Film Review of 42nd Street (1933) | Clothes on Film

Posted by Chris Laverty on May 5, 2009

Starring: Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell
Directed by: Lloyd Bacon

This is a deliciously funny musical. It’s racy and light years ahead of its time; a power play of sexual politics set in the heightened blood, sweat and tears world of professional theatre.

Shot during America’s Great Depression, 42nd Street (1933) follows the culmination of tired Broadway director Julian Marsh’s (Warner Baxter) production of ‘Pretty Lady’. The machinations of the chorus girls and randy male dancers form a background to Peggy Sawyer’s (Ruby Keeler) story; her ascent from newbie performer to replacing Pretty Lady’s injured lead Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) on opening night.

It’s revealing nothing to say Sawyer saves the show. She is adorned with praise while Marsh is left broken and underappreciated in the final shot. Though one cigarette later and he’ll do it all again tomorrow.

The film’s structure saves virtually every musical number to a (typically dizzying) Busby Berkeley finale. While relying a little too heavily on subplots to establish the narrative, this approach does ensure a common accessibility not normally found in the genre.

Plus with room to breathe the repartee is given deserved centre stage. As stage director Andy (George E. Stone) says of ‘Anytime’ Annie Lowell (Ginger Rogers), “She only said ‘No’ once, and then she didn’t hear the question!” – proving, without a doubt, that 42nd Street is no place for the thin-skinned.

Clad in wide lapelled pinstripe and flannel suits (male and female), these theatrical types are hustlers just as much as Cagney and his gangster cronies. Job interviews are conducted from across the bedroom; underperformers fired over a double bourbon at a speakeasy. As the chorus girls understand only too well, it’s not what you know it’s the men you know, and who they are seen with.

These girls have attained a paradoxical power. Flashing their stockinged legs at the money men, they could be fired in a heartbeat and yet they succeed via the fetishism of expectant sex. They offer everything and give only what they must; the rest they save for the show.