Sunday, February 3, 2008

75th anniversary: 42nd Street

Spotlight Seeker: Ruby Keeler, wife of Al Jolson, is the film moth who seeks the spotlight flame in the Warner Studio where she is to make her first picture. Credit Line (ACME) 12/12/32. No photographer credit.

"Now go out there and be so swell you'll make me hate you."

Ruby Keeler's screen debut 42nd Street is 75 years old this month. Let's celebrate!

The wikipedia entry lists the premiere date as February 2, 1933. But Village Voice film columnist J. Hoberman, in his fabulous book "42nd Street," published by BFI Film Classics (1993), lists the world premiere as 23 February in Denver, and the date 9 March 1933 as the New York City premiere at the Strand Theatre. I'll use the latter date to blow out the candles on the birthday cake.

42nd Street is not only the film that introduced me to Ruby -- playing the art-imitating-life ingenue "Peggy Sawyer" who steps out of the chorus line and saves the big show (what Hoberman calls the "Horatio Alger heroine, an American Cinderella, free to sing and dance her way up the stairway of success"), it's also the movie made me fall in love with the genre of Hollywood musicals.

There are so many elements that make 42nd Street stand out for me, from the genius of Busby Berkeley's revolutionary production numbers; the infectious musical compositions by Al Dubin and Harry Warren; the charming and winsome romantic lead Dick Powell; the duplicitous sexuality of Bebe Daniel; the tongue-in-cheek street slang from Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel; the hilarity of Guy Kibbee as financier "Abner Dillon"; to the film's real showstopper, the electric performance of director "Julian Marsh" played by the incomparable Warner Baxter.

J. Hoberman's book provides a real window into the Depression era the film was produced, as well as an inside look at the making of the Lloyd Bacon-directed Warner Bros. gamble. He dedicates the book to Ruby, and the back cover identifies himself as having been "briefly employed as Ruby Keeler's chauffeur during the Broadway run of No! No! Nanette." For fans of Ruby, Busby Berkeley, classic Warner Bros. films and Hollywood musical lovers, I can't recommend the book highly enough -- soak up those photos and buy it!.

Some tasty excerpts:

'Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty', 42nd Street is a prime chunk of fantasy real-estate -- not just a movie, but a novel, a song, a play, an act, an attitude, a dream, a racket, a rhythm, a way of life.

42nd Street is the hectic intersection where industrial folklore crosses with show business myth. [...]

[Producer Darryl F.] Zanuck, 'the chief interpreter of the Hardboiled Era' ... proposed to revive the musical and replace the percussive sound of [Warner Bros. gangster genres'] machine-gun fire with that of tap-dancing -- paying a 28-year old ex-vaudeville dancer named Bradford Ropes $6000 for the rights to his forthcoming novel 42nd Street, a backstage potboiler divided into two parts, 'Rehearsal' and 'Opening', and concerned with the interlocking fates of a show's producer and principals. ... In 42nd Street, then, Zanuck concocted the Hardboiled Musical, imbued -- like his gangster films -- with what Baudelaire termed the 'Heroism of Modern Life', those 'thousands of floating existences -- criminals and kept women -- that drift about in the underworlds of a great city.' [...]

Production began on 28 September 1932. ... The movie industry was felt to be near collapse. ... Theatres were empty, production was down, investment capital and cash flow had dried up. [...]

A series of successful sneak previews held in early January 1933...encouraged Warners to go for broke.

Exhibitors were instructed to sell 42nd Street as the 'Biggest Screen Event since the Birth of Vitaphone.' [...]

According to Variety, 42nd Street was the first studio release to be given extensive playdates in the American heartland, before opening in either New York or Los Angeles. The world premiere was on 23 February in Denver. [...]

Hoberman, cont...

Ruby Keeler was something of a professional naif. The 23-year-old dancer grew up on the East Side of Manhattan and was performing in speakeasies by her early teens, consistently attracting the attention of powerful men. Both Florenz Ziegfeld and Al Jolson saw Keeler dance at the well-known nightspot run by Texas Guinan (who would subsequently play herself in Warners' 1929 Queen of the Nightclubs). Jolson wooed Keeler away from her gangster protector, Johnny 'Irish' Costello; Ziegfeld cast her in the 1928 stage production of Whoopee!, although when the 43-year-old Jolson married the 19-year-old Keeler in September 1928, he demanded that she drop out of the cast and accompany him to California.

Keeler had already appeared in a two-minute short made by Fox to test the sound quality of recorded tap-dancing. 'Ruby Keeler, a revue dancer, snapped through a short but nifty tap-dance,' Variety reported. 'The machine gets every tap and reveals Miss Keeler as an exceptional female hoofer.' In Hollywood, she was immediately offered a part opposite Jolson but declined ('Al is so nervous when he works'), returning to New York in the spring of 1929 to star in another Ziegfeld-produced vehicle, Show Girl. This time Jolson followed her, and his initially extemporaneous gimmick of singing to his wife from the audience gave the production a needed boost. Unfortunately, Keeler's run was cut short after she fell from a spiral staircase and broke her ankle. Back in Hollywood, Joseph Schenk had her screen-tested for the female lead in the Jolson vehicle Hallelujah I'm a Bum. The powers at Warners saw the test and despite a report in the Los Angeles Times that Jolson 'hasn't been exactly keen over the idea of his wife entering on a motion picture career', offered her a leading part in 42nd Street. Negotiating with the studio he had helped propel to solvency, Jolson dmanded $10,000 for Keeler and got it. Keeler, in turn, managed to obtain parts for her two sisters, Gertrude and Helen, in the chorus line. [...]


[I]n it's matter-of-fact acknowledgement of backstage prostitution, the movie 42nd Street anticipates the less glamorous representation of '42nd Street' found in such post-Code films as John Schlesinger's 1968 Midnight Cowboy or Paul Morrissey's 1982 Forty Deuce. This tawdry backdrop makes the ludicrous innocence of Peggy Sawyer (and Billy Lawler) all the more dramatically compelling -- given the true nature of Pretty Lady (sic), the audience is left to wonder whether Sawyer will make it to the top with her virtue intact. [...]

'Have you ever been in love? Have you ever had a man hold you in his arms and kiss you?' Marsh demands. Sawyer shakes her head. Marsh, evidently a primitive exponent of the Method, grabs her in an embrace so passionate you wonder of he's insinuated his tongue down her throat.

"Two hundred people, 200 jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you. It's the lives of all these people ... you've got to give and give and give ... Sawyer, you're going out a youngster. But you've got to come back a star!"

1 comment:

Charis said...

You write very well.