It is 1932, the depth of the Depression, and noted Broadway producers Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks) are putting on Pretty Lady, a musical starring Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). She is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s “angel” (financial backer), but while she is busy keeping him both hooked and at arm’s length, she is secretly seeing her old vaudeville partner, out-of-work Pat Denning (George Brent).
Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is hired to direct, even though his doctor warns that he risks his life if he continues in his high-pressure profession; despite a long string of successes he is broke, a result of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He must make his last show a hit, in order to have enough money to retire on.
Cast selection and rehearsals begin amidst fierce competition, with not a few “casting couch” innuendos flying around. Naïve newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who arrives in New York from her home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is duped and ignored until two experienced chorines, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) and Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell (Ginger Rogers), take her under their wing. Lorraine is assured a job because of her relationship with dance director Andy Lee (George E. Stone); she also sees to it that Ann and Peggy are chosen. The show’s juvenile lead, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), takes an immediate liking to Peggy, as does Pat.
When Marsh learns about Dorothy’s relationship with Pat, he sends some thugs led by his gangster friend Slim Murphy (Tom Kennedy) to rough him up. That plus her realization that their situation is unhealthy makes Pat agree to not to see each other for a while, and he gets a stock job in Philadelphia.
Rehearsals continue for five weeks to Marsh’s complete dissatisfaction until the night before the show’s opening in Philadelphia, when Dorothy breaks her ankle. By the next morning Abner has quarreled with her and wants Julian to replace her with his new girlfriend, Annie. She, however, tells him that she can’t carry the show, but the inexperienced Peggy can. With 200 jobs and his future riding on the outcome, a desperate Julian rehearses Peggy mercilessly (vowing “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl”) until an hour before the premiere.
Billy finally gets up the nerve to tell Peggy he loves her; she enthusiastically kisses him. Then Dorothy shows up and wishes her luck, telling her that she and Pat are getting married. The show goes on, and the last twenty minutes of the film are devoted to three Busby Berkeley production numbers: “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “(I’m) Young and Healthy”, and “42nd Street”.
The show is a hit. As the theater audience comes out Julian stands in the shadows, hearing the comments that Peggy is a star and he (Marsh) does not deserve the credit for it.
In the original Bradford Ropes’ novel Julian and Billy are lovers. Since same-sex relationships were unacceptable in films by the moral standards of the era, the film substituted a romance between Billy and Peggy.
The film was Ruby Keeler’s first, and the first time that Berkeley, Warren and Dubin had worked for Warner Bros. Director Lloyd Bacon was not the first choice to direct – he replaced Mervyn LeRoy when LeRoy became ill. LeRoy was dating Ginger Rogers at the time, and had suggested to her that she take the role of “Anytime Annie”.
Actors who were considered for lead roles when the film was being cast include Warren William and Richard Barthelmess for the role of Julian Marsh, eventually played by Warner Baxter; Kay Francis and Ruth Chatterton instead of Bebe Daniels for the role of Dorothy Brock; Loretta Young as Peggy Sawyer instead of Ruby Keeler; Joan Blondell instead of Ginger Rogers for Anytime Annie; Glenda Farrell for the role of Lorraine, played by Una Merkel, and Frank McHugh instead of the diminutive George E. Stone as Andy, the dance director.
The film began production on 5 October 1932. The shooting schedule ran for 28 days at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California. The total cost of making it has been estimated to be $340,000–$439,000.
No Oscar Nomination for Bebe Daniels?
Author: drednm from United States
23 June 2005
Perhaps the greatest musical of them all, this lively Warner Bros film boats a great cast and music and served as the prototype plot for scores of other films. Backstage drama in putting on a show when the star falls and breaks her ankle and must be replaced by a newcomer. It worked in film, and it worked in the Broadway stage version of this film. This film also served as a springboard to stardom for Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers. Warner Baxter stars as the dyspeptic director who harangues his cast into making a great show. Bebe Daniels is his star who is seeing an old boyfriend (George Brent) while stringing along rube producer (Guy Kibbee). Ruby Keeler is the newcomer who has eyes for the show’s “juvenile” (Dick Powell) and who is befriended by old hands, Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel. Toss in Ned Sparks, Allen Jenkins, George E. Stone, Louise Beavers, Charles Lane, Lyle Talbot, Henry B. Walthall, and the day’s top chorus girl, Toby Wing. Great musical numbers boast the singing talents of Powell and the dancing talents of Keeler. Bebe Daniels also has a great number in “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me.” And Rogers does NOT make a mistake during the “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” number. She starts to say “belly” but changes it to “tummy.” It’s part of the show, folks! “Belly” was considered to be a vulgar term in 1933; her use of the word shows her character. It’s not a mistake. But it is odd that Keeler stars in this number with Clarence Nordstrom rather than Dick Powell. Other songs include “Young and Healthy” and the superb “42nd Street.” The best and oft repeated line belongs to Daniels speaking to Keeler: “Now go out there and be so swell …. that you’ll make me hate you!” This line is also said by Glenda Jackson to Twiggy in 1971’s The Boy Friend.
Sawyer you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
25 November 2005
In reviewing one of the film versions of The Virginian I said that it was the prototype for all the westerns that were done, where all the clichés started. The same can certainly be said for 42nd Street, THE original backstage musical.
It’s also a film that couldn’t be made but right in the middle of the Hoover Depression. Today’s audiences can certainly appreciate the magic in the Busby Berkeley musical numbers, but the economics of the situation can hardly be grasped. Many shows on Broadway opened and closed fast after the Stock Market crash of 1929 because no one could afford the price of a ticket. A whole lot of the wealthiest producer/ directors on Broadway from Florenz Ziegfeld on down lost plenty of money in that era.
Warner Baxter’s producer was such a man. He’s lost his shirt in the market and he has to come up with a smash hit for his own economic survival. The cast and crew he assembles to put on the show Pretty Lady are all fighting for their survival. There are plenty of talented people out of work so none of them better mess up.
Guy Kibbee is the sugar daddy and of course his price for financing the show is some kanoodling with star Bebe Daniels. Probably at that point in history his money gives him more power over everyone than would even normally be the case. You really hate Kibbee in this, not because he’s mean or vicious, but why should such an obvious fool and oaf control the destiny of so many.
Bebe of course has her problems, a man who taught her the business, but who she left behind in vaudeville while she hit the big time on Broadway. We never do see George Brent do any songs or snappy vaudeville patter, but that’s all right because he’s believable as the happy go lucky hoofer who might have been big time if he had the breaks.
And of course the youngsters, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, playing in their first film together. Powell has one big number, Young and Healthy, but it’s on Keeler that the plot really turns.
I suppose the real star of this film is Busby Berkeley who’s vision of kaleidoscopic chorus girls came into real fruition here. The Depression story is dated, but Berkeley’s musical numbers, Young and Healthy, Shuffle Off to Buffalo, and 42nd Street are eternal. That and all the clichés about putting on a Broadway show that became standard in films for generations.
Baxter’s driven producer/director, Daniels’ egotistic star, Brent’s vaudeville hoofer, Kibbee’s moronic businessman backer, and eager hopefuls Powell and Keeler became clichéd characters in a dozen films any movie fan could name.
But it all started here folks, it all started with 42nd Street.
Sexy Ginger Rogers.
Reception and legacy
The film premiered in New York on 9 March 1933 at the Strand Theatre, and went into general release two days later, becoming one of the most profitable ones of the year, bringing in an estimated gross of $2,300,000. It received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound Recording, and was named one of the 10 Best Films of 1933 by Film Daily.
The New York World-Telegram described it as “A sprightly entertainment, combining, as it did, a plausible enough story of back-stage life, some excellent musical numbers and dance routines and a cast of players that are considerably above the average found in screen musicals.”
John Mosher of The New Yorker called it “a bright movie” with “as pretty a little fantasy of Broadway as you may hope to see”, and praised Baxter’s performance as “one of the best he has given us”, though he described the plot as “the most conventional one to be found in such doings.”
Warner already had a follow-up of sorts – Gold Diggers of 1933 – in production before the film’s release, and the success of both films permitted a higher budget and more elaborate production numbers in Warner’s next follow-up, Footlight Parade.