Today on Turner Classic Movies at 1:15pm (EST) the one and only 42nd Street (1933).
A good definition of a classic film is one that you keep coming back to for inspiration and replenishment as though it contained the waters of the Fountain of Youth.
This one ended up becoming the archetypal show biz musical. Four years into the genre, by now the technical difficulties had been worked out, the conventions established, and an entire studio apparatus built up to allow artists to really do their stuff. Directed by silent movie veteran Lloyd Bacon, with choreography by Busby Berkley (whose experience ’til then had consisted mostly of working with the Goldwyn Girls on Eddie Cantor pictures), this Depression Era musical spectacular is glamorous, glittering and magical without ever being bland and idiotic (as so many musicals became in the ensuing decades). Its memorable tunes (written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin — who actually play themselves in the movie) include the title song (with that weird bluesy dip in the melody), as well as “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”. And the gorgeous, shimmering art deco designs (of sets, costumes and graphics) make the picture so beautiful, one could almost watch it with the sound turned down (or stare at publicity stills from the film for hours and hours, which many folks are wont to do).
He’ll say anything he has to in order to get a performance out of her.
And to top it off the book is constructed of cynical one-liners meant to represent New York showbiz: everyone communicates in world weary, nasty wisecracks. There is a nice double plot, juxtaposing the story of one girl (Bebe Daniels) who is forced to see her long-time vaudeville boyfriend and partner (George Brent) on the sly and take up with a millionaire (Guy Kibbee) so he will back the Broadway show she stars in…with the story of another girl (Ruby Keeler, in her first film role), who, after fainting with hunger, gets a job in the chorus, and is romanced by the juvenile (Dick Powell), as well as a couple of the other men. When the star (Daniels) gets drunk and breaks her ankle, of course Keeler (who’s never even been on Broadway before) gets her big shot. How do you think it goes?
In addition, the movie features one of my favorite characters, the insane, psychotic, mirthless stage director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter)…the Captain Ahab of stage directors…ridiculous, way over the top, as extreme as it needs to be. (I thought of him constantly while directing I’ll Say She Is last year. “Oh! THIS is the level of agida! Previous nervous breakdowns were nothing compared to this! “) The Marsh plot remains gloriously enigmatic. Is he a monster, just a brutal dictator? His inspirational speech — does he mean any of it? Was he once at least partially idealistic? Or was he always a machine? The question lends a darkness and a depth to the script that takes it beyond the realm of glittery entertainment. (BTW, the film was based on a novel — guess I’d better read that sometime soon.)
Not to mention: Ned Sparks! Una Merkel! Ginger Rogers! Toby Wing! Louise Beavers! Lyle Talbot!
For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.