Pre-Code April: 42nd Street

Year: 1933

Runtime: 89 minutes

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Writers: Rian James, James Seymour

Actors: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell

By Joan Amenn

In 1933, the effects of the Depression lingered like a menacing grey fog over America and even a powerful film studio like Warner Brothers was teetering on the edge of disaster. The studio’s executives decided to go big and brought in a newcomer named Busby Berkeley to choreograph a new and lavish musical called “42nd Street” (1933). To paraphrase the film’s most famous line, Berkeley went in a nobody but came back a star. In the process, he saved the studio with a smash hit that launched not only his career but set the standard for all film musicals to come.

So much of the film’s script would not have survived the Hays Code era of strict adherence to conservative principles. There is a breezy sense of casual sexuality that shades the plot but in a way that is a wink to the audience and not a slap in the face. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell team up as two kids getting their first shot at the big time and their winning onscreen chemistry would result in their pairing in six more films. Ginger Rogers is a riot in a comedic turn but her considerable dancing ability isn’t showcased yet. It wouldn’t take long before she became a household name in her own right. In “42nd Street” she is just one of many chorus girls trying to keep up with the demands of a perpetually furious director, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter). The opening scene of the dancers auditioning in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979) is an obvious homage to the chorus girls trying out for the new show being rehearsed in “42nd Street.” Fosse himself seems to have had a lot in common with the tired, ailing, and unpleasable Julian Marsh, which he hints at in his own film.

Berkeley pulls off some miracles of set design such as a Pullman train car that splits open to reveal dancers “shuffling off to Buffalo” where they will honeymoon at Niagara Falls. As a matter of fact, the famous camera shot under a series of dancer’s legs was famously recreated in “The Big Lebowski” (1998) with Jeff Bridges. Berkeley’s influence still echoes in film nearly a century after he first let his imagination run wild in “42nd Street.” The film also shows how much of a senseless restriction the Hays Code was to the creative power of motion pictures as a very new form of creative expression still finding its way in what it could be capable of. So much has changed since Ruby Keeler danced her way into the hearts of an audience ravaged by loss and so much is still the same.

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