“42ND STREET” (1933) Review

42nd_STREET

“42ND STREET” (1933) Review

I have always been a major fan of movie musicals. My favorite period for musicals stretched between the years 1945 and 1969. I find this ironic, considering that one of my all time favorite movie musicals is “42ND STREET”, which was first released over a decade earlier, at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.

When talking pictures first arrived in the late 1920s, the Hollywood industry did not hesitate to produce musicals. One of the earliest films to win the Best Picture Academy Award was the 1929 musical, “THE BROADWAY MELODY”. I have never seen this film, but I had a few glimpses of other musicals made during the first four or five years of the talkies. At worst, they were just awful. At best, they were mediocre. Then along came “42ND STREET” in March 1933 and Hollywood musicals have never been the same . . . well, almost.

Based upon Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel and written by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Whitney Bolton;“42ND STREET” was originally slated to be directed by Mervyn Leroy. However, the director of Depression-era hits like“LITTLE CAESAR” and “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” found himself unable to helm the movie, due to illness. The directing assignment went to Lloyd Bacon, a contract director at Warner Brothers Studios. In addition, producer Darryl F. Zanuck hired choreographer Busby Berkeley to direct the film’s big musical numbers near the end of the film.

“42ND STREET” begins when a pair of Broadway producers decide to put on a musical show called “Pretty Lady”, starring stage star Dorothy Brock. The latter is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon, the show’s financial backer. But while Dorothy busies herself with playing hot and cold with Dillon, she is secretly dating her former vaudeville partner, the out-of-work Pat Denning. The producers hire Julian Marsh to direct the play. However, Marsh’s health is in bad shape, due to the high stress of his job. And he is also broke, due to the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He needs “Pretty Lady” to be a hit in order to secure enough cash for retirement. The competition for casting selection becomes fierce, especially for some the chorines, whose desperation for a job leads them to resort to sexual promises. Lorraine Fleming manages to get hired, due to her relationship with dance director Andy Lee. Both she and Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell help a young woman named Peggy Sawyer to get hired. Peggy is a hoofer from Allentown, Pennsylvania who finds difficulty in getting a job due to her naivety and inexperience. Not only does she managed to befriend Lorraine and Ann, but also the show’s juvenile lead, Billy Lawler. Peggy also acquires another friend – namely Pat Denning. Her friendship with Pat nearly affects his romance with Dorothy Brock and also the show.

When most fans and critics discuss “42ND STREET”, they tend to focus on Busby Berkeley’s direction of the musical numbers and the sexual innuendo that seems to permeate the film’s narrative. What do I think of “42ND STREET”? Well . . . just as I had earlier hinted, it is one of my favorite musicals. Because it is regarded as a “backstage musical”, most of the performances are limited to the film’s last act, when Pretty Lady” has its opening night in Philadelphia. The only exception is the “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” number, which was performed by Bebe Daniels in a rehearsal sequence. Overall, I have no problems with the musical numbers. Songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin created some memorable tunes. My favorites tend to be “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and “Young and Healthy”. The first number is a personal favorite, thanks to Daniels’ charming and slightly wicked performance. And between Dick Powell’s energetic performance and the dazzling choreography directed by Busby Berkeley, the second number holds a special place in my heart. Ironically, when mentioning Berkeley’s choreography, I do not mean actual dancing. I was referring to the number’s complex geometric patterns created by the dancers moving or marching in place. Berkeley was known for this kind of choreography. I also enjoyed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, due to its sexual innuendos, but it is not a big favorite of mine. I do love the movie’s main and final song, “42nd Street”. I find it energetic and entertaining – including the instrumental version during the number’s New York Street montage. But I am not particularly in love with the actual choreography in the last number that features the song.

But more than anything, I really enjoyed the narrative behind “42ND STREET”. Recently, I came across an article in which the blogger revealed that he or she had read the source material behind the 1933 movie – namely Bradford Ropes’ 1932 novel. The blogger also revealed that the screenwriters had changed a good deal of Ropes’ story. The novel mainly focused upon the personal lives of the show’s cast and crew. It barely focused upon rehearsals or any of the backstage hang ups, until the last act. In a way, this structure reminds me of the 1933 movie, “DINNER AT EIGHT”, which focused on the lives of a family planning a dinner party and their guests. According to the blogger, Ropes’ novel was even racier than the movie. In fact, one subplot dealt with a romance between Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler. But since overt homosexuality was not tolerated in the old Hollywood films – even during the Pre-Code era – the movie’s screenwriters developed a budding romance between Lawler and Peggy Sawyer, kick starting the first of several on-screen teamings between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.

The lack of a romance between two of the three leading male characters did not exactly make “42ND STREET” squeaky clean. The sexual innuendos that flew between the chorine characters provided plenty of ammunition for the Moral Brigade to raise their eyebrows. The movie is filled with memorable lines like:

*“Not Anytime Annie? Say, who could forget ‘er? She only said “No” once, and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”

*“It must have been hard on your mother, not having any children.”.

But what I found really interesting . . . and somewhat disturbing about “42ND STREET” is that the film went beyond mere innuendos.

I was slightly taken aback by the sheer number of sexual politics that seemed to dominate the movie’s narrative. “42ND STREET” featured chorus girls like Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell and Lorraine Fleming willing to promise anything in order to become part of the show’s chorus. Even leading lady Dorothy Brock seemed willing to subject herself to the slimy attentions of the show’s money bags, Abner Dillon, in order to maintain her job with this show. The movie also featured one male character – namely the unemployed Pat Denning – who seemed willing to be Dorothy’s boy toy, while she services Dillon. However in Pat’s case, I suspect love may be the reason behind his willingness to be Dorothy’s personal bed warmer. In one or two cases, the prostitution that went on in this movie seemed to go beyond sex. A good example of this proved to be a decision made by the show’s two producers, Barry and Jones, and Marsh. Desperate for Dillon’s continuing finances, the three men were not only willing to hire Dorothy for the lead, but also hire local gangsters to rough up Pat Denning, when they learn about his affair with Dorothy.

However, the movie’s sexual politics not only feature prostitution, but also another ugly subject. Sexual harassment. The movie did not hesitate to reveal the sexual manhandling and harassment of the female chorus members. In one scene, Lorraine Fleming had to resort to a caustic one-liner to stop a male dancer from groping her. From the moment she arrived at the theater, Peggy was either subjected to groping by male chorus dancers and crewmen, or propositioned. Most of this is handled with humor by the movie’s screenwriters. But there was one scene in which I found particular scary. At a pre-show party at a Philadelphia hotel, Peggy had to fend off the unwelcome groping of a drunken chorus boy named Terry, who had been presented himself as a friend during the show’s rehearsals. Worse, Terry hunted Peggy down throughout the hotel after she fled the party, leading me to suspect that he had intended to rape her all along.

Some people have commented that one of the movie’s flaws is that it has become dated over the past eighty years or so. Personally, I feel that the march of time has not made “42ND STREET” dated. Despite the 1930s musical numbers and dialogue, the movie’s story and theme is as fresh today as it was eighty years ago. More importantly, the Great Depression background gave the movie’s narrative an earthy, yet realistic aura that still resonates today. But the movie does have its flaws. And for me, those flaws centered around the casting of Ruby Keeler and the final musical number, “42nd Street”.

It occurred to me that I could have accepted Ruby Keeler as the movie’s talented ingénue, Peggy Sawyer, if it not for the presence of . . . Ginger Rogers. I read somewhere that the movie’s original director, Mervyn LeRoy, had suggested Rogers for the role of “Anytime Annie”. Why “Anytime Annie”? Rogers could have easily portrayed the wide-eyed naivety of Peggy Sawyer. She was only 21 years-old when the movie was shot. She had portrayed similar characters in a few of her early movies with Fred Astaire. More importantly, she could both act and dance circles around Keeler. The latter, on the other hand, had a decent singing voice and was a damn good hoofer. But a hoofer only dances with his or her feet and not the entire body. And when it came to using her entire body, Keeler seemed rather sluggish. Keeler’s performance was also rather stiff. This is not surprising, since this was her first movie. So why on earth did Warner Brothers settled on Keeler, when they had a bigger talent in Rogers? Then I remembered . . . Rogers was dating Mervyn LeRoy at the time this movie was made. But Keeler was married to Al Jolson, who was still a top Warners Brothers contract player at the time.

My other major problem with “42ND STREET” is the final musical number. As I had previously stated, I enjoy Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s song very much. It may be 82 to 83 years old, but I still find it very catchy. I had no problems with the song. On the other hand, I had a lot of problems with the dancing featured in this number. I did not find it particularly impressive. Yes, I was impressed by Berkeley’s precision-style choreography and use of the camera to display it in the“Young and Healthy” number. I was not impressed by the actual dancing featured in “42nd Street”. Ruby Keeler’s solo dancing led me to wince a bit. Well, perhaps more than a bit. I noticed that the . . . um, “strutting” done by the extras in the New York street montage segment seemed a bit offbeat. And the final segment featuring the background dancers seemed rather awkward and not particularly mind-blowing. I have seen better dancing in other Berkeley films, especially the“Lullaby of Broadway” dance number in 1935’s “GOLDIGGERS OF 1935”.

“42ND STREET” featured some fine performances from the cast. Most of them not only gave it their all, but also provided a great deal of energy to the movie. Both Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel were hilarious as the two showgirls who befriend Ruby Keeler’s character. I also impressed by the energetic performances provided by George E. Stone and Guy Kibbee, who portrayed dance director Andy Lee and the wealthy Abner Dillon, respectively. However, I was not that impressed by Ruby Keeler’s portrayal of Peggy Sawyer, which I found rather stilted. And I thought both George Brent and Dick Powell were particularly wasted in this film as Pat Denning and Billy Lawler. Fortunately, both men will go on to proved their real talent in later films. I personally thought the best performances came from the movie’s two leads – Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels. Baxter walked a fine line between indulging in borderline hamminess and conveying a world weary desperation in his portrayal of the tough-minded director, Julian Marsh, who is determined to produce one last hit. And he did it with a seamless skill that still leaves me breathless with admiration. I was also impressed by Bebe Daniels, who did an excellent job in her portrayal of the ambitious Dorothy Brock, who found herself torn between her love for Pat and her willingness to be Dillon’s plaything, despite her personal disgust toward him.

It is a miracle that after 82-83 years, “42ND STREET” still holds up well for me. Ironically, it was not the musical numbers or Busby Berkeley’s choreography that really impressed me. It was the backstage story filled with sharp humor, sexual politics and desperation that I believe resonates even to this day. It was the story, along with Lloyd Bacon’s solid direction and a talented cast led by Warner Baxter and Bebe Daniels that still makes “42ND STREET” a favorite of mine, even to this day.

“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review

“CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935) Review

Based upon the 1922 novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, the story of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” centered around an Irish-born physician living in an English town, who finds himself in trouble with the Court of King James II after aiding a wounded friend who had participated in the Mounmouth Rebellion of 1685. The 1935 film, released by Warner Brothers and First National Pictures, featured the first collaboration between stars Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz. 

When Jack Warner and studio production chief, first made plans to film Sabatini’s novel, they had planned for British actor, Robert Donat to portray the Irish-born doctor turned slave and pirate. But Donat proved to be unavailable and the then unknown Flynn ended up with the role. As everyone knows, not only did ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” prove to be a hit, the movie made instant stars out of Flynn and De Havilland.

Many years have passed since I last saw ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. Which would explain why I have never developed any strong feelings for this particular film, in compare to certain other Errol Flynn movies. After watching it recently, my opinion of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” has improved. Somewhat. Basically, I feel that it is a first-rate story filled with excellent characterizations, a strong narrative and some decent action. But I do not know if I can say that I love ”CAPTAIN BLOOD”. The movie is not exactly Flynn, De Havilland and Curtiz at their best.

Once Peter Blood finds himself a slave in Jamaica, he plots with his fellow prisoners to escape the island via a ship. Before he can make his escape, Blood falls in love with his owner – Arabella Bishop, the niece of the planter he and his fellow slave work on. An attack by a Spanish pirate ship allows Blood and his friends to finally make their escape. They form a crew to become one of the most formidable group of pirates in the Caribbean. Blood eventually befriends a French pirate name Levasseur and the two become partners – an act that the Irishman comes to regret. The two eventually come to blows over Arabella, who has been captured by Levasseur. Accompanying Arabella is a royal courtier name Lord Willoughby with some interesting news for Blood.

One problem I have with the film is the lack of balance between the dramatic scenes and the action. Quite frankly,”CAPTAIN BLOOD” came off as a bit too heavy on conversation for a swashbuckler. I realize that screenwriter Casey Robinson was trying to stay faithful to Sabatini’s novel. But I suspect that this attempt may have slightly reduced the movie’s pacing – to its detriment. And most of the action sequences did not strike me as that impressive. Mind you, the sword duel between Blood and a French pirate named Captain Levasseur (portrayed by the always competent Basil Rathbone) over Arabella Bishop, Blood’s owner, struck me as impressive. Well . . . somewhat. Actually, I have seen better swordfights – especially those featured in 1938’s ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” and 1940’s ”THE SEA HAWK”. The most impressive action sequence in the movie featured Blood’s sea battle against two French ships attacking Port Royal in the movie’s finale. I have to give kudos to Curtiz for directing an action sequence that struck me as surprisingly realistic.

Another problem I had with “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was its portrayal of slavery in 17th century Jamaica. I found it amazing that most of the slaves in Port Royal were white. I am well aware that white slaves – or indentured servants – existed throughout the British Empire during that period. And I am also aware that those rebels convicted of treason against King James II during the Monmouth Rebellion, ended up as slaves in the Caribbean. But what happened to the black slaves in this movie? Jamaica and other British controlled islands in the Caribbean had received more African slaves than any other part of the Empire during the late 17th and 18th centures. I did managed to spot one or two amongst the slaves on Colonel Bishop’s estate. And he did have house slaves that were black. But at least one of them spoke with an American South dialect, prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. I realize that “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is a Hollywood film. But since most of the movie managed to either be historically correct . . . or at least close to being accurate, why did it fall short in its portrayal of Caribbean slavery?

On the other hand, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” featured some excellent dramatic scenes. And the best of the bunch featured Flynn. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Blood and his fellow prisoners being sentenced to slavery in Jamaica by a very hostile judge, Blood’s hostile reaction to being purchased by Arabella, his discovery of the body of his friend Jeremy Pitt, the fallout between Blood and Lavasseur, the revelation by a royal courtier that the hated James II had been replaced by his daughter and son-in-law – Mary and William of Orange, and especially the last fight between him and Arabella before she is sent ashore to Port Royal near the end of the film. And Flynn was ably assisted in these scenes by De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander and Henry Stephenson.

Speaking of the film’s performances, ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” possessed a number of good, solid performances by a supporting cast that included Guy Kibbee, Forrester Harvey, Frank McGlynn Sr. and Robert Barrat, who portrayed members of Blood’s crew. Also portraying a member of Blood’s crew was Ross Alexander. Many critics have claimed that if Alexander had not comitted suicide over a year following the movie’s release, he might have become an acclaimed screen actor. Quite frankly, I do not know. Alexander’s performance in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” seemed personable and competent, but I never really saw the magic. Although the cast members portraying Blood’s crew had their moments of humor, the prize for the funniest performance belonged to – in my opinion – George Steed as Jamaica’s Governor Steed, who suffered from a gouty foot.

Basil Rathbone only appeared in a handful of scenes in “CAPTAIN BLOOD” and was clearly not the main villain. But his performance as the lusty and avaricious Captain Levasseur was extremely memorable. More importantly, his Levasseur struck me as more human than his roles in both “ROBIN HOOD” and “THE MARK OF ZORRO”. I wish I could say the same about Lionel Atwill. Mind you, his performance as the brutal Colonel Bishop was solid, but there were times when it came across as unoriginal.

Olivia DeHavilland was superb in her first leading role as Arabella, the brutal Colonel Bishop’s niece and Peter Blood’s owner. Her character did not have a great impact upon the plot – aside from her capture by Levasseur leading to a duel between him and Blood. But her Arabella was no limpid damsel-in-distress, whose only role was to be the object of Blood’s desire. DeHavilland projected a great deal of energy, fire and wit into her performance. No wonder she and Flynn had such a strong screen chemistry.

But no matter how good the cast was, the real star behind “CAPTAIN BLOOD” was the Tasmanian born Errol Flynn. Jack Warner and Hal Wallis took a great chance in casting him in the lead, considering that he was a virtual unknown. And that gamble paid off tenfold. This is the fifth Flynn movie I have watched in great detail. To this day, I do not understand the old prevailing view that he was not much of an actor. Peter Blood was his first major role as a film actor and if I may be frank, Flynn gave one hell of a performance. Aside from a hammy moment when Blood finally declare his love for Arabella, Flynn’s acting was very natural. And like DeHavilland, he portrayed his character with a great deal of fire, energy and more importantly, anger. Flynn’s portrayal of the hot-headed Peter Blood is probably one of the better debut performances in Hollywood films.

Other reviewers of ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” have commented favorably on Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Honestly? I did not find it that memorable. In fact, I cannot remember anything about it. Just a lot of horns and strings. I am not carelessly putting down Korngold’s talent, because I was very impressed by his “ROBIN HOOD”score of three years later. I simply cannot say the same about his “CAPTAIN BLOOD” score. However, I was very impressed by the movie’s cinematography shot by Warner Brothers’ own Ernest Haller and Hal Mohr. I have mixed feelings about Anton Grot’s art direction. Granted, I was impressed by the sets for the Port Royal sequences. But the art design for the English sequences resembled fake set designs for a play and the sets for Blood’s ship lacked the claustrophobic feel of a real ship.

Granted, “CAPTAIN BLOOD” is not perfect. It has flaws that include an uneven pacing, questionable action sequences and an unmemorable score – at least for me. In fact, I have seen better blockbusters that starred Errol Flynn during that period. But I must admit that it is still a first-rate movie, even after 75 years. And it made for a dazzling debut for the Australian actor.