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114. 42nd STREET, 1933

An exhilarating milestone in movie musicals

A tunnel of show girls legs in the musical number "Young and Healthy" in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

The title song of the movie musical “42nd Street” claims, “It's a rhapsody of laugher and tears. Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty, 42nd Street”, and this electrifying classic doesn’t disappoint one iota. Filled with humor, spectacle, heart, and very catchy tunes, “42nd Street” was a landmark that saved a genre, launched careers, wrote the blueprint for films to come, and led the way for a new Golden Age of movie musicals. This innovative film took audiences by storm, became one of 1933’s most profitable films, earned two Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), and decades later was voted the 13th Greatest Movie Musical of All-Time by AFI (the American Film Institute). Its quick-witted, unapologetic script, fabulous cast, and mind-blowing musical numbers keep the film so freshly entertaining that it came as no surprise in 2020, when New Yorker magazine named it a movie to watch during COVID lockdown. This film never ceases to lift the spirits.

Warner Baxter talks to the show chorus girls in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Based on a 1932 novel of the same name by former Broadway chorus boy Bradford Ropes, “42nd Street” is a film about the backstage hopes, dreams, and anxieties that come with putting on a Broadway show. The show in the film is "Pretty Lady", and the people involved include: ailing director “Julian Marsh” who recently lost everything in the stock market crash and needs this show to be a hit; the show's financier, wealthy tycoon “Abner Dillon”; actress “Dorothy Brock” who's dating “Abner” and two-timing him with her old vaudeville co-star “Pat Denning”; newbie actress “Peggy Sawyer”; jaded chorus girls “Lorraine Fleming” and “Ann Lowell’; actor "Billy Lawler" who has eyes for “Peggy”; and the show's dance director "Andy Lee”.The film depicts the jealousies, hopes, cynicism, heartache, and hard work that arise while putting on a show.

George E Stone inspects chorus girl kicks and legs in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

While the plot may be filled with clichés even for its day (like a tough-as-nails director, a temperamental actress, an innocent small-town girl gets her big break, and a show-must-go-on mentality), the film rises high above them to the point where they seem invented by this film, and as a result, “42nd Street” stands as the archetype for the backstage musical. These feel like real people putting on a real production with a lot at stake. Grounded in the Great Depression, it uses it as a springboard from which fantasy and spectacle arise, while always keeping a hand in the harshness of life. Hard-hitting reality is blended with escapism as in no other film before it, and its theme that hard work and dedication can steer anyone towards riches and fulfilled dreams spoke directly to the hopes of Depression audiences, and remains emotionally relevant today.

Ruby Keeler dances to exhaustion with chorus dancers looking on in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

When people think of movie musicals, undoubtedly MGM Studios (Metro-Goldwyn Mayer) comes to mind, for they produced many of the greatest and most beloved musicals of all-time, such as “The Wizard of Oz”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “The Band Wagon”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “An American in Paris”, just to name a few. But the early movie musical pioneer and innovator was Warner Brothers Studios.

Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler during dance rehearsals in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Warners produced cinema’s very first talking picture, a musical called “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, the first movie operetta “The Desert Song”, and the first all-color musical “On with the Show”, both in 1929. Following “The Jazz Singer”, movie musicals quickly rose as a very popular genre. After the success and Best Picture Oscar win for MGM's first musical (a backstage musical), 1929's "The Broadway Melody", studios began to churn out boatloads of formulaic and cheaply made backstage musicals. There were so many within such a brief period that audiences stopped seeing them. The industry rapidly shifted from billboards exclaiming “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!”, to theater marquees boasting that a film was “All Drama!” or “Not a Musical!”. The movie musical was just about dead. Then came “42nd Street”.

Bebe Daniels and Warner Baxter talk during rehearsals in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Towards the end of a roughly two-year moratorium, Warners’ current head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, felt it was time to revive and update the musical. Since the Warner brothers themselves (Jack and Harry) were vehemently opposed to producing any more musicals at the time, Zanuck made “42nd Street” without telling them it was a musical. The brothers both found out (and were furious) when screening the finished film, only to come away feeling it was one of the best pictures the studio had produced in years. Audiences and critics agreed, and the film became a runaway hit and the fourth highest US grossing film of the year. And it singlehandedly revived the movie musical.

a kaleidoscope of showgirls and their legs in the musical number "Young and Healthy" in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

A large reason was the work of choreographer Busby Berkeley. Zanuck hired him to direct the film’s musical numbers, and Berkeley was given carte blanche with no one to dampen his vision. Though credited as a choreographer, rather than fancy dance steps, Berkeley’s genius was at creating dream-like worlds in elaborate dance numbers. He repeatedly showcased hundreds of chorus girls and boys in dazzling formations, frequently on rotating platforms, filmed in highly imaginative ways, including his famous “top shot” – looking directly down at the dancers, transforming them from humans into staggering geometric abstractions and kaleidoscopic patterns. He drilled holes into the roofs of many a Warner Brothers’ soundstage to get high enough for his famous shot. His top shot is used in this film’s extravagant musical number “Young and Healthy”.

Dick Powell and Toby Wing during the song "Young and Healthy" in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Sequences like “Young and Healthy” made Berkeley’s name synonymous with multitudes of beautiful chorus girls in lavish musical numbers, and he became famous for featuring close-up after close-up of pretty chorus girl, another thing new to the screen. Being visually inclined, his beauties didn’t necessarily have to be dancers but had to have a look he wanted. As Berkeley stated to Mike Steen in his 1974 book “Hollywood Speaks: An Oral History”, “If they knew their left foot from their right and could do ballroom dancing, that was enough for me. But above all, they had to be beautiful. They had to have a lush quality, not just be pretty”.

Dancing showgirls during the finale song number of in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

The musical numbers in “42nd Street” are fully integrated into the plot so the film doesn’t stop for a song. They get progressively more and more cinematic, to the point where they could never be performed from start to finish in real life and can only exist in a film. The last three are the standouts, "Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “Young and Healthy”, and the finale, “42nd Street”. With its extraordinary camerawork and novel narrative content, the sensational nearly six-minute finale also broke new ground. It is the showpiece of the film and a mini movie of its own, depicting the happiness and hardships along famous 42nd Street through exciting and stylized visuals, song, and dance.

New York City skyline and Ruby Keeler in the finale number song in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Berkeley understood that the camera lens was the eye of the audience and that the possibilities of where to place it were endless. In addition to his top shot, he used cranes, built monorails and dolly tracks to move the camera thirty feet in the air, and placed it at radical angles (such as when it passes in between the dancer’s legs in “Young and Healthy”). He completely liberated the camera from its frequent eye level zone, breathing fresh air into the movie musical and cinema itself. Though we know Berkeley’s influence on musicals was huge, there is no real way to gauge the full impact of his work on cinema as a whole. I can’t imagine any film director (then or now) watching his musical numbers and not expanding their own ideas about filmmaking.

Bebe Daniels and fighting suitors during the song "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street”

Portrait photo of young film director movie musicals Busby Berkeley
Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley was born in Los Angeles to two actors. His father died while he was very young, followed by his brother. Berkeley remained very close with his mother her entire life. He made his stage debut at the age of five, and later served in the military at the end of WWI as a field artillery lieutenant, devising complex drill routines for hundreds of soldiers in unison – which had an obvious influence on his choreography. His Broadway debut was arranging dances for 1925's "Holka Polka", and he became a choreographer with his next show, "The Wild Rose" in 1926. Working on Broadway all through the 1920s, Berkeley earned a reputation as one of its top choreographers. Reportedly actor/singer Eddie Cantor is the one who summoned him to Hollywood in 1930 to direct and stage the musical numbers for his upcoming movie musical “Whoopee!". The film was a Samuel Goldwyn production, and Goldwyn smartly put Berkeley under contract, having Berkeley choreograph musical numbers for films. Everything changed with his first film at Warners, "42nd Street”.

Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel as hopeful showgirls in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Being such a sensation, "42nd Street" made musicals viable again and Berkeley immediately directed the musical numbers for two more Warners backstage musicals, “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “Footlight Parade”, also giant hits in 1933. The movie musical was now alive and kicking with Berkeley now a major Hollywood figure and household name. His films helped save a Depression-impacted Warner Brothers. He began directing entire films with 1933's "She Had to Say Yes" (which, funny enough, was a drama), and followed that with more Warner's musicals including “Dames”, "Gold Diggers of 1935" and "Bright Lights”, while also continuing to direct musical numbers for other director’s movies.

A kaleidoscope of showgirls in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Berkeley had a drinking problem and in 1935, while leaving a party drunk, he struck two cars, seriously injuring himself and killing three people. Charged with driving under the influence and second degree murder, he was acquitted after three trials and felt guilt over the incident for the rest of his life. At the end of the decade, he left Warners for MGM where he directed many of the very popular Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals such as “Babes in Arms”, "Strike Up the Band", and "Babes on Broadway". In 1946 Berkeley's mother died, after which his mental health declined. He attempted suicide and spent time in a psychiatric ward. His career drastically decelerated.

Dick Powell gets dressed while Ruby Keeler watches in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Berkeley directed a couple more films, including “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “The Blue Veil”, and continued directing musical numbers for other films, most famously Carmen Miranda’s "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” and the songs in the Esther Williams’ musicals “Million Dollar Mermaid” and “Easy to Love”. His final directing venture was his first and only on television (four episodes of the series "Big Town" in 1954 and 55), and his final film as choreographer was Doris Day's "Billy Roses's Jumbo" in 1962. In 1971, he returned to Broadway as production supervisor for a revival of "No, No Nanette". He was married six times. Busby Berkeley died in 1976 at the age of 80.

Bebe Daniels and George Brent embrace in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Though “42nd Street” is often thought of as a Busby Berkeley film, apart from its musical numbers, the film was directed by Lloyd Bacon. Bacon directs this film with tremendous energy, bringing it to life through rapid, spot-on editing and fluid camera movements. The opening montages of the 42nd Street sign and people talking all over town create an exciting start, topped by a beautiful tracking shot of dance director “Andy” walking through the hordes of auditioners at “Pretty Lady” tryouts. Mervyn LeRoy was originally hired to direct, but left the film due to illness. Hired to replace him, Bacon was a trusted director under contract to Warners who could make films on schedule and under budget. He turned out to be the perfect choice.

Guy Kibee and producers watch the showgirls in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Warner Brothers Hollywood film director portrait photo of Lloyd Bacon
Lloyd Bacon

California-born Lloyd Bacon began as an actor, appearing in silent short films starting in 1915, most notably several opposite Charlie Chaplin, and the "Broncho Billy" series, and began directing silent shorts in 1922 and features in 1926. He directed Warner's follow-up to "The Jazz Singer” titled "The Singing Fool”, also a mega hit, and worked several more times alongside Berkeley, including 1933's "Footlight Parade", "Gold Diggers of 1937", and 1951's "Call Me Mister" . He acted in just under 80 silent shorts and directed 130 shorts and features in his thirty-year career. Some other Bacon-directed films include "Give My Regards to Broadway", "Marked Woman", "Knute Rockne All American", and "A Slight Case of Murder". He was married twice. Lloyd Bacon died in 1955 at the age of 65.

Warner Baxter tells Ruby Keeler "you've got to come back a star" in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Warner Baxter gives a soulful performance starring as theater director “Julian Marsh”. Baxter’s layered portrayal shows an intense man who’s determined yet vulnerable, making it easy to see that “Julian” was once on top of the world and is now distraught and desperate. Baxter is marvelous in the role. “Julian” is a pretty unusual character for a musical comedy, with pathos and almost no humor, but that’s what makes him so interesting and gives the film its dark edge and giant dose of realism.

Warner Baxter flirts with George E. Stone in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

The film was toned down from the original book which contained drug addiction, adultery, and homosexuality. In the book, “Julian” was gay and having a romance with “Billy”. The only trace left of any homosexuality is the scene between “Julian” and "Andy", when “Julian” puts his arm around “Andy”, looks deep in his eyes and asks if he’s got a date, then asks him to come home with him because he’s lonely. It’s a very touching moment, well played by both actors. “Julian” also utters one of cinema’s most famous lines when he tells “Peggy”, "Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!” (AFI named it the 87th Greatest Movie Quote of All-Time).

Warner Baxter stars as director Julian in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Silent film matinee idol and Hollywood movie star actor portrait of Warner Baxter
Warner Baxter

Ohio-born Warner Baxter lost his father several months after his birth, and he and his mother later moved to New York where he began acting in school productions. He began appearing in films as an extra in 1914, getting more featured roles by 1918, and his first starring role in 1921's "Sheltered Daughters". He became a popular matinee idol of the 1920s, starring in nearly fifty films including "The Great Gatsby", "Aloma of the South Seas”, "West of Zanzibar", and “The Awful Truth”. Unlike many others, he became a bigger star with the advent of sound, and won the very second Best Actor Academy Award as "The Cisco Kid" in the 1929 film "In Old Arizona” (his only win or nomination). It was a role he would repeat in 1931's "The Cisco Kid”, and again in 1939's "The Return of the Cisco Kid". “42nd Street” was another high point in his career, and by 1936 he was Hollywood’s highest paid actor.

Silent film matinee Idol actor Hollywood movie star Warner Baxter portrait photo
Warner Baxter

Plagued with personal issues and insecurities about getting older as a leading man, he thought of retiring, and in the early 1940s he suffered a nervous breakdown. He then began appearing in B-movies in 1943, most famously as "Dr. Robert J. Ordway” in ten "Crime Doctor" films. Albeit less frequently, Baxter worked nearly up to his death. His other notable films include "Penthouse", "Stand Up and Cheer", "The Prisoner of Shark Island", "Kidnapped", "Adam Had Four Sons", and his final, ”State Penitentiary" in 1950. He was married twice, including his second marriage to silent film actress Winifred Bryson, which lasted over thirty years until his death. Warner Baxter died in 1951 at the age of 62.

Bebe Daniels two times Guy Kibee with George Brent in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Bebe Daniels stars as “Dorothy Brock”, the actress using wealthy financier “Abner” while still in love with her ex-vaudeville costar, “Pat”. Daniels is great in the role, with emotions ranging from warmth to disgust, and she also gets to sing the infectious song "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me” twice, once atop a piano, and later surrounded by four adoring suitors.

Bebe Daniels is a spoiled star in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Silent film star, Hollywood movie actress portrait photo of Bebe Daniels
Bebe Daniels

Texas-born Bebe Daniels was a big silent screen star. Her father was a theater manager and her mother a stage actress, and Daniels made her stage debut at ten weeks old. She began appearing in silent short films in 1910 starring in both "The Common Enemy" and as "Dorothy" in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz". In 1915 she was cast opposite comedian Harold Lloyd in "Giving Them Fits", and became his leading lady both on and off-screen. They made over 150 shorts together and became known off-screen as "The Boy and The Girl" in a very public romance. In 1917, respected film director Cecil B. DeMille offered Daniels a contract, and ambitious to be a dramatic actress, she accepted and left Lloyd after their final film, "Captain Kidd's Kids" in 1919. She was soon playing leading roles in comedies and dramas, including "Miss Bluebeard", "The Manicure Girl", and "Monsieur Beaucaire" (opposite Rudolph Valentino).

Silent movie star Hollywood actress portrait photo of Bebe Daniels
Bebe Daniels

When sound arrived Daniels began appearing in musicals, including 1919’s Technicolor "Rio Rita", which made her a musical star. She appeared in more musicals and as they were dying she moved to Warner Brothers and appeared in dramatic roles in the early 1930s, including "Honor of the Family", "The Maltese Falcon" and "Silver Dollar". Then came "42nd Street". After making a few more films she retired and moved to London with her husband, actor Ben Lyon, and their children. Daniels spent WWII in London working on radio, stage, and appearing in a few films. Her final film was as herself in "Life with the Lyons", a film version of her popular radio series. Her marriage to Lyons was her only and lasted just over forty years until her death. Bebe Daniels died in 1971 at the age of 70.

George Brent and Ruby Keeler make a toast in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

George Brent plays “Pat Denning”, “Dorothy’s” love interest who seems to like “Peggy” as well. Brent brings a breezy casual charm to his scenes with “Dorothy" and devilishness in scenes with "Peggy". Like several actors in the cast of “42nd Street”, Brent was a popular actor currently moving up the ladder of success to stardom.

George Brent has an eye for the ladies in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Romantic leading man Hollywood Irish actor movie star George Brent portrait young
George Brent

Born in Ireland, George Brent moved to New York when he was about eleven years old after his parents divorced. He briefly moved back to Ireland during the Irish War of Independence where he began in theater. He worked as a courier for political party Sinn Féin's leader Michael Collins, and with a bounty on his head by the British government, Brent fled Ireland, ending back in New York where he began working in stock theater companies. His Broadway debut was in 1930's "Love, Honor and Betray". Though he worked as an extra in John Ford's silent 1924 classic "The Iron Horse", his official film debut was in 1930's "Under Suspicion". Brent signed with Warners in 1931 and appeared non-stop in films as a romantic lead, including "42nd Street". He became a reliable leading man who starred opposite many top stars, most notably Bette Davis (who claimed he was her favorite leading man), and the two appeared in eleven films together, including "Jezebel", "Dark Victory", "The Old Maid”, and their final pairing in 1942's "In This Our Life”. They reportedly had an affair.

Romantic leading man Hollywood Irish actor movie star George Brent portrait seated in suit
George Brent

Though too old to enlist during WWII, Brent took time off from movies during the war to work as a pilot for the US Coast Guard. When he returned to Hollywood, his film career was less successful, and he appeared in lesser films. Switching to television in 1953, he appeared on many shows during the decade, including as a lead on the TV Series "Wire Service" in 1956. In 1960 he retired, coming back to the big screen one last time in 1978 for "Born Again", ending a 50+ year film and TV career with just over 100 credits. He was married five times, including marriages to actresses Ruth Chatterton, Constance Worth, and Ann Sheridan. George Brent died in 1979 at the age of 75.

Ruby Keeler tap dances in the finale song number in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Other than Busby Berkeley, the person most associated with “42nd Street” is Ruby Keeler who plays “Peggy Sawyer”, the wide-eyed small-town girl with big dreams. This was Keeler’s film debut and it made her a star. Keeler was quoted as saying much later in life, "It's really amazing. I couldn't act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn't the greatest tap dancer in the world either”. True or not, none of that matters. Pushing aside any shortcomings, she is sweetness incarnate and brings an overwhelming irresistibility and innocence to the screen while her clunky tap dancing and joyful singing become fascinatingly endearing. “Peggy” is really the star of the film, for it is her we identify with, and Keeler’s everyday aura inspires us to believe that if she can make it, so can we.

Innocent Ruby Keeler on a sofa in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Tap dancer, singer, actress, Hollywood movie star Ruby Keeler young portrait wearing beret
Ruby Keeler

Canadian-born Ruby Keeler moved to New York City with her family at the age of three and began taking dance classes while in school. She made her Broadway debut at the age of thirteen (pretending she was sixteen) in the chorus of George M. Cohan's 1923 "The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly". After dancing in nightclubs and speakeasies, she landed a part in the 1927 Broadway musical "Bye, Bye, Bonnie", followed by back to back Broadway musicals. Singer and actor Al Jolson saw her on Broadway and was instantly smitten. The two began dating and married in 1928. After his success in "The Jazz Singer" and "The Singing Fool", Keeler was also put under contract to Warner Brothers, and Zanuck took a chance casting her in “42nd Street". It made her a big star.

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell atop a skyscraper building in the finale song in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Tap dancer, singer, actress, Hollywood movie star Ruby Keeler young portrait seated showing legs
Ruby Keeler

Keeler and "42nd Street" co-star Dick Powell (who plays “Billy”) generate a joyous chemistry with spirited sincereness and were the personification of the wholesome youth of the day. Having captured the hearts of moviegoers, they were paired in four more Warner Brothers’ musicals including "Gold Diggers of 1933", "Footlight Parade", and “Dames”, and becoming a very popular screen duo. She starred opposite Jolson in the 1935 musical "Go into Your Dance”, made her only non-musical,"Mother Carey's Chickens" in 1938, and one more musical, "Sweetheart of the Campus" in 1941. Then, after having appeared in just twelve features, she retired from the screen. Keeler made a few TV appearances in the 1950s and 60s and a cameo in the 1970 film "The Phynx". She made a highly publicized return to Broadway in the 1971 revival of the musical "No, No, Nanette" (with Berkeley as its production supervisor), touring with the show for two years. In 1989, she returned to the screen for a final appearance in "Beverly Hills Brats". Her marriage to Jolson ended in 1939 and in 1941 she remarried, remaining so until her husband's death in 1969. Ruby Keeler died in 1993 at the age of 83.

Guy Kibbee sweet talks Bebe Daniels in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Hollywood character actor Guy Kibbee portrait photo
Guy Kibbee

Guy Kibbee plays "Abner Dillon", the sleazy man with the money. A prolific character actor who made 111 films in seventeen years, Kibbee frequently played stuffy, not too bright, jovial, often lecherous characters or sugar daddies (such as “Abner”). Texas-born Guy Kibbee began performing at the age of fifteen on Mississippi riverboats. He then toured in stock companies and made his Broadway debut in 1930’s "Torch Song”. Hollywood noticed, and after an uncredited role in the 1929 short film "For Sale", he made his feature film debut in 1931's "Stolen Heaven". He worked profusely in Hollywood and is a familiar face to any classic movie watcher. His other classics include "Gold Diggers of 1933", "Footlight Parade", "Dames", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Captain January", "Captain Blood", "Rain", "Our Town", "Fort Apache", "Girl Crazy", and his final film, 1948’s "3 Godfathers”, after which he made three TV appearances. He was married twice. Guy Kibbee died in 1956 at the age of 74.

Una Merkel waves in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

Hollywood movie star actress comedienne Una Merkel glamour portrait photo young
Una Merkel

There are several faces in “42nd Street” that should be familiar to watchers of the films on this blog, and one of them is Una Merkel who plays chorus girl “Lorraine Fleming”. It’s hard to watch this film through the eyes of a 1933 audience, but a tough, cynical, and guarded chorus girl like "Lorraine" was something new. Thanks to the script and Merkel’s talent, “Lorraine” comes across as an individual who’s been through it all and will do what is needed to stay in control, get what she wants, and protect herself. And it's a perfect fit for the comedic Merkel, who keeps the character enjoyably entertaining. Merkel had been appearing in films steadily since 1930, and “42nd Street” helped solidify her as a very likable and popular character actresses (and occasional leading lady) who was a pro at delivering a wry quip. Two years before, she appeared opposite Jean Harlow in “Red-Headed Woman”, and you can read more about the life and career of Una Merkel in my post on that classic.

Ginger Rogers with feathers in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Portrait of young red-headed movie star Hollywood icon legend actress dancer Ginger Rogers
Ginger Rogers

“Lorraine’s” sidekick is “Ann Lowell”, another chorus girl who’s seen it all (and done it all according to her nickname, “Anytime Annie”). She's played by another familiar face, Ginger Rogers (a redhead this time). Rogers was dating director Mervyn LeRoy at the time, who urged her to take this part when actress Joan Blondell bowed out. Rogers accepted and remained in the cast after LeRoy left, and lucky she did. “42nd Street” was the first role to give her a chance to spout wisecracks, something at which she excelled. She makes “Ann” distinct in a highly amusing way and audiences took notice. After appearing in a dozen feature films since 1930, "42nd Street" proved her first big break, putting her on the threshold of stardom, which came later that year, drawing more major attention (as a blonde) singing "We're in the Money" in "Gold Diggers of 1933”, followed by major stardom in her first film dancing opposite Fred Astaire in"Flying Down to Rio”. You can read more about the life and career of Ginger Rogers in two of my previous posts, “Top Hat” and “Stage Door”. Just click on the film titles to read more.

Dick Powell singing "Young and Healthy" in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Dick Powell plays “Billy Lawler”, who describes himself as “one of Broadway’s better juveniles”. The cherubic Powell is immensely likable as “Billy” and his cheerful enthusiasm is infectious, even when crooning a ditty. As mentioned before, his chemistry with Keeler sparkles with a genuine affection, giving him (and her) a kind of dreamy quality. His solid performance made him a star of lighthearted musical comedies.

Dick Powell in an undershirt in the backstage Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Hollywood movie star singer actor musical film noir Dick Powell young portrait
Dick Powell

Arkansas-born Dick Powell was urged by his father to sing in church choirs as a child. After college he worked as a band singer, toured around the country, and recorded some songs in the late 1920s. Warner Brothers heard his recordings, liked his stage presence, and put him under contract in 1932, casting him in his film debut as a singer and bandleader in "Blessed Event". Three non-musicals followed, and then "42nd Street” which made him a musical star. He immediately appeared in more musicals, including "Gold Diggers of 1933", "Footlight Parade" and "Dames", and by 1934 was top-billed in a couple dozen musicals such as "Gold Diggers of 1935", "Gold Diggers of 1937", "Hollywood Hotel", and "Varsity Show". Feeling typecast, he left Warners and moved to Paramount in 1940 and appeared in the drama "I Want a Divorce". He continued as a romantic lead, mostly in comedies and the occasional musical. Still wanting to get away from lighthearted roles, Powell tried to be cast in the noir "Double Indemnity” to no avail. But it lead to his starring in another classic noir, as detective "Philip Marlowe" in 1944's "Murder, My Sweet”, whose success opened a whole new chapter in Powell's career playing tough guys, mostly in noirs.

Hollywood movie star singer actor musical film noir Dick Powell young portrait in suit and hat
Dick Powell

Come the 1950's and Powell began appearing on television and producing and directing films and TV shows. He was also one of the founders (and president) of the TV production company Four Star Television, which produced such popular shows as "The Big Valley", "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre", "Stagecoach West", "The June Allyson Show", and his Emmy winning/nominated TV series, "The Dick Powell Show". In 1963, he was posthumously awarded a Television Academy Trustee Award for his contribution to the industry. Other notable films from his 71 film and TV credits include "The Bad and the Beautiful", "In the Navy", "Christmas in July", "Pitfall", and "The Enemy Below". He was married three times, including his second marriage to actress and frequent co-star Joan Blondell, and his third and final (ending with his death) to actress and sometimes co-star June Allyson. Dick Powell died of lung cancer in 1963 at the age of 58.

George E. Stone as the musical director in the Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Hollywood tough guy mobster character actor George E. Stone early young portrait photo
George E. Stone

One last actor I'll mention is George E. Stone who plays dance director “Andy Lee”. Stone is completely natural and a superb listener (the key to great acting). The Polish-born George E. Stone was a very prolific character actor, who appeared in 189 films and TV shows in 30+ years. Though short in stature, he often played tough guys and mobsters, and he holds his own in "42nd Street" alongside the overpowering "Julian" and among hundreds of dancers. Stone appeared in lots of classics, including one already on this blog – as "Toothpick Charlie" in "Some Like It Hot". His countless other classics include "The Front Page", "Cimarron", "Pickup on South Street", "The Man with the Golden Arm", "Guys and Dolls", "Some Came Running", "Pocketful of Miracles", and as the sidekick known as "The Runt" in twelve of the "Boston Blackie" films of the 1940's. He was married and divorced twice. George E. Stone died in 1967 at the age of 64.

Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers in negligees on a train singing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" in the Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
"42nd Street"

Song composers Harry Warren and Al Dubin photo at desk
Harry Warren (left) and Al Dubin (right)

"42nd Street" is a Pre-Code film (which I explain in my "Red Dust" post), and sexual innuendo is everywhere, even the film's songs are all about sex. Though the Code wasn’t yet strictly enforced, there were still censors and a moral code was still followed. One example can be seen when "Anytime Annie" sings "Shuffle Off to Buffalo". While singing, she quickly changes the song lyrics, singing "a shotgun at his bel – tummy”, since "belly" was considered a scandalous word at the time. The film's fabulously hummable songs (several have become standards) were all written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), who each quickly appear in the film as songwriters (Dubin is the stout one and Warren is the short one). This film's success led them to a contract with Warners, and they became the studio's principal songwriters. In 1980, "42nd Street" was adapted for the stage by Warren and Dubin (who wrote additional songs for it). It won the Broadway Tony Award as Best Musical.

Bebe Daniels sits on a piano and sings "You're getting to Be a Habit with Me" for Warner Baxter in the Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

In addition to its Best Picture Academy Award nomination, “42nd Street’s” sound director Nathan Levinson earned a Best Sound Recording Oscar nomination.

DIck Powell and Ruby Keeler have tea in the Pre-Code classic Busby Berkeley musical film "42nd Street"
“42nd Street”

This week’s classic is an exhilarating movie musical that still has the power to captivate, move, and inspire. Enjoy a true early classic, “42nd Street”!

This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!



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