Movie Musicals Turn a Corner at 42nd Street

By Kaufman, J B | American Cinematographer, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Movie Musicals Turn a Corner at 42nd Street


Kaufman, J B, American Cinematographer


Sixty years ago last spring, American movie audiences packed theaters across the country to see a film which was, of all things, a musical. It was, of course, Warner Bros.' 42nd Street, a picture that not only broke the long-standing box office jinx on film musicals, but also inaugurated an exciting new phase in their history. In producing it, however, the studio hedged its bets, supplementing the film's musical status with other attractions.

The project began with an as-yet-unpublished novel by Bradford Ropes, 42nd Street, which Warners acquired in August 1932. Divided into two sections, "Rehearsal" and "Opening," the novel told the story of staging a Broadway musical, and thus did bear some resemblance to the subsequent film. In some respects, however, the book followed a highly volatile course all its own. Its cast of characters included a homosexual director who was involved with the show's juvenile lead; a dance director who fancied underage chorus girls and stayed with his wife only because she was blackmailing him with evidence of a past indiscretion; and a bitchy, over-the-hill leading lady who got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs just before opening night, suffering a concussion. Her understudy, the story's one sympathetic character, stepped forward to take her place - and quickly assumed not only the star's role but also her demanding nature.

Upon publication, this seamy backstage story met with a mixed reception. The Boston Transcript praised it: "The author knows his subject thoroughly, the characters are well drawn, the atmosphere is perfect and the story is good." The New York Times, on the other hand, sniffed, "This is not a book to give to a maiden aunt, nor can one relish it as a clever, naughty jeu d'esprit. Anecdotes, allusions and conversations are, for the most part, of an excessively vulgar, gossipy nature."

Such controversy was the stuff on which Warners films thrived in the early Thirties. Production chief Darryl Zanuck, with his penchant for tough, gritty stories, must have been immediately attracted to this one. Major revisions were clearly necessary for the screen, however; no American filmmaker this side of Erich von Stroheim would have touched 42nd Street in its original form. Three members of the Warners writing staff - Whitney Bolton, James Seymour and Rian James - developed a script which retained many of the basic characters and situations of the novel, yet softened or eliminated its most sensational aspects. In more recent times this adaptation has been scorned as a Hollywood cop-out. Whether such a charge is justified or not, the net effect of the changes was to improve the story. The film writers tempered Ropes' juvenile excesses with a more realistic measure of restraint.

In an article written for the Hollywood Reporter in December 1932, Zanuck indicated another impetus behind the film: he saw it as an "exposé" - in the sense that The Mouthpiece had been an exposé of William Fallon. In this case the object was Florenz Ziegfeld, alleged to have driven his players mercilessly to stage his musical shows. This aspect of the film was given characteristic Warners timeliness by Ziegfeld's recent death in July 1932.

The cast of 42nd Street, drawn largely from Warners' stock company, was augmented by special players in key roles. For the top-billed part, fabled director Julian Marsh, the studio borrowed Warner Baxter from Fox. Baxter's weary, haggard appearance in the film may have been the real thing; between contract assignments and loan-out roles, Fox was keeping him extremely busy at the time. Bebe Daniels, a veteran silent-film actress who had more recently proven herself in musicals, was cast as the somewhat temperamental star of the show. To play her clandestine lover, George Brent was pulled from the cast of Frisco Jenny. Una Merkel, enjoying a surge of popularity at the time, was borrowed from MGM to play a saucy showgirl. As her pal and fellow showgirl, Ginger Rogers - who had already played more substantial parts in less substantial films - was cast. …

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