Monday, November 17, 2008

"42nd Street" and Hard Times

The recent battering the economy’s taken has had one positive outcome –- it’s increased my appreciation of movies from the early 1930’s. The common conceit is that movies made during the Great Depression were designed as escapist fantasy. Perhaps, but the reality of what people were going through was always there under the surface.

Take the 1933 MGM musical “42nd Street.” It’s primarily known for its extravagant Busby Burkeley production numbers. I think for years the film was looked upon as a quaint relic from an earlier time. The story of a young ingénue who takes over when the star gets injured has become a cliché, as has its most famous line, “You’re going out a youngster. But Sawyer, you’ve got to come back a star!"

Watch the movie today, though, and you get a different impression. The story, first and foremost, is about Julian Marsh, Broadway’s leading director (played by Walter Baxter). His health is wrecked, but he forces himself to sign on for one more show, "Pretty Lady."

But not for art. As he tells the producers in the first scene, he’s in it for the money. The producers express surprise. Isn’t Marsh loaded from all his past hits? Listen to the edge in his voice as he delivers these lines:
"I ought to be but I’m not. Did you ever hear of Wall Street? This time I’m going to sock my money away so hard that they’ll have to blast to find enough to buy a newspaper."
Who can’t relate to that sentiment today?

As the story progresses, the sugar daddy for the production, kiddie car magnate Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) has a falling out with Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), the star of the show and the object of his affections. He threatens to pull his backing the night before the premier if Brock isn’t replaced.

Marsh tries to reason with Dillon, pointing out he’ll lose his investment. Dillon, drunk, sneers that it doesn’t matter. It’s his own funeral. Listen as Marsh pleads his case. As he points out, it’s not just Dillon’s funeral.
"Yes, the funeral of 200 other people besides. Chorus girls, boys, electricians... You wouldn’t be that mean, would you?"
If this show closes before it opens, then Marsh doesn’t know where his next meal will come from – and he knows that’s the situation of everyone in the “Pretty Lady” company.

Brock sprains her ankle in a brawl, and young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to carry the show. With no options left, Marsh works with her the day of the performance – all day long – to get her as ready as possible for the lead. Listen to the urgency in Marsh’s voice as he talks to Peggy right before she goes on.
"200 people. 200 jobs. $200,000. Five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you. You can’t fall down, you can’t! Because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you."
The desperation that gives Marsh’s speech it’s edge seemed to be more melodramatic in more complacent times. But in an age when anyone’s job could disappear at any time? I think it has a lot of real emotion – emotion that I'm more than familiar with these days.

So if you watch “42nd Street” be dazzled by the Busby Berkeley magic. But pay attention to the story. When the film premiered audiences knew just where Julian Marsh was coming from. I think current viewers will too.

- Ralph

Day 150 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Say, is anyone home?)

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