Director: Melvyn LeRoy, musical sequences by Busby Berkeley
Writers: Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour, David Boehm and Ben Markson, based on a play by Avery Hopwood
Stars: Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon
The Story: Three showgirls are thrown out of work by the depression, but with a lot of dreaming and scheming they all get jobs in a toe-tapping show about the plight of the “forgotten man”.
How it Came to be Underrated: Two things gave me the wrong impression about this movie long before I saw it: First of all, it has the type of name that was already being parodied a few years later in Sullivan’s Travels, in which a director refuses to direct a mindless comedy called Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Then you had Blazing Saddles, which used a Busby-Berkeley-type director as shorthand for “dated ‘30s comedy”. Imagine how shocked I was when I actually saw the movie and found out how wild and smart it was.
Why It’s Great:
- Film histories can frequently perpetuate the myth that Hollywood movies succeeded during the Depression by pretending that nothing bad was going on. Hardly! This is a light musical comedy, but every single scene honestly confronts the bleak economic reality of its time in a clear-eyed way that current ‘topical’ movies wouldn’t dare replicate.
- This was the second of many pair-ups of toe-tappers Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Powell would eventually go on to show that he could handle a full range of rolls, not just song-and-dance. Keeler wasn’t so lucky. She specialized in roles about talentless singers and dancers. Guess why she developed that persona? Because she couldn’t sing or dance! And yet, she makes it work! She was the plucky little star who could be you! Hell, she was the star who wasn’t even as good as you!
- Partly because of the abstact overhead stills that are often shown to summarize his work, I falsely assumed that Berkley was only interested in bodies for the geometrical compositions they could create. Then I actually saw some of his movies— They’re earthy and sexy! This was before the production code was enforced, and movies had a raunchiness that they wouldn’t find again until the late sixties.
- Which brings us to the most deliriously mad musical moment ever: Powell woos Keeler in a number called “Petting in the Park”. She half-heartedly resists his advances, until she finally comes up with the perfect solution: a sheet-metal party dress that will let him pet all he wants without going too far. Or will it? Out of nowhere, a sprightly midget on roller skates arrives to keep the fun going: he’s brought a can opener! Powell and Keeler each get a randy gleam in their eyes as he happily shreds her metal dress! Yowza!
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie was a follow-up to 42nd Street, and the third movie in the trinity was Footlight Parade. It’s three different variations on a theme, all choreographed by Berkeley, and all three are wonderfully watchable.
How Available Is It?: The dvd is chock full of special features. It’s a shame that I didn’t have time to watch any of them!
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Film Fun!
Oooh, love this one! In my head, I always compare it with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes...but GPB can't touch this one for its brassiness and sassiness. Now I know what I'm rewatching this weekend!
We rented 42nd St recently. I remembered seeing the traveling B'way show in the 80s and was surprised to find that the 30s film was so much more mature, sly and earthy.
When you check out movies like this one, made before vigorous enforcement of the Hayes Code infantilized Hollywood, you get a sense of what might have been in American cinema, and thus get a better idea of the damage the Hayes Code did.
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