Una Merkel

Book vs. Movie: 42nd Street

42nd Street 1933 movie poster.

Where would the musical be without 42nd Street? When the movie was released in March of 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done several times over and was quickly becoming passé. But with Busby Berkeley’s dazzling musical numbers, sharp dialogue, and catchy songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, 42nd Street proved to be a total game changer for the musical genre.

In the 1980s, history repeated itself on Broadway. Stage musicals based on popular films are very commonplace today, but at that time, it was viewed as a risky idea. It hadn’t been done successfully before, but 42nd Street proved that it could work. Over 40 years later, it remains one of the most popular Broadway musicals.

Nearly 90 years after it was first introduced to the public, 42nd Street has unquestionably earned its place in pop culture history. But what’s often forgotten is that it was originally based on a novel by Bradford Ropes. I’d long been curious to see how the book compared to the movie, but it’s been out of print for several decades which made it extremely difficult to find and extremely expensive when it could be found. So when I saw that it was just brought back into print a few months ago, I ordered a copy immediately. So, how does it compare?

Book & Movie Differences

42nd Street the movie is unquestionably a classic of the pre-Code era. It’s full of content that would have been verboten just a year and a half later when the production codes were being fully enforced. But even then, the pre-Code content that made it into the movie is just a small fraction of what was in the book.

The Julian Marsh that we see in the movie, played by Warner Baxter, is an overly-stressed Broadway director who had lost his money in the stock market crash and desperately needs this production of Pretty Lady to be a big hit so that he can afford to retire for the sake of his health. All of that was invented for the movie. What the movie leaves out is that he was originally written as a gay man whose boyfriend, Billy Lawlor, is one of the featured performers in Pretty Lady.

Dick Powell and Toby Wing in the Young and Healthy number from the movie 42nd Street.

The character of Billy Lawlor, played by Dick Powell, is a little more prominent in the movie than in the book. In the book, Billy is a minor presence until the nearly the end when the production team is dealing with the crisis of Dorothy Brock’s injury. He’s the one who first suggests that Peggy could take Dorothy’s place in the show. The reason he suggests her over any of the other women in the chorus is because, in addition to seeing potential in her, she was the only one who was polite to him. Everyone else in the chorus snubbed him because of his status as Julian Marsh’s boyfriend. In the movie, Anne Lowell, played by Ginger Rogers, is the one who recommends Peggy.

Even though Billy Lawlor was originally written as a gay man, he actually does end up with Peggy Sawyer in both the book and the movie. Near the end of the book, he proposes a relationship of convenience to Peggy, which she agrees to. She’s well aware that this would strictly be a lavender relationship, but she appreciates how such a relationship would be beneficial for both of their careers.

Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, and Una Merkel in a scene from 42nd Street (1933).

Generally speaking, the book spends a lot more time covering the various affairs and platonic relationships between characters than the movie does. In the book, much attention is given to Peggy Sawyer being romantically torn between Terry, another performer in the show, and Pat Denning, the man Dorothy Brock had been cheating on her boyfriend (and financer of Pretty Lady) with. Terry is in the movie, but if you blink, you’ll miss him. And not only was Pat actively seeing both Peggy and Dorothy, he was also seeing Amy, the wife of Andy Lee, the show’s dance director. Andy and Amy have an extremely bitter marriage and she is blackmailing him over an incident in which he was caught in a compromising situation with a minor. The character of Amy and that whole storyline is completely left out of the movie.

The movie also omits the characters of a young acrobatic dancer named Polly (imagine a contemporary of June Preisser) and her pushy stage mother. The stage mother encourages her daughter to tolerate the affections of men who could help advance her career, assuring her that they won’t go too far since she is still a minor. Polly’s mother also has a vested interest in seeing Dorothy Brock get taken down a peg or two since Dorothy had one of her daughter’s numbers bumped in the show. Ultimately, she plays a role in the chain of events that leads to Dorothy’s fall.

Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Bebe Daniels.

Another very notable change between the book and the movie is the fact that Dorothy Brock actually does perform on opening night in the book. Her big accident occurs afterward. Instead, the last-minute emergency that threatens opening night is an older performer dropping dead on stage during dress rehearsal. This leads to people trying to have him declared dead in the ambulance instead of the theater to avoid an inquest that would delay the show’s opening.

Generally speaking, the movie is kinder to Dorothy Brock than the book is. Bebe Daniels was only 32 years old when 42nd Street was released and looked absolutely stunning. Hardly the aging, past-her-prime Broadway diva described in the book, who is tolerated more than she is respected. The book version of Dorothy is messier and more difficult to deal with, but the movie softens the character by giving her the scene where she visits Peggy to give her some words of encouragement. That scene does not happen in the book. However, there was a part of the book that mentioned how even performers who didn’t like each other were wishing each other luck on opening night, which could have inspired the scene in the movie.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Book cover for the Photoplay edition of 42nd Street by Bradford Ropes.

Considering how incredibly influential 42nd Street has been both as a movie and a Broadway show, it’s a little surprising that the book has essentially become a footnote in its own history. But now that it’s back in print, I really hope more people will discover it. Nobody’s going to put it in the same league as The Grapes of Wrath or anything like that, but it’s still a very enjoyable book; a fun summer read for fans of classic films or Broadway musicals.

If you’re a fan of 42nd Street or any of the other Busby Berkeley backstage musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, the book 42nd Street is well worth your time. The movie is an extremely condensed version of the book, reduced to its most essential parts. (The differences I’ve listed here are just some of the biggest differences.) Since the movie is only about 90 minutes long and the last 20 minutes are devoted to musical numbers, everything leading up to the big finale moves at a very fast pace. But with the book, you can spend more time getting to know these characters better and taking in the atmosphere of the 1930s-era theatrical world.

42nd Street is the kind of book that’s very much a product of its time. Author Bradford Ropes had worked in vaudeville and had been in the chorus of Broadway shows, so he does a great job of capturing the essence of what this scene was like. It’s clear that this was a setting he knew extremely well. He vividly describes the social hierarchies of the theatrical world and the emotions and experiences that come along with performing in a show. He also brings in details that would likely be left out if someone today tried writing a story about 1930s Broadway. For example, the book is set when vaudeville was on its way out and Broadway was forced to compete with Hollywood for big-name talent. He seemed to really understand the dynamics of that very specific moment in time.

Beyond the details about the theatrical world, I really liked his overall style of writing. There were a lot of lines in the book that I could practically hear being delivered by people like Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers. If you enjoy the very snappy style of writing you find in a lot of 1930s-era Warner Brothers movies, you’ll probably like the book version of 42nd Street. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Warner Brothers had bought the rights to the book before it was even published; it’s very much their style.

I know people are pretty exhausted with the idea of reboots and adaptations right now, but I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a new adaptation of 42nd Street that follows the book more closely than the movie or the stage version. Similar how HBO’s 2011 version of Mildred Pierce works as its own adaptation of the book rather than a straight remake of the Joan Crawford movie.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. For more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Man Wanted Kay Francis David Manners

Man Wanted (1932)

Lois Ames (Kay Francis) is the very hard-working editor of “400 Magazine.” Although she is married to Fred (Kenneth Thomson), their marriage is very open and Fred parties all the time while Lois is working and carries on lots of affairs. Her job involves a lot of long hours, and when her secretary gets fed up with working late, she quits and leaves Lois in need of a new secretary ASAP! As luck would have it, Tom Sheridan happened to be in her office at the time to demonstrate a rowing machine, but since he’s up for a new challenge.

Tom likes his new job and working for Lois. He and Lois have also become very romantically interested in each other. But Tom is engaged to Ruth (Una Merkel) and when she begins to suspect there’s something going on between him and Lois, she’s not nearly as tolerant of it as Lois is with her husband’s adultery. Although Tom loves Lois, he knows she’s married and thinks their affair will ultimately go nowhere, so he decides to quit his job to be with Ruth. With Tom leaving, Lois tries to refocus her attentions on her marriage, but much to her delight, Fred announces he wants a divorce instead. Now Lois has one last chance to win Tom over.

Man Wanted is nothing Earth shattering, but it’s a darn fun movie. If you’re interested in the pre-code era, you’ll love Man Wanted because it is extremely pre-code; the shamelessly open adultery makes it an essential pre-code. The cast is fantastic and I would expect nothing less from Kay Francis, Una Merkel, and David Manners. It’s very fast paced, clocking in at slightly over an hour, with a smart script and great direction from William Dieterle. I absolutely loved the sets, too; how amazing was Lois’s office? It’s terrific all around!

Pre-Code Essentials: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman 1932

Plot

Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a woman who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, but she’ll stop at nothing to move up in the world. The best way she can think of to accomplish that goal is to marry a wealthy man and she sets her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris). The fact that he’s happily married and devoted to his wife Irene (Leila Hyams) means nothing to Lil. She relentlessly tries to seduce Bill to break up their marriage.

When Lil finally succeeds in destroying Bill’s marriage, she marries him and completely throws herself into her new role of high society wife. She shows off her newfound status at every chance she gets, but is totally dismayed when she’s continually snubbed by the other elite people in town, who are still loyal friends to Irene. Just when Lil thinks she’s found a way to force them to accept her, they ditch her party to go to Irene’s instead.

Fed up, Lil leaves to spend some time in New York. Meanwhile, Bill has reason to suspect that Lil has been two-timing him.


My Thoughts

For as cold and relentless Lil is, it’s hard not to love Jean Harlow in this role. She is just so incredibly brazen, forward, and over the top; it’s extremely hard to not be entertained by her. I especially love the scene where she’s driving down the street to her hair apartment in her flashy new car, wearing her expensive new clothes, with her dog sitting in the passenger seat, turning the heads of everybody on the sidewalk. As she’s driving along, there’s marching band music playing, and when she turns the car off, the music stops, so it turns out the music is what was playing on her car radio. It always makes me laugh so hard that she was essentially throwing herself a one-woman parade; it’s too much and I love it.

Red-Headed Woman also features a nice, sharp script by Anita Loos and a wonderful supporting cast of Chester Morris, Leila Hyams, and Una Merkel.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

While trying on a dress:

Lil: “Can you see through this?”

Saleswoman: “I’m afraid you can, Miss.”

Lil: “I’ll wear it.”

Saleswoman: “Oh…”

Lil putting Bill’s picture into her garter belt.

The completely gratuitous scene where Lil’s catches her friend Sally (Una Merkel) wearing her pajamas and makes her take them off.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

There were lots of movies about adultery during the pre-code era, but Lil is without a doubt the most completely shameless homewrecker of the era. Red-Headed Woman is another movie that was a nightmare for the Hays Office before the cameras even started rolling. Between Lil’s unapologetic adultery and the fact that in the end, she tries to shoot Bill (sorry for the spoiler) and gets away with it (and all of her other behavior) was very problematic for censors. Once the Hays Code was being more strictly enforced, any kind of criminal or amoral behavior had to be punished and that certainly doesn’t happen here. Seventeen cuts had to be made to it for it to be released in the United States, but it was banned in the United Kingdom and wasn’t officially screened there until 1965 — although King George V kept a copy of it in his personal collection.

Evelyn Prentice (1934)

Evelyn Prentice Myrna Loy William PowellEvelyn Prentice (Myrna Loy) adores her husband John (William Powell), but John is an attorney and often has to work long hours and travel for work.  Lately, he’s been hard at work defending Mrs. Harrison (Rosalind Russell) and Evelyn really misses spending time with her husband.  One night, she goes to a nightclub with her friend Amy (Una Merkel) and meets a man named Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens), who claims to know her from somewhere.

Lawrence doesn’t actually know Evelyn, but he knows she’s married to a prominent attorney and plans to trap her in a scandal and blackmail her.  The next day, he sends Evelyn a book of his poetry and invites her to tea.  Evelyn isn’t at all impressed by Lawrence, but she’s feeling lonely with John out of town so when Amy accepts his invitation on her behalf, she meets with him.  She continues seeing him while John is away, but after John returns, she begins to suspect that he has been having an affair with Mrs. Harrison.  A heartbroken Evelyn goes to see Lawrence again, but ultimately decides to stay true to John and tries to end things off with Lawrence.

Lawrence isn’t about to let Evelyn get off that easily, though.  He reminds her of some letters she had written to him and demands $15,000 for them.  During the dispute, Evelyn shoots Lawrence with his own gun and leaves.  The next day, news of his murder is all over the front page, but nobody suspects Evelyn.  However, Lawrence’s other girlfriend Judith (Isabel Jewell) is considered the top suspect.  John agrees to defend Judith and during the trial, Evelyn’s guilt eats away at her.  Near the end of the trial, Evelyn tries to come clean about the whole thing.  But fortunately for them, John has a plan to get both Evelyn and Judith off the hook.

Movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy are always a hit with me.  Although it’s much more fun to watch them playing happily married couples in more lighthearted movies, Evelyn Prentice is still a darn good movie.  It’s very smartly written and well acted.  Myrna Loy did an excellent job of conveying the guilt Evelyn was feeling and Isabel Jewell and Una Merkel were both great in their supporting roles.  It’s another one of those wonderful underrated gems that I just love finding.

Midnight Mary (1933)

Midnight Mary 1933 posterLife hasn’t been easy for Mary Martin (Loretta Young).  Her mother died when she was very young and as a teenager, she was sent to reform school for a crime she didn’t commit.  After getting out of reform school, she tries her hardest to find a job, but there aren’t any jobs to be had.  When Mary’s friend Bunny (Una Merkel) introduces Mary to Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez) and his gang, Mary can’t resist the prospect of having food and shelter, so she gets involved with them too.

While Leo and his gang are planning a robbery at a casino one night, Mary catches the eye of lawyer Tom Mannering, Jr. (Franchot Tone) and it’s love at first sight.  He knows that she’s tied up with Leo, but when the police arrive at the casino, he helps Mary escape.  He brings her to his place for dinner and the have a lovely evening together.  Before she leaves, she asks him to help her find a real job so she can go straight.  After she goes to secretarial school, he finds her a job as a secretary in his law firm.  But when they go out to eat one night, a cop recognizes Mary from the night at the casino and arrests her.  She refuses to implicate Leo, so she is sent to jail.

A year later, Mary is a free woman again.  Tom has since married another woman and Mary’s job prospects haven’t gotten any better.  It isn’t long before she’s involved with Leo and his gang again.  When Mary and Leo run into Tom and his wife at a nightclub one night, Leo becomes very jealous of Tom.  Even though Mary does everything in her power to convince him that she doesn’t care about Tom anymore, Leo still wants Tom dead.  He has some of his men try to do the job, but they only succeed in taking out Tom’s friend instead.  Leo decides to do it himself and Mary does the only thing she can do to save Tom — kill Leo first.

I just love Midnight Mary; it’s easily one of my favorite pre-codes.   And how could I not love it?  Midnight Mary is one bright, shining gem of a movie.  It has so many of the qualities that I love about movies from this era.  Fast paced story?  Check. Strong lead character? Check. Scandalous material? Check, check, and check!  But above all else, Loretta Young is fabulous in it.  In fact, the entire cast is wonderful with Franchot Tone, Ricardo Cortez, and Una Merkel, who are all quite perfectly cast in their respective roles.  And I can’t neglect to mention the first-rate direction from William Wellman!  It’s a winner in every respect.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

Private Lives (1931)

The phrase “happily divorced” is one that easily applies to Amanda (Norma Shearer) and Elyot (Robert Montgomery).  Their marriage was extremely volatile, but now that they’re divorced (and thrilled to be rid of each other), they’ve both moved on and remarried; Amanda to Victor (Reginald Denny) and Elyot to Sibyl (Una Merkel).  After each of their weddings, they each head off to their honeymoons.  Imagine their surprise (and horror) when Amanda and Elyot find out they’re both honeymooning in the same city, in the same hotel, in rooms right next to each other.

They each beg their respective new spouses to leave immediately, but they both end up getting into arguments that end with Sybil and Victor storming out of their rooms.  Left alone, Amanda and Elyot step out onto the terrace outside of their rooms and start having a conversation.  They start looking back on their relationship and suddenly remember what it is that made them fall in love in the first place.  They kiss and impulsively decide to run away from their honeymoons and go to St. Moritz together.  The only thing standing in their way of happiness is their tendency to constantly get into fights, but they even think of a way to stop those.

At first, all is going well between Amanda and Elyot, but soon their arguments start popping up more and more often.  Eventually, their plan to stop arguments quits working and they get into a knock down, drag out fight that involves Amanda breaking a record over Elyot’s head and completely trashing their rented chalet.  The next day, they find that their new spouses have teamed up to track them down.  Sybil and Elyot decide that they aren’t going to divorce and Amanda and Victor do the same.  The two couples sit down to have breakfast together, but when Sybil and Victor get into an argument, Amanda and Elyot get such a kick out of seeing what they must look like, they once again decide to run off together.

Private Lives has some of my favorite acting by Norma Shearer.  There are some scenes where she says so much with just the glance of her eyes or the tone of her voice.  Definitely watch for her expression when she first realizes that Elyot is in the room next door and listen to the way she uses her voice when she and Elyot are reminiscing about their relationship, it’s great stuff.  The movie itself is fully of smart, witty lines that lent themselves perfectly to being delivered by Norma and Robert Montgomery.  The two of them had such a wonderful rapport with each other, it was a real delight to watch the two of them go to town with this material.

The Mating Game (1959)

Pop Larkin (Paul Douglas) isn’t a big believer in using cash.  Instead, he prefers to trade for the things that he needs for his farm and for his family.  Most of the community is totally okay with this, but when his neighbor Wendell Burnshaw gets fed up with it, he wants to take legal action to get the Larkins off their land and out of his hair.  He talks to a lawyer who starts investigating the Larkins’ tax history and finds that they have never filed a tax return.  Of course, the IRS starts investigating and they send Lorenzo Charlton (Tony Randall) to the Larkins’ farm to figure out how much the farm is worth and whether or not they owe anything.

At first, Lorenzo is greeted by a warm reception from Pop, Ma (Una Merkel), their feisty daughter Mariette (Debbie Reynolds), and their other children Lee, Grant, Victoria, and Susan.  There’s even a mutual attraction between Lorenzo and Mariette, but Lorenzo tries to focus on his work the best he can.  After talking to Pop, Lorenzo finds out that they have no financial records and that the Larkins’ tradition of trading dates back to the Civil War when the government stiffed some of his ancestors for some horses.  The only thing Lorenzo can do is go around and try to estimate the value of everything they have, which Mariette gladly offers to help him with.  Despite his all-business attitude, Lorenzo can’t help but secretly be distracted by the farm’s laid-back attitude and Mariette’s charm.  A quick call to his boss gets him focused again, but Ma and Pop have noticed that Mariette likes Lorenzo and scheme to make him stay longer.  Grant and Lee are pretty mechanically inclined, so they mess with Lorenzo’s car and at dinner, Pop gives him a drink.  It turns out it was a really good drink, too, because before Lorenzo knows what hit him, he’s dancing all around the house.  When his boss calls and discovers that Lorenzo is drunk, he’s ordered to go to a motel.  But with his car out-of-order, oh darn, he has to stay at the Larkins’ place.

They put Lorenzo in Mariette’s room for the night and Mariette slept in the living room.  When Lorenzo wakes up the next morning, he wakes up with the wrong impression and Mariette is insulted that he would think such a thing.  But when she calms down again, she helps him look for a document proving how much the farm was worth when it was inherited.  In the process, she finds proof that the government stiffed her family all those years ago.  Eventually any animosity fades between the two and they kiss.  But just then, a few of Mariette’s boyfriends happen to walk in and find them together and they get into a huge fight with Lorenzo.  And to top it all off, Lorenzo’s boss stops by to see how it’s coming.  Of course, Lorenzo’s boss insists on taking over and Lorenzo goes back to the city.  When Lorenzo’s boss get through with his evaluation, he declares the Larkins owe $50,000.  If Pop can’t pay it, he’ll lose the farm.  Livid, Mariette races into the city and finds Lorenzo to ask his advice.  He suggests trying to get the government to pay up for the horses, but that process could take forever.  However, Lorenzo helps Mariette find a way to push her claim through faster than normal.  They find out that with interest, the government owes the Larkins about fourteen million dollars!  When they get back to the farm and tell everyone the news, Pop doesn’t want to take the money.  He feels he hasn’t earned it, but says the government can keep the money to pay off the past taxes and for any future taxes, as well.

The Mating Game was absolutely delightful.  Leave it to Debbie Reynolds and Tony Randall to make problems with the IRS look like a good time!  Debbie Reynolds’ energy was completely off the charts here.  I don’t know how one person can have that much energy, but Debbie somehow managed to do it!  If you want something purely light, frothy, and totally inoffensive, this is a good one to go with.

Born to Dance (1936)

In Casablanca, everyone comes to Rick’s.  In Born to Dance, everyone comes to Jenny Saks’ (Una Merkel) Lonely Hearts Club in New York.  Jenny is married to Gunny Saks (Sid Silvers), but she barely knows him since he’s a sailor who has been away with the Navy for four years.  When Gunny finally comes back to New York, he takes his sailor friend Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart) with him and heads straight for the Lonely Hearts Club to see his wife.  But Gunny and Ted aren’t the only ones arriving in New York this day.  Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) has just come to town looking to become a Broadway star and hits it off with Jenny.  When Gunny and Ted show up at the club, Ted and Nora fall in love, but things aren’t as warm between Jenny and Gunny.  Jenny has a daughter named Sally that Gunny doesn’t know about and Jenny doesn’t want him to know about her until she’s sure whether or not she really loves him.

However, actress Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) soon ends up driving a wedge between Ted and Nora.  When Lucy shows up on Gunny and Ted’s ship for some publicity pictures, her little dog ends up falling overboard and Ted is the lucky sailor to jump in and save it.  Lucy’s press agent sees the potential for more publicity out of this incident and gets Lucy to invite Ted out to dinner to thank him.  When her agent puts word out to the press about their date, Nora assumes that Ted loves her instead and refuses to see him.  But even though Ted still loves Nora, Lucy is smitten by Ted.  When Lucy’s agent suggests telling the press the two of them are engaged, she is outraged because she absolutely does not want to use Ted like that and threatens to back out of her new show if he does.

Meanwhile, Nora has gotten a job as Lucy’s understudy in her new show.  So what does Ted do to win Nora back?  He tells the press that he and Lucy are engaged, Lucy backs out of the show, and of course Nora goes on in her place and becomes a sensation!  Nora and Ted get back together and they all lived happily ever after.  Well, except for Gunny and Jenny.  Gunny was thrilled to find out he was Sally’s father, but he didn’t find out until after he signed up for another four years in the Navy.

In the book Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, there’s a page that talks about how one day, Irving had been asked to come to a meeting with Cole Porter and the main cast of Born to Dance to hear songs written for the movie.  When he walked into the meeting, Irving was clearly unhappy about being asked to be there.  This wasn’t one of his movies, he was a busy man and had plenty of other things to be doing.  But by the end of the meeting, Irving was smiling and jumping up to congratulate Porter on what he called one of the finest movie scores he’d ever heard.  I think that story really sums up what kind of movie Born to Dance is — something you can watch when you’re in a bad mood and by the time it’s over, it’s awfully hard to resist smiling.  1930s musicals were all about fantasy and escapism and that is precisely what Born to Dance is.

I loved everything about Born to Dance.  It’s pure, exuberant fun, the cast is delightful, the songs are extremely catchy.  It’s got lots of great lines like, “Sally, you’re going to drive me to stop drinking,” and “He went out fifteen minutes ago for five minutes and won’t be back for a half hour.”  And there’s no going wrong will all that spectacular tap dancing by Eleanor Powell.  When I say the cast is delightful, that includes Jimmy Stewart.  This is a very unusual movie for Jimmy Stewart since he was so not meant for musicals.  But I’ve really got to hand it to him, because you can’t accuse him of not being a good sport about being put in this movie.  He was no Bing Crosby, but he doesn’t pretend to be Bing Crosby, either.  There are moments where you can tell that he felt out of his element, but he gave it his all anyway and managed to make that awkwardness totally endearing.  He may not have been a great singer, but he was completely adorable in it anyway.

Bombshell (1933)


It isn’t easy being a silver screen sensation!  Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) sure knows how hard it can be, she can’t go anywhere without someone wanting something from her.  She gets up in the morning and realizes that her fleet of cars is being used by everyone but her.  Then there’s her freeloading lush of a  father (Frank Morgan) who stays out all night and comes home still drunk from the night before.  Her father’s always hitting her up for money to bail her brother (Ted Healy) out of his gambling debts in Tijuana.  When she shows up at the studio for work, she’s greeted by fans wanting autographs, which she’ll gladly sign.  And then there’s E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy), the head of the publicity department, who never tires of concocting scandals about Lola to feed to the press.  It’s exhausting just trying to keep up with all these demands!

Deep down, Lola is ready to quit the movies and just be a normal woman.  After Hanlon comes up with a particularly ridiculous scandal for Lola, she writes to the studio head and threatens to quit if Hanlon isn’t fired.  In an attempt to make Lola think he’s truly sorry, he arranges an interview for her with Ladies Home Companion magazine to give her a chance to show her domestic side.  After talking to the woman from Ladies Home Companion, Lola really starts to feel maternal and heads down to the orphanage to look into adoption.  She finds a baby boy she’d like to adopt and sets up an appointment for people from the orphanage to come visit her at home.  Lola desperately wants to make a good impression, but Hanlon personally sees to it that their meeting is a total disaster.  He not only sends a bunch of reporters to her house, he also sends over a couple of Lola’s rival lovers over at the same time.

After a huge fight breaks out, Lola decides she’s had enough of everybody.  She announces she’s quitting the movies and sneaks away to a resort out in the desert.  But she soon finds out there’s no escape from Hanlon, who manages to track her down.  While she’s out horseback riding, she meets Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), who comes from a wealthy family in Boston.  He’s not into the movies, so he’s totally oblivious to who she is and her reputation.  Lola quickly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him.  Just as she’s ready to meet his very proper family, her father and brother show up at the resort.  Lola warns them to be on their best behavior, but of course, that doesn’t happen.  Then when the Middletons find out who she is, they want nothing to do with her and Lola is so furious that she decides to return to the screen out of spite!

Bombshell is generally regarded as one of Jean Harlow’s signature movies, but for me, it fell just a tad flat.  I love that Jean was game for making fun of herself and I think it was pretty bold of her to be in a movie that made fun of her own freeloading relatives.  I can’t help but think that she probably enjoyed living through her character in the scene where Lola tells off her parasitic family and staff.  Jean was good in this movie, but I felt the movie was sort of overtaken by the supporting cast.  Frank Morgan was particularly awesome as Lola’s father, but then when Lola’s brother comes into the picture and Frank gets to do some scenes with Ted Healy, they made an excellent pair of leeches.  And who can forget Lola’s pack of sheepdogs always being led in at the most inopportune times?  Bombshell is a screwball comedy through and through, so it goes without saying that it’s fast-paced and zany.  It’s one of those movies that movies that I had to watch a couple of times to catch everything that happens.

Overall, if you’re a Jean Harlow fan, Bombshell is definitely required viewing.  I didn’t think it was bad, just a little overrated.  It was funny, but Libeled Lady was a better comedy as a whole.