42nd Street  

The Encyclopedia of American Songs and Musicals

in the "Thirties"

42nd Street, film de l'année 1933

 2  ..."the big parade goes on for years; it's the rhapsody of laughter and tears: naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty, 42nd Street !”


Located in the heart of Manhattan, 42nd Street connects the Hudson River to East River crossing by the way Broadway and Times Square.  Famous for its nightlife, its theaters and popular shows, it belongs especially to the film legend since it was featured in a movie.

Released on the screens in 1933, "42nd Street " is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the young dancer Bradford Ropes, in which he depicts the backstage of the creation of a musical entitled Pretty Lady at the worst moment of the 1929 downturn.

The movie was the first one in many respects: first collaborating of the songwriters Harry Warre
and Al Dubin, the first major stage choreography by

Busby Berkeley, first leading role for Ruby Keeler and especially first full Hollywood musical .

The genre itself is not new. Since the advent of the talkies, the musical movies have succeeded at a steady pace without having always been of the taste of the audience. Despite the frequent use of Technicolor, the traditional operetta spreads an old-fashioned fragrance and shot musical numbers which are nothing else than mirror images of Broadway reviews display a style stuck to the "20s" become more and more stodgy. Yet, many expect from the year 1933 that it indicates the coming of new era.


  3   Newly elected, President Franklin D. Roosevelt has just put an end to Prohibition and people begin to dream again. In these time of euphoria, nothing in fact is better as antidote in the ambient gloom than a truly original comedy! Other movies of the genre, whether it is Broadway Melody (1929), A Show Girl in Hollywood

(1930), Sunny (1930) or still Whoopee! (1930) essentially adapted for  film most successfull  stagy shows but the audience now expects something other than "warmed up". 

Warner Bros pay the price of this disaffection and are on the verge of bankruptcy when takes place the release of 42nd StreetShot in black and white for less commercial than strategic reasons , the  movie uses this time arguments appropriate to satisfy the expectations of the public. The scenario indeed offers something resolutely new, completely in tune with the social concerns of the moment. It is part of the reality when just earning his life is a daily struggle. It conveys both dream of modernness and an audacious mix of enthusiasm and cockiness. Ruby Keeler has the charm and shyness of the young beginner, the one called not without disdain the " farmer’s daughter". However she shows  the path to success through hard work and tenacity.

She is very attractive in tap-dancer, a style which suits perfectly to the film art. The music is spirited, jazzy, the tunes easy to remember, the actors perfectly in their role and the choreography monstrously effective.


In the credits...

 1  Director : Lloyd Bacon

Producer: Darryl Zanuck

Casting: Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh) , Dick Powell (Billy Lawler), Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer), Ginger Rogers (Annie Lowell), Bebe Daniels (Dorothy Brock), George Stone (Andy Lee), George Brent (Pat Denning) , Una Merkel (Lorraine Fleming), Guy Kibbee (Abner Dillon)

Distribution: Warner Bros


Busby Berkeley (Los Angeles 1895- Palm Springs 1976) 

 Busby Berkeley was during the 1930s the big initiator of the film choreography. A true wizard of shooting, of the use of the black and white on giant stages, he had in his youth served as lieutenant instructor in the army. He had adjusted  numerous military parades and there is no doubt that it is thanks to his workmanship of the motions synchronization and to his experience of the discipline that he could afford to develop his dancers in routines of a rare inventiveness. Nobody better than him knew how to organize and enliven the space and depth of field, surprising the spectator by visual effects of a complete originality. He knew how to design choreographies that hit as much by the complexity of their implementation as by the fluidity of the transitions. But the most impressive is certainly his skill at moving the camera from general plans to very close-ups go or shooting right overhead.

 The plot.....

 4  Julian Marsh has just agreed to manage the new musical Pretty Girl. He is sick and penniless but made a commitment to take up the challenge and make it a success. It all starts now with the session of casting ......

Andy Lee (George E. Stone), a small mustached man with a dry-wit is in charge of the reception. The candidates are very many and the atmosphere is heavy. There are not just beginners. Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel), for example, encased in a rather old fashioned tartan suit tries to draw the attention of Andy when appears an other well known ex-chorus girl of Broadway, Anne Lowell (Ginger Rogers) dressed to an European woman, a Pekinese named Fifi on the arm and an eyeglass to the right eye. She speaks to Andy in a feigned English trying to pass incognito. She asks to see the stage manager when Lorraine comes.

"Hey Ann, come out from under that accent. I see you.".......


A movie of characters

42nd Sreet is regarded as much as an archetype of the American musical than as a work of exception. We can say that there was as for any upheaval of the artistic creation the before and after. Shot during the Great Depression, this movie won at once a great success but unlike many productions of the same period, it seems to be never called "to go out of fashion". We find there a mix of characters, situations, humor and moods, cynicism, realism and romanticism inside  which the public finds his own benchmarks, between the hope of better times and the present disillusionment. 

As a symbol of the urban society, 42nd Street is rooted in the spirit of its time as in that of the crises mingling the refusal of fatality and the harshness of everyday life. It is also about an acrid comedy which knows how to play on the register of mockery, even bordering with extravagance and surrealism. The choreography of Busby Berkeley is moreover for a lot. It is even revolutionary in the way of composing visual effects peculiar to the film art. He wisely investigates the technical resources by playing on the contrast of black and white or on hyper mobility of the camera which becomes almost an instrument of voyeurism when it moves for example among a forest of legs. 

"Hear the beat of dancing feet,
It's the song I love the melody of,
Forty-Second Street."



  5   The actors 


Ruby Keeler (Halifax (Canada) 1910 – Rancho Mirage (CA) 1993)


























She was only three years old when her parents came to live in New York. These are of modest condition but share a common passion for the dance. It is the reason why they enrolled the young Ruby in a tap school.

Obviously endowed for this very fashionable discipline, she makes from 1923 her first steps in various clubs in New York. That’s how she meets in 1928 two very special customers. The one is called Al Jolson and recently starred in the  first talking film, the " Jazz Singer" and the second is none other than Florenz Ziegfeld, the greatest producer of musical shows in Manhattan.

Ruby Keeler's career is now launched. Al Jolson soon becomes her husband and Ruby appears one year later on Broadway, in the musical Show Girl. The actress Loretta Young was initially approached to hold the role of Peggy " the farmer’s daughter " in 42nd Sreet but the choice is ultimately on Ruby Keeler who gets there her first role in a movie.



Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) was anticipited to hold the leading role. She performs "You are getting to be a habit with me" (Harry Warren, Al Dubin) during a rehearsal.

 6     The action takes place in 1929, at the outbreak of the crisis. While he knows financial concerns and his health is worrying, director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to take the risk to put on a new musical for the 42nd Street Theater. His producers have unearthed for the circumstance a rich investor, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), ready to invest money but who requires that the actress Dorothy Brooks (Bebe Daniels), with whom he is in love, plays the lead role. Marsh finds her too old but has no choice to conform and business is concluded. Dorothy Brooks continues on the other hand to maintain a relationship with Pat Denning (George Rent), his former partner on stage. Ann ' Anytime ' Lowell (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) appear among the selected artists. Many girls are hired as dancers, including a young provincial, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). A bad chance wants that it is involuntarily because of the latter that Dorothy breaks the ankle and must renounce the show. Despite his demur, Julian Marsh agrees to Ann Lowell’s advice to entrust the role with Sawyer, the novice. She has no experience and the premiere  must occur 36 hours later. Will she live up to the task?

Dorothy comes in with crutches, tears in the eyes. She surprises Billy (Dick Powell), the juvenile lead of the show together with Peggy. Billy wants to send her back but she asks to speak only to Peggy.

Dorothy : They told me I’ll find you here

Peggy : Well! Miss Brock!

Billy: You can’t talk to her! Nobody can’t when Marsh is out of there

Dorothy: I want to see her alone, Billy

Billy : I know but…

Dick Powell (Mountain View (AR) 1903 – Hollywood (CA) 1963)

He sings from his childhood at school or at the church as a soprano and also learns to play the saxophone, cornet and banjo. His music group enabling him to consider a career in the show, he starts in a brass band of Kentucky before joining the orchestra of the trumpeter Charlie Davies with whom he records several times.

He settles down in Indianapolis then to Pittsburgh where he begins to attend the theater community. It is there that he gets noticed by the Warner Bros with which he signs his first contract in 1932. 

Peggy : It’s all right Billy

Dorothy: So you're going to take my place?
Peggy: I-I'm sorry, Miss Brock.
Dorothy: You're nervous, aren't you? Well, don't be. The customers out there want to like you. Always remember that, kid. I've learned it from experience. And you've got so much to give them. Youth and Beauty and Freshness. Do you know your lines?
And your songs? And your dance routine? Well,
you're a cinch;
Peggy: But, but it's tough on you, Miss Brock.
Come here - Peggy, isn't it? You know, Peggy, when I started for the theatre tonight, I wanted to tear your hair out. And then I started thinking, well after all, I've had my chance. And now it's your turn. I've had enough. For five years, it's kept me away from the only thing I ever wanted. And a funny thing, a broken ankle was the thing that made me find it out. You know, Peggy, most anyone can have success with the proper breaks. As for me, I'll take Pat and vaudeville or whatever goes with him. We're being married tomorrow.
Peggy: Oh, I'm so glad. (one knocks at the door)  …come in!

The wardrobe mistress: You’ve got a hurry miss, come in everybody, right over here

The dancers go downstairs to come on stage.

The wardrobe mistress: I think it’s very nice now

Peggy: Do you think I look all right?

Dorothy: You look adorable. Now go out there and be so swell that you'll make me hate hate you.

Bebe Daniels (Dallas (TX) 1901 - London (GB) 1971)

She makes her debuts in the film in 1919 in The Admirable Crichton directed by Cecil B. De Mille and shoots in numerous silent movies throughout the 1920s. The stirring scene of 42nd Street during whom she gives up her role for Peggy (Ruby Keeler) foreshadows the end of her career which will occur two years later.


  7    Ginger Rogers (Independence (MO) 1911 – Rancho Mirage (CA) 1995)

In spite of an unstable family environment, Ginger (of her real name Virginia McMath) succeeds to stay in the footsteps of her mother, a scriptwriter, an actress and also a dancer. It is moreover after winning a dance contest that they are both hired in a traveling vaudeville troupe.

Ginger enjoys a trip to New York to get a contract to

Broadway where she makes her debut in 1929 in Top Speed before performing a few months later in Girl Crazy, a musical created by brothers George and Ira Gershwin. Just matter of chance, she crosses during rehearsals the choreography supervisor, some Fred Astaire. After a short while at Paramount, she moves working with her mother to Hollywood, making do with some minor roles before getting her first success with 42nd Street.

  8     Dick Powell "Young and Healthy" 

Wearing a white and black spencer in a set uniformly dark, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) performs the song beside a delightful silent creature dressed all in white, Toby Wing, a platinum blonde in the plunging neckline concealing her tapered long legs under a splendidly transparent veil. He is as sparkling as she is exuberant, " I am young and healthy, and you’ve got charms, it would really be a sin not to have you in my arms..... "

In the circumstances, the lyrics less matter than the work of choreography directed by Busby Berkeley. The female dancers who appear gradually to the screen are the exact copy of Toby quite as the men are just like Billy, so as to compose one perfectly coherent dynamic group. The camera placed overhead plays on the visual impact of the figures and the contrasts between the black and white to create a shape of kaleidoscope adjusted to the millimeter. In this way, the spectator puts himself without moving from his armchair to travel through the stage, touching practically of the hand a universe where nobody usually has access. The wink : a well-chilled kiss in Hollywood fashion and a forest of legs very suggestive (see movie poster) are already a kind of culmination.





















I'm young and healthy,
And you've got charms;
It would really be a sin
Not to have you in my arms.
I'm young and healthy,
And so are you;
When the moon is in the sky
Tell me what am I to do?

If I could hate "yuh,"
I'd keep away;
That ain't my nature,
I'm full of vitamin "A," say!

 Warner Baxter (Columbus (OH) 1889 - Beverly Hills (CA) 1951)

He is nine years old when his parents decide to go to live in San Francisco. He will moreover witness the big earthquake which destroys the city in 1906. Warner starts his artistic career as a vaudeville actor and has his first role in a movie in 1914. He knows some successes in the silent era

and is even rewarded in 1930  by the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Cisko Kid in Old Arizona.

    9    "Shuffle off to Buffalo"

Julian Marsh makes his last recommendations to Peggy just before coming into scene

J. Marsh - Now Sawyer, you listen to me and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who have worked with you. You've got to go on, and you have to give and give and give. They've got to like you, they've got to. Do you understand? 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. All right now, I'm through. But you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out - and Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star.

Peggy comes on stage where friends are expecting her on the platform of a station. She jumps into the arms of her partner (performed by Clarence Norsdstrom). The train of the Niagara Limited gets ready to "Shuffle off to Buffalo" for honeymoon. 










"Now that we have had the rice and flowers
The knot is tied
I can visu'lize such happy hours
Close by your side
The honeymoon in store
Is one that you'll adore
I'm gonna take you for a ride


I'll go home and get my panties
You go home and get your scanties
And away we'll go
Off we're gonna shuffle
Shuffle off to Buffalo.....


Among the winks, Anne Lowell (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) display their complicity the one by munching the apple and the other by eating a banana, and in good singles whom they are, sing in duet on the usual outcome of the marriage:


Matrimony is baloney
She'll be wanting alimony
In a year of so
Still they go and shuffle
Shuffle Off to Buffalo
When she knows as much as we know
She'll be on her way to Reno
While he still has dough
She'll give him the Shuffle
When they're back from Buffalo


Other winks: Peggy (Ruby Keeler) and her partner dancing in duet in pajamas; Peggy succumbing to the head-spinner of love behind the curtain of the cabin; the black employee of the Niagara Limited who closes the scene by falling asleep having polished shoes. To note that they are only four African American actors to play in the movie, the railroad worker (who also appears in the final number of the movie), two young street- dancers and a bystander in the crowd..

Una Merkel (Lorraine Fleming)


Ginger Rogers (Annie Lowell, aka "Anytime" Annie)


Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer)


To look and look  again !

In the heart of little old New York, 

You'll find a thoroughfare.
It's the part of little old New York
That runs into Times Square.
A crazy quilt that "Wall Street Jack" built,
If you've got a little time to spare,
I'd like to take you there.

Come and meet those dancing feet,
On the avenue I'm taking you to...
Forty Second Street

Hear the beat of dancing feet,
It's the song I love the melody of,
Forty-Second Street.

Little "nifties" from the Fifties,
Innocent and sweet;
Sexy ladies from the Eighties,
Who are indiscreet.

They're side by side, they're glorified
Where the underworld can meet the elite,
Forty-Second Street.

Toby Wing

(Amelia Courthouse (VA) 1915


- Matthews (VA) 2001)


10  Toby Wing

(Amelia Courthouse (VA) 1915

- Matthews (VA) 2001)

She had to her father assistant director at  the Paramount to shoot from the age of 9 years but remained afterward confined to supporting roles. Real sex symbol during her youth, she was at the time especially known for her gaudy affairs. She put an untimely term in her career in 1938 having married the pilot Dick Merill.

The final is full of details that are perceived only after several viewings.

So many people as everything sets pass one another in this street, that they belong, as says it the song, to the underworld or to the elite. The stage restores this opposition in a sometimes strange and often funny way but there is also something very surprising coming from a musical. The spectator witnesses a live murder. The young woman who is assaulted by a man in the floor of a building and who jumps through the window to find herself in the arms of a tango-dancer sketchs with him a few steps before being murdered of a stab in the back by the man of the floor.

It is also 42nd Street


    The final


 11  The song and staging are of a terrible efficiency. Every detail is extremely treated, even every bit player. It is about a page of anthology of which we can say that it haunts since the stage of Manhattan as one of the most accomplished moments of the musicals.

Despite all the subtleties of her suit consisted only of black and white, some people will consider "a little bit old-fashioned" the beginning of Ruby Keeler's performance (Peggy Sawyer), small felt hat propped up on the head and puffed sleeves style " first ball " but what the devil, patience!, have they only noticed the border of stockings. And there is then the energy cleared when she hammers the ground with her taps. She is a dancer to the really atypical technique.


In dissecting the stage, one see stealthily appear signs like Billy Minsky Republic Burlesque, a theater renowned for its daring dressed dancers which had often hit the headlines of the local chronicles, and of the New Amsterdam where are produced in particular the famous Ziegfeld Follies.


An apparently drunk man goes out of Hotsy Totsy Club located on the mezzanine of a building. This night bar well existed but on Broadway between 54th and 55th. It had been in the evening of July 14, 1929 the scene of a bloody settling of scores that killed two. It happened in front of witnesses who had recognized mobsters of Lucky Luciano. Among them the barman, the cashier, the waiter, the employee of the cloakroom and a customer, all were to disappear one after the other without leaving traces. For lack of evidence, no charges could be brought against Charley Entratta  and Jack Diamond, the murderers.


Remain in the mysterious headlines of the Daily News the following words of which we can read:.T ATTY. WILL MAKE … ENT ONE KERNELL-. MURDER ACCOMMODATES! It must actually be understood  as DISTRICT ATTORNEY WILL MAKE INDICTMENT ON KERNELL-RANDALL MURDER CASE. This double murder corresponds to an imaginary news item that had been at the heart of a Warner Brothers movie released in 1929 under the title " In the Headlines". This image is not harmless and represents a real snap. Let us not forget that the movie takes place in 1929.

42nd-street.fr - Gerard Tondu

All rights reserved - nov. 2010