42nd Street is a 1933 American pre-Code musical film, directed by Lloyd Bacon. The choreography was staged by Busby Berkeley. The songs were written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics). The script was written by Rian James and James Seymour, with Whitney Bolton, who was not credited, from the 1932 novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes.
This backstage musical was very successful at the box office and is now considered a classic by many. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1998, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. In 2006, it ranked 13th on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals.
- Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh
- Bebe Daniels as Dorothy Brock
- George Brent as Pat Denning
- Ruby Keeler as Peggy Sawyer
- Guy Kibbee as Abner Dillon
- Una Merkel as Lorraine Fleming
- Ginger Rogers as Ann Lowell
- Ned Sparks as Barry
- Dick Powell as Billy Lawler
- Allen Jenkins as Mac Elroy, the stage manager
- Edward J. Nugent as Terry, a chorus boy
- Robert McWade as Jones
- George E. Stone as Andy Lee
- Toby Wing as Blonde in “Young and Healthy” Number
It is 1932, the depth of the Depression, and noted Broadway producers Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks) are putting on Pretty Lady, a musical starring Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). She is involved with wealthy Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s “angel” (financial backer), but while she is busy keeping him both hooked and at arm’s length, she is secretly seeing her old vaudeville partner, out-of-work Pat Denning (George Brent).
Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is hired to direct, even though his doctor warns that he risks his life if he continues in his high-pressure profession; despite a long string of successes he is broke, a result of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He must make his last show a hit, in order to have enough money to retire on.
Cast selection and rehearsals begin amidst fierce competition, with not a few “casting couch” innuendos flying around. Naïve newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who arrives in New York from her home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is duped and ignored until two experienced chorines, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) and Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell (Ginger Rogers), take her under their wing. Lorraine is assured a job because of her relationship with dance director Andy Lee (George E. Stone); she also sees to it that Ann and Peggy are chosen. The show’s juvenile lead, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), takes an immediate liking to Peggy, as does Pat.
When Marsh learns about Dorothy’s relationship with Pat, he sends some thugs led by his gangster friend Slim Murphy (Tom Kennedy) to rough him up. That, plus her realization that their situation is unhealthy, makes Dorothy and Pat agree not to see each other for a while, and he gets a stock job in Philadelphia.
Rehearsals continue for five weeks to Marsh’s complete dissatisfaction until the night before the show’s opening in Philadelphia, when Dorothy breaks her ankle. By the next morning Abner has quarreled with her and wants Julian to replace her with his new girlfriend, Annie. She, however, tells him that she can’t carry the show, but the inexperienced Peggy can. With 200 jobs and his future riding on the outcome, a desperate Julian rehearses Peggy mercilessly (vowing “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl”) until an hour before the premiere.
Billy finally gets up the nerve to tell Peggy he loves her; she enthusiastically kisses him. Then Dorothy shows up and wishes her luck, telling her that she and Pat are getting married. The show goes on, and the last twenty minutes of the film are devoted to three Busby Berkeley production numbers: “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “(I’m) Young and Healthy”, and “42nd Street”.
The show is a hit. As the theater audience comes out Julian stands in the shadows, hearing the comments that Peggy is a star and he (Marsh) does not deserve the credit for it.