Friday, April 1, 2016

Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley | 42nd Street

shuffling off
by Douglas Messerli

Rian James, James Seymour, and Whitney Bolton (screenplay, based on a novel by Bradford Ropes), Lloyd Bacon (director), Busby Berkeley (musical director) 42nd Street / 1933

Although the film musical 42nd Street was a huge hit when released in 1933, while still watchable, today it often seems static and clich├ęd. The plot is far too busy with backstage romantic links: Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) allows the wealthy theater-backer Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) to court her while still having secret liaisons with her former dance partner Pat Denning (George Brent). Pat, in turn, is clearly attracted to the newcomer Peggy Sawyer (the often awkward Ruby Keeler) and so too is the singer Billy Lawler (Dick Powell). Ann Lowell, (“Anytime Annie”) is having an affair with dance director Andy Lee (George E. Stone) which assures her and her girlfriend chorine, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel), and, soon after, the innocent newcomer, Peggy, will be included in the large cast; and later, when Pretty Girl backer Dillon catches on to Dorothy’s double-timing, he takes up with “Anytime Annie.” Is it any wonder, with so much time devoted to bedroom conversations that, at moments, the whole affair seemingly has fallen asleep.

Only director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) seems free of romantic inclinations—although in the original novel by Bradford Ropes he has a gay relationship with Billy. Too bad the code of the day couldn’t allow for that; in the movie he is simply self-involved, worried about his health, in need of a hit so that he can recoup all his losses from the Depression and retire.

    As critic Daniel Eagan notes, Busby Berkeley’s dance numbers seemed innovative in their day; but, I’d argue, they now appear as fascistic band-marching numbers, with the dancers mostly moving in lockstep or hurriedly shifting into new lines as they regroup to create kaleidoscopic circles, squares, and other geometric shapes. While this certainly does result in some remarkable cinematic images—which renders the reality of a stage play entirely implausible—real dancing occurs only sporadically, and when it does it appears these lovely ladies and chorus guys are clumsily pounding the floor with their gams rather than tinkle-toeing across a Broadway stage. Berkeley might have made a perfect director for a fascist parade, but through the often inventive patterns into which he abstracts the human body, we lose the entire purpose of dance. Dance, after all, is the opposite of “living statues."

      Is it any wonder that poor Dorothy, the star of his production, twists her foot and must drop out, and that Peggy, her replacement is told by director Marsh "I'll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl?” By the time Ruby gets her chance to hoof it, she does almost truly look exhausted—or at least scared out of her wits.     

      Meanwhile, the busy cast members “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” sing out the joys of being “Young and Healthy” and mumble their praises to “42nd Street,” whipping up enough musical froth to make the viewer feel he’s getting a bang for his buck. Peggy becomes a star, Marsh can retire, Annie gets a rich “angel,” and Bebe rejoins her true love, Pat. As the Gershwins queried in their “I’ve Got Rhythm,” Who could ask for anything more?

      The tropes of this film were so often repeated that you’d think audiences never did ask for more—although fortunately they got it in Astaire and Rogers and the later musicals I celebrate in “Shall We Dance: Several Film Dancers” in My Year 2000.

Los Angeles, April 1, 2016

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