire, and a star was born.
The songs in 42nd Street are by Al Rubin and Harry Warren. It was their first of many projects for Warner Bros. They put in an appearance in the film as well.
Shooting began on October 5 and lasted through November 16, 1932.
The New York premiere was held at the Strand Theater on March 8, 1933. To promote the picture, Warner Bros. sent the “42nd Street Special”—a train travelling cross-country from Los Angeles to New York, prior to the premiere, filled with showgirls and stars, including Tom Mix and Tony (his horse).
The film was a blockbuster. It’s difficult to imagine the incredible impact this unique film had on Depression Era audiences.
Variety announced: “Everything about the production rings true. It’s as authentic to the initiated as the uninitiated. . . . Ruby Keeler, as the unknown who comes through and registers a hit, is utterly convincing.”
As the “real little trouper,” Keeler came from Broadway, couldn’t act, but looked good in satin scanties, and audiences loved her.
Baxter has the most memorable line in the film, when he says, “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
A close second: “Now go out there and be so swell you’ll make me hate you!”
The New York Express observed: “42nd Street is a cinematic effort by which Busby Berkeley, and he alone, is responsible for the current return of celluloid musicals. The beauty and dances top anything yet shown on the screen.”
42nd Street was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and for Best Sound Recording. But the Oscar went to Cavalcade—a picture no one remembers today.
It cost $439,000. The worldwide rental was $2,281,000, providing a net profit of $1,212,000, for a return on investment of 276 percent.
In 1980, the film was turned into a Broadway musical by David Merrick, with choreography by Gower Champion.
And now, the original, incomparable, 42nd Street.