Backstage musicals were a popular and important genre in 1930s America
|For America, the start of the 1930s was a time of unpredictability. In the wake of an economic collapse, millions of people were clueless of what to expect in the near future. However, when Roosevelt promised his New Deal for America, there was a new and welcomed change in attitude and people were ready to defy the Depression. The entertainment industry was not oblivious to this change, and studios openly latched themselves onto these sentiments, particularly Warner Bros., who marketed their new film, 42nd Street (Warner, 1933), as “The Inauguration of a New Deal in Entertainment.” The studios were also aware of the escapism which people would be seeking and that they could provide with films, especially musicals which were so effective at this. In this essay, I will discuss what makes 42nd Street a 1930s backstage musical in terms of the recurring themes and ideas that are common in other backstage musicals of the decade, but also look outside of the decade to discern the features that define the backstage musicals of the 1930s.
The Great Depression was an unavoidable reality in the life of Americans in the 1930s. However, instead of using the escapism effect of musicals to make people forget all about it, the studios decided to use stories and characters that were based in the struggle against the Depression to make people believe it was something they could overcome, thus reigniting the American Dream. This approach was a complete success for 42nd Street - it became the top hit in the box office for the first half of 1933 - but the story was actually based on a book: Bradford Ropes’ novel, also titled 42nd Street. The book featured stories and eccentric characters that were based on real experiences, giving it a certain edge and perhaps making it relatable in a manner that was effective in connecting to the audience. As a result, 42nd Street set in motion the creation of a number of musicals that used stories based around the Depression.
The dialogue in the film is often cynical and sassy, and uses a lot of wisecracks. This feature aligns well with the strong personalities in the film, most of whom express anger and a short temper at some point. The director, Julian Marsh, says he is only in it for the money, claiming that “I won’t let you down, I can’t afford to.” Dorothy Brock is the star of the show but is insecure, self-absorbed and has become dependent on men - she is with Abner Dillon because it secured her a lead role. These character traits are a clear outcome of the effects of Depression. However, in complete contrast to this is Peggy Sawyer’s character, who is sweet and innocent. It is Peggy’s good nature and hard work that results in her success as the main star of the show, reinforcing the ideals of the American Dream, and it struck audiences at the perfect time. The backstage musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner, 1933) and Footlight Parade (Warner, 1933) are fuelled by the same Depression-era desperation, with Gold Diggers going even further than 42nd Street in highlighting the harsh realities of life. The opening scene of Gold Diggers is an extremely extravagant and elaborate performance of 'We're in the Money,’ but is cut short by the authorities because the studio hasn’t paid their bills, highlighting once again the financial struggle everyone was facing, even those in show business. This idea becomes the basis for the film when producer Barney Hopkins can’t produce a show (which would provide hundreds of employment opportunities) for financial reasons. The number that concludes the film, ‘Remember My Forgotten Man,’ also points out the dependency women had on men: “‘Cause, ever since the World’s began/A woman’s got to have a man.” Also, like in 42nd Street, the lead role in the show is replaced last minute by someone talented and who has shown a willingness to work hard. Footlight Parade shows its support for Roosevelt even more explicitly than 42nd Street by using a group of chorus girls to reveal placards in the final number that form an eagle, the emblem of the National Recovery Administration.
The idea of community is prominent in 42nd Street, and stems from the belief that group unity is a necessary practice in order to resist the Depression, an idea first presented by Roosevelt in his first inaugural address. When Peggy initially enters the audition room, she receives little help from the girls despite being clearly bewildered and unsure of herself. However, very shortly after, when the auditions are taking place, ‘Anytime’ Annie says to Peggy to “stick with us kid.” Later on, Annie has secured her place as the new lead role but she decides to give the chance to Peggy, who she feels is more deserving. There are a few instances in the film where the welfare of the whole group is in the hands of one individual, making it clear that even though they only succeed as a group, certain individuals are required to step up in order to reach the final goal. Abner is financing the show but because of Dorothy’s outburst he threatens to call the show off, but Julian implores him to think of all the work that people have put in, which persuades him not to. The second time is Peggy just before she goes onstage, and again Julian isn’t subtle in reminding her how many futures are depending on her performance. Gold Diggers of 1933 exhibits the same message when Brad is forced to take the lead role after the original actor is injured and no longer can. The sense of community is also manifested in the group of showgirls at the start when we see them in an apartment together, giving each other mutual support and talking in a sassy, wise-cracking manner very similar to 42nd Street.
Outside of the narrative, the aspect of community and unification as a group is reinforced by the choreography of the performances. The choreography in 42nd Street was directed by Busby Berkeley and became a significant characteristic of the 1930s backstage musical - he also directed choreography for Footlight Parade, Dames (Warner, 1934) and the Gold Diggers series: 1933, 1935 and 1937. Whilst Berkeley’s choreography style is relevant for many reasons, let’s first look at how the community aspect is featured. The performances use large groups of dancers to create stunning visual effects by having them strategically move around in complete synchronisation. For example, 42nd Street makes use of an enormous lazy Susan where dancers create geometric effects from a birds-eye view by using props and their own legs. In Gold Diggers, the dancers play fluorescent violins in a darkened setting and at one point actually form a giant violin. Footlight Parade places the dancers in water and they display an array of fluid, moving patterns, again utilising a top-down view. The synchronisation of the large hordes of dancers remind us of the necessity of the group effort, but they are juxtaposed with a male and female lead, reminding us of the importance of the individual effort.
Berkeley’s choreography used another unique effect that became idiomatic to the 1930s backstage musical, and that was creating a clear distinction between performance space and narrative space. He achieves this in three ways. Firstly, the nature of a backstage musical gives us brief insight into the rehearsal process before the actual performance, both of which occur onstage. However, during the real performance, we are transported into locations that constantly expand, and would be physically impossible to create in a theatrical space. Secondly, the performances themselves aren’t impossible, but they are grand spectacles that increase in extravagance and indulgence. The use of indulgence is essential in separating the performance and narrative worlds - in the narrative, there is absolutely no room for indulgence because the context of the Depression simply won’t allow it. The last aspect is using the camera in a way that provides interesting visual effects - quickly zooming in and out, panning - as well as transitioning between scenes using trick cuts and reverse motion. These techniques might be quite bizarre to see in a realistic narrative situation. The combination of these three effects meant that the musical performances are climactic events during the film. In the title song at the end of 42nd Street, a solo performance by Peggy is suddenly transported into a vibrant town full of people carrying out their daily lives, but moving in a stylised manner to be in time with the music. Actual cars appear as well as a real horse, which in terms of props is needlessly extravagant. The huge set would be inconceivable on the stage and wouldn’t make sense for an audience to view it, especially as the camera has to zoom in to give us a close up inside a hotel room for one scene. The number ends with a smooth transition back to the stage, with a clever camera angle making Peggy and Billy look as though they are atop a skyscraper. Berkeley makes use of all the same ideas in Footlight Parade (‘By a Waterfall’, ‘Shanghai Lil’), Gold Diggers of 1933 (‘Remember my Forgotten Man’) and the title song of Dames. Berkeley’s use of spectacle is not considered to be a replacement of a theatrical mode with a cinematic one, rather he just expanded on the existing theatrical tradition of spectacle to incorporate cinematic effects.
Berkeley’s technique to separate narrative and performance space in such a way is crucial because it wasn't used outside of the Warner/Berkeley backstage musicals, therefore it gave this select group of Depression-era films a distinguishing style. This is evident if we look at backstage musicals produced some years later. Singin’ in the Rain (MGM, 1952) contains a number of major differences, but mainly it is the use of non-diegetic music. The performances in 42nd Street, despite their extravagance, are contextual as being part of a show, making them diegetic. Whereas in Singin’ in the Rain, performances are spontaneous and arise almost out of nowhere, but usually as the result of good feeling or even celebration. This happens with ‘Good Morning’ and the title song. Another aspect of spontaneity is best described by Feuer, who writes: “the impressions of spontaneity in these numbers stem from a type of bricolage.” This is noticeably used in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ when Cosmo makes gags out of all the props surrounding him backstage. In Barkleys of Broadway (MGM, 1949), serious and spontaneous performances are contrasted to show that the more natural and spontaneous characters are more successful as performers, in this case Josh Barkley (played by Fred Astaire). The Band Wagon (MGM, 1953) parodies the world of high art by showing that they have no spontaneity, so the performances are bland, and they get cut short or interrupted by a spontaneous performance.
Despite the lack of spontaneity in the Warner 1930s backstage musicals compared with the MGM 1950s musicals, both exhibit the integrative effect of performance. The narrative of a backstage musical always contains a love story between a couple, and their success in love occurs simultaneously with the success of the show. In 42nd Street, Billy declares his love to Peggy just before the show, to which she is delighted. Before the final performance in Gold Diggers of 1933, Brad announces his marriage to Polly, and the other two couples also decide to get married. The success of the show in Singin’ in the Rain brings Don and Kathy together. The backstage musical is not subtle in its association of success in performance and success in love. After all, the Depression-era musicals represent the show as the ultimate solution to everyone’s problems.
The last part of this discussion is looking at how accurately the films portray life for all those involved in ‘show-biz.’ The Warner studio decided to omit some parts of the novel, 42nd Street, including an affair between Julian Marsh and Billy Lawler, another affair between Pat Denning and the wife of Andy Lee, and Peggy Sawyer losing her sweet and innocent charm once the show becomes a hit. Romantic affairs happening in the world of Hollywood are no secret to an outsider, but a homosexual relationship was apparently a step too far for the writers at Warner, despite it probably giving a more accurate glimpse into show-biz. We never see what might have become of Peggy in the film because it ends very shortly after the show. But, it is easy to speculate that they left her as a symbol of good and innocence because it was what America wanted to see, and in reality, Warner needed a film with a likeable and relatable main character so it would sell. In all of the backstage musicals mentioned thus far, the film ends with the show. Sometimes, just after the show there is a brief display of two main characters uniting in love, but the conclusion of the film is the final performance of the show. This idea is based in the escapism and utopian ideals that are so common in musicals, we never see what happens to the characters after the show. It is essentially a less explicit way of saying ‘And they lived happily ever after.’
The 1930s backstage musical is so distinct in its characteristics, it could be classed as a sub-genre of its own. I believe that 42nd Street encapsulates everything the term stands for, and was paramount in establishing the backstage musical as a successful form of entertainment in the 1930s. Furthermore, this happened in a time when entertainment was able to change America (and other parts of the Western World) because America needed it so badly, making it an important era in film history. Arguably, the goal of a backstage musical should be to give an honest portrayal, however ugly, of the World it is exposing to us. On the other hand, the aim of a musical is to provide a form of escapism to its audiences, and by showing us impossible performances in a realistic space, remind us of the idea that anything is possible. The harsh realities of life facing everyone as a result of the Depression was a unique situation, and I believe this unique situation gave the backstage musical a rare opportunity to fall comfortably in between these two objectives, thus establishing it as a distinct and important genre.
Barrios, Richard, A Song in the Dark. The Birth of the Musical Film, New York & Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995 - pp.359-393
Dyer, Richard, ‘Entertainment and Utopia’ in Steven Cohan ed. Hollywood Musicals. The Film Reader, London, New York, Routledge, 2002 - pp.19-30
Feuer, Jane, The Hollywood Musical, London, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1993 - pp.71-77
Feuer, Jane, ‘The Self-Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment’ in Steven Cohan ed. Hollywood Musicals. The Film Reader, London, New York, Routledge, 2002 - pp.31-40
Grant, Barry Keith, The Hollywood Film Musical, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012 - pp.55-69
Hoberman, J., 42nd Street, London, BFI Publishing, 1993 - pp.34-43
Rubin, Martin, ‘Busby Berkeley and the Backstage Musical’ in Steven Cohan ed. Hollywood Musicals. The Film Reader, London, New York, Routledge, 2002 - pp.53-61
Mast, Gerald, Can’t Help Singing. The American Musical on Stage and Screen, New York, Overlook, 1987 - pp.116-39