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PRETTY “LADIES” AND HANDSOME “MEN”: PERFORMING GENDERED AND SEXUAL IDENTITIES IN 42ND STREET
The 1933 film 42nd Street (based on a novel by Bradford Ropes) was one of the films that helped revitalize the musical genre; although musicals had been dominant at the beginning of the sound era of cinema in 1927, by 1930, the genre was considered passé. However, in the midst of the Depression, Warner Bros. set out to “inject its pictures with social significance.”(Peary, 103) The films are “not only set in the Depression, they are about the Depression.”(103) The characters in the film are broke, hungry, and desperate and do whatever they must in order to make ends meet. This social relevance was likely one of the reasons for the Warner musicals’ popularity; audiences could identify with the hardships the characters face. In addition, viewers were likely attracted by the film’s simple plot of an inexperienced chorus girl becoming a star (no doubt symbolic of the potential for anyone to succeed, even in the harshest circumstances) as well as the spectacular production numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
The plot concerns stage director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), who has gone broke and has agreed to direct a new musical comedy called Pretty Lady. Marsh counts on the show’s success to secure him financially for the rest of his life. Cast in the lead is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), who is involved with the show’s wealthy producer Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee). Brock is still in love with her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent). Playing the male lead is Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), who helps Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who has never been in a show, or been kissed, obtain a part in the chorus. Lawler and Sawyer soon fall in love. The night before the premiere, Brock breaks her ankle and Sawyer is hastily chosen to replace her. The play is a success, and Sawyer is a hit. Outside the theatre after the show, Marsh overhears men from the audience contemptuously say such things as “Marsh will probably say he discovered her. Some guys get all the breaks.”
Within this straightforward narrative, several gender and sexuality issues surface. Throughout, characters both embody and challenge traditional tropes about men and women. In this essay, I will examine important male and female characters and how they portray their gender and sexuality. I will look at Peggy Sawyer and her portrayal of innocence and eventual sexual initiation; the chorus girls and the sexualized nature of their dancing and outfits and the question of whose performance we are seeing. Are we witnessing, through the chorines choreographed movements, a performance of male control over female sexuality? Or are these women wilfully using these shows as an opportunity to transgress traditional female roles, to perform their sexuality in a public space? I will also look at Julian Marsh and the dichotomy between his portrayal of normative masculinity and instances of sexual difference, instances where he transgresses traditional ontologies of masculinity and performs acts of “otherness,”* as well as Billy Lawler and his portrayal of a heterosexual male opposed by his “adolescent” or possibly “effeminate” appearance. Using Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, I intend to argue that these characters are not simply acting “masculine” or “feminine.” Rather, their gender is continuously performed and interpreted. Characters, both male and female, incorporate culturally inscribed markers of masculinity and femininity to create complex gendered and sexual identities not bound by biological sex. Before discussing these issues, I will need to provide historical background for the film musical, and Busby Berkeley’s importance to the genre.
42nd Street is an example of a “backstage” or “show” musical, which depicts the creation of a show, be it a Broadway play or a Hollywood film. The backstage musical “works primarily from the inside, originating from the venue where the show is made and centering on the relationships between the performers who make it.”(Rubin, 34) In 42nd Street, the film audience witnesses the casting and rehearsals of Pretty Lady; the relationships that develop between the chorus girls; the efforts of Marsh and the choreographers to produce a show that will please its audience; the backstage politics, such as Dorothy Brock’s relationship with Abner and Pat and the effect they will have on Abner’s funding of the show. In addition, we see a burgeoning romance between Peggy and Billy, which culminates with them starring in the show. In backstage musicals, “the making of a romantic couple” is often “both symbolically and causally related to the success of the show.”(Altman, 200) Directly before the premiere of Pretty Lady, after a marathon rehearsal session to prepare her for playing the lead, Peggy and Billy share their first kiss. The success of their romance is followed by the success of the show.
Commonplace for the backstage musical, particularly the Berkeley/Warner films, is the practice of “stacking all or most of the big musical numbers at the end of the film.”(Rubin, 98) The narrative of 42nd Street builds towards the opening of Pretty Lady. The production numbers–defined by Martin Rubin as “the number that depends on sheer spectacle, on the deployment of hordes of chorus dancers in a grandiose setting”(1)–function as the film’s climax, the payoff to the glimpses of the show we have seen in the rehearsals. The Berkeleyesque production number has several antecedents in musical theatre: one of the earlier progenitors was The Black Crook from 1866. After the burning of the Academy of Music in New York City, a visiting French ballet troupe was hastily worked into a play written by Charles M. Barras. According to Rubin:
The resulting hybrid was a tremendous success, and The Black Crook continued to be revived profitably for over twenty-five years. Few commentators have ever attributed the show’s popularity to Barras’s long-winded drama; rather, the crucial ingredient was the presence of seventy ballet girls, wearing then-scandalous tights....(20)
Because of the use of dance numbers in the midst of a dramatic narrative, The Black Crook is often thought of as the first American musical. More important to this discussion, the use of attractive women in provocative attire as the predominant attraction becomes a major element of female choruses in both musical revues and film musicals.
The major antecedent of the Berkeley production number was the musical revue, particularly the Ziegfield Follies. As Susan Glenn writes:
The Broadway revue was an integrated production staged on a grand scale. By the 1910’s the Broadway revue had evolved into a fast-paced conglomeration of satiric comic sketches and parodies, songs, solo dances, and elegant chorus production numbers….The typical revue had two or three acts held together by a loosely connected plot…Every show contained a finale which included the entire cast.(Glenn, 158)
Of particular interest was the production numbers performed by the female chorus. Glenn describes them as having
Between 50 and 60 chorus girls, but in some shows they numbered as many as 100. In addition to the regular chorus (they were listed on the program as “dancers”) revues featured a separate category of chorus performers called Show Girls…Women who held center stage in lavish production numbers and whose comely faces and half-undressed bodies circulated via advertising posters, publicity photographs, and sheet music....(158)
The physical attractiveness of these women and the display of copious amounts of bare skin, particularly their legs, were of the utmost importance, as will be demonstrated in my discussion of the chorus girls in 42nd Street.
One of the most popular forms of Broadway revue was the Ziegfield Follies, a yearly series of shows that went from 1907 to 1931. Producer Florenz Ziegfield made use of the traditions of the French music-hall (called Folies-Bergère) in order to produce his own show. Ziegfield cultivated himself as “the man who was most responsible for glorifying female beauty on stage.”(156) According to his myth, Ziegfield discovered the girls he used in his shows, noticed their raw abilities and refined those abilities in order to dance and sing in the shows. This self-aggrandizing rhetoric erases the considerable talents required for these women to perform the elaborate numbers that made up the Follies, which broaches the issue of male attempts to control femininity which will be examined shortly. With the provocatively-clad chorus girls, Ziegfield “did not flaunt nudity as much as suggest it.”(Altman, 204) The appeal, it would seem, was not only beautiful women displaying enticing parts of their bodies, such as legs and midriffs, but the possibility that the scanty attire might slip, displaying even more.* Despite this possibility of nudity, the undress of the chorus girls was seen as tasteful. Writers of the era noted that the Follies avoided “blatant, obvious display of nudity” in favour of “a cleverly designed background for the pulchritude on view.”(Glenn, 162) The reviewer’s focus on beauty is significant: Ziegfield maintained a strict standard of female beauty. The girls in his show had to conform to his “established canons of perfection in loveliness.”(170) Further, in 1922, he defined in detail his standard of beauty. His requirements for physical proportions are as follows:
Height–Five feet five and a half inches. Weight–One hundred Twenty-five pounds. Foot size–five…The height should be four times the length of the head. The head should be four times the length of the nose. When the arms are hanging straight at the sides they should be three-fifths of the body.(171)
Advertising campaigns for the Follies proclaimed the show a “national institution” that glorified the “American girl.”(173) By referring to chorus girls as “American,” it would appear that Ziegfield was disseminating a national standard of beauty (not to mention political propaganda capitalizing on the xenophobic mood after the First World War) to which all should aspire to. Ziegfield’s insistence that chorus girls conform to his standards would tend to reduce the autonomy of the group; if they all conform to a standard, as well as wearing the same outfits during production numbers, they would all “look alike.” This legacy is demonstrated in “the show musical’s tendency to deemphasize individual talent and to concentrate interest on the visual patterning of costumes and bodies.”(Altman, 204) Since the producers and choreographers tend to be men, we see in these numbers female personalities and sexuality being regimented by men. The implications of this will be discussed further with regards to the Pretty Lady chorus.
Before arriving in Hollywood, Busby Berkeley worked for several years as a dance director for Broadway musical theatre. From 1928 to 1930, Berkeley created production numbers for revues produced by the Shubert brothers (Sam and Lee), Ziegfield’s chief competitors. According to Rubin, “the Shubert shows frequently aped the Follies, although they tended to be less meticulously produced and to place a greater emphasis on satire and female nudity.”(Rubin, 55) In addition to the Shubert shows, Berkeley also directed numbers for such revues as Nine Fifteen Revue, International Revue, and Sweet and Low, all in 1930. Berkeley had been noted as an innovative director on Broadway, and he was similarly innovative in Hollywood. During the first wave of sound films
A huge number of Broadway musicals were transposed to the screen with little attempt to make them cinematic; they were essentially canned theatre…Then…Berkeley appeared on the scene and almost single-handedly lifted the movie musical out of its static primitive and stagebound state…Berkeley created numbers for the camera, chiefly through the use of elaborate crane shots, striking camera angles, and various editing tricks. (2)
Berkeley tended to film his numbers with a single camera. In order to create purely cinematic production numbers, he employed effects that would be beyond the scope of a theatrical stage, such as several large sets, and large numbers of singers and dancers. Rubin lists the various elements that have become associated with Busby Berkeley:
(1) Large numbers of chorus girls in regimented and geometrical formations, (2) overhead shots that form kaleidoscopic patterns, (3) an impression of extravagance and excess in setting and camerawork, (4) extended and spectacular crane shots, (5) stylized uses of the female body in abstract and object-like ways, (6) elements of fetishistic eroticism, and (7) the use of giant, multiple, and bizarre props. (6)
Berkeley’s conception of a musical number has been extremely influential. The spectacularity of the numbers may be seen in many of the musicals that followed; for example, the “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain, with its length, multiple settings, and numerous participants. The title sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom features a Berkeleyesque production number with several women in mini-skirts tap-dancing to Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” Berkeley’s influence extends to music videos, particularly those of Michael Jackson, which feature elaborate dance routines in such settings as subway platforms, nightclubs, graveyards, etc.
Before moving on to the characters in 42nd Street, I wish to explain Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity. Traditionally, our gender has been considered inextricably tied to our biological sex; the presence of a penis marks one as a man, marking the gender as male. Similarly, breasts and the vagina mark a person as a woman, her gender is female. In her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Butler argues that gender is an act of performative volition, separate from biological sex. In Butler’s words, gender is an example of an act that produces “the effect of an internal core or substance.” These effects are produced “on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause.”(Butler, 173) Gender is not biological; rather it is performed through a series of discursive signs. These signs are culturally inscribed as masculine of feminine (for example, aggression tends to be coded as masculine while emotional sensitivity tends to be marked as feminine). If a gendered body is performative, it suggests that “it has no ontological status apart from the various acts that constitute its reality.”(173) If there is “no originary core self which expresses identity by socially recognizable acts” and the gendered self is the “cumulative result of performances,”(Cusick, 14) then one does not choose a gender and perpetually perform that gender. Rather, gender is a continuum of performativity. Everyday, we choose which discursive metaphors of gender we will act out–be they male, female, or androgynous–and the culmination of those performances forms complex identities. I would also add to this that our sexual drives and desires are performative as well: we may choose to freely express our sexuality, or we may choose to repress it. What others know about our sexuality is dependant upon how we choose to perform it. If gendered and identity is a series of socially and culturally mediated acts performed over a period of time, then numerous intriguing implications arise vis-à-vis the characters of 42nd Street.
When Peggy Sawyer arrives to audition for a part in the chorus for Pretty Lady, she reveals to Billy Lawler that she has never been in a show before. Later, she discloses that she has never been kissed either. “The relationship between artistic and sexual relationships is firmly reinforced”(Altman, 227) as Rick Altman writes. When Peggy is being hastily rehearsed to play the lead, Marsh kisses her so that she can recite her line (“Jim, they didn’t tell me you were here. It was grand of you to come”) with the proper emotion. Just before the show, Peggy and Billy declare their love for each other and exchange their first kiss “returning sexual significance to kissing.”(227) Now that Peggy is no longer a sexual innocent, she can successfully perform in the show. This is a paradigm common to Berkeley films:
Develop the young couple’s love simultaneously with the show (preferably by making the success of one depend on the success of the other), project the thematics of the couple into the thematics of the show by having the lovers outside the show play the lovers inside the show, then drop the thematic concerns in favour of graphic equivalents to the show = sex equation.(227-228)
As the film progresses, Peggy acts out her innocence and naiveté, and eventually her sexual awakening.
When Peggy arrives at the audition, she demonstrates her inexperience when she has no idea where the “gentleman in charge” is. She naively follows the directions of one of the more “experienced” girls and finds that it is a men’s restroom. In order to further embarrass her, one of the girls sends Peggy to the door across the hall, which turns out to be a dressing room. When she opens the door, she finds Billy in his underwear. She reacts in abject embarrassment, as most would in such a situation, but given her sexually naïve character, perhaps she is betraying her inexperience. Also of note is her attire at the casting call: she is wearing a plain black dress which completely covers her body. Since she is a virgin, perhaps her conservative attire can be mapped onto her sexual ingenuousness. Yet, if performing in a musical is a semiotic code for sexual experience, is Peggy subtly demonstrating a latent sexual drive when she expresses desire to be in the show? When Peggy begins rehearsing her dance steps with the rest of the chorus girls, she begins her rite of passage by wearing a pair of shorts that reveal her bare legs. However, Peggy betrays her lack of facility with her sexuality when she tires and faints (she is the only member of the chorus to do so). After her official backstage coupling with Billy, Peggy continues her sexual initiation during the performance of the show. In the “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” number, Peggy and an unnamed man portray a newlywed couple who are boarding a train for their honeymoon. Once on board they stand cheek-to-cheek and sing the suggestive lyrics:
The honeymoon in store
Is one that you’ll adore
I’m gonna take you for a ride
At the number’s end the couple enters their sleeping compartment and closes the curtain. We see Peggy’s arm emerge from the berth to place her shoes outside to be cleaned. Her arm rises, as if in climax, and then slowly falls. Her arm goes limp and drops the shoes to the floor; Peggy has been symbolically “deflowered.”
Having lost her “virginity,” Peggy can now perform the climactic “42nd Street” number. She sings about the “naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty” street while wearing a black and white, puffy-shouldered dress, a white derby, and a long white skirt with a slit up the side, revealing black panty-hose underneath. The outfit appears to visualize the progression from innocence to experience. The long, white skirt ostensibly covers her legs and her sexuality. However, the slit reveals one of her legs, as if her sexual drive is poised to be revealed. When she goes into her solo tap-dance, she removes her white dress to reveal a black mini-skirt. With this action, Peggy casts off any remnant of naïveté and enthusiastically becomes a sexual being, one who willingly becomes an object of desire for the males (as well as gay or bisexual females) in the audience. Over the course of the film, Peggy has performed a continuum of sexual identity.
As I have noted above, members of the female chorus were chosen based on how they conformed to a particular standard of physical beauty. They were then trained to dance and sing in a precise manner; for the performance, they are costumed in matching outfits and the choreography places the girls in geometric formations. On the surface, such regimentation would appear to portray women as a mere tool to be manipulated by men. As Susan Glenn writes:
At precisely the moment when women seemed increasingly to move beyond men’s control, Broadway producers, critics, and press agents invented a fantasy world in which men dictated and managed the terms on which women might be seen in public…“the girls”–as female chorus performers were known–were “ornaments” produced and “handled” by men. Thus, if theatre provided the space for assertive self-spectacle by women, it also permitted Broadway producers to make spectacle of women by presenting them as alluring and nonthreatening objects.(155)
Glenn notes that female choruses raise issues more complex than simply male dominance of female sexuality (although that issue is certainly present). What are they various ways that the chorus girls’ performances embody the discourse about femininity? The above quote makes it clear that women ideally assumed a submissive role to masculine authority. Feminine submissiveness has been a far-reaching cultural trope: in nineteenth-century Europe “women of all classes were considered to be the property of their husbands, and motherhood was elevated to a position of sainthood.”(Reich, 131-132) The classification of the home as the “proper sphere of women”(132) had far reaching implications: with the development of the “Cult of True Womanhood”* in the nineteenth-century, women were situated as morally pure and nurturers to their working husbands. This notion survived well into the twentieth-century as “under capitalism in America…a man was judged by his ability to support himself and his family.”(Leff, 13) So, the performances of female chorus girls may be seen to demonstrate both femininity and masculinity: by allowing themselves to be costumed in identical attire (designed to be enticing to those in the audience), and trained by male directors to dance in regimented formations, the girls perform “feminine” submissiveness to patriarchal order; men vicariously perform their masculinity through the chorus’ dance routines. The precisely choreographed numbers demonstrate the power men hold over the female dancers. The dancers are examples of what Michel Foucault calls “docile bodies.” In his words, “a body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved.”(Foucault, 136) A docile body is easily malleable, which serves those in power (in this case, men), who can thus impose their requirements onto them. The regimented dance routines of the chorus, thus performs male power.
If True Womanhood dictated that women be nurturers free of vice and vulgar desires, then what implications do the sexualized nature of the female chorus carry? During 42nd Street’s “Young and Healthy” number, chorus girls wearing midriff and leg baring ermine-furs enter and mount a circular platform. They encircle the stage, joining hands and facing outwards; the girls then spread their legs apart and the stage begins to rotate. With their alluring attire and their spread legs, the women appear to be “willing to lend” their bodies “to all who ask.”(Altman, 214) In an elaborate tracking shot, Berkeley “thrusts his camera forward between the spread legs of numerous chorines.”(Peary, 106) If the camera is the audience’s conduit to the film’s world, then it commits the sexual act desired by the men in the audience, with the women’s approval. If the domestic sphere was considered ideal for women, then perhaps women saw participating in musical revues as a way to engage in transgressive behaviour, to subvert the role of nurturer. Although they were rigorously trained by men, perhaps women saw the chorus line as a way to cast off True Womanhood and assume agency over their sexuality.*
Perhaps the public of the early twentieth-century also perceived the transgressive nature of the female chorus: the chorus girl was seen as both a source of entertainment and a threat to morality:
The chorus girl served as a screen for all manner of projection about the changing nature of womanhood and about the excitement and perils of urban life. She was not only a body to watch; she was also a body to worry about. In the period from the late 1890s to the 1930s, she inspired endless discussion and speculation on the part of journalists, reformers, cultural critics, playwrights, theatrical producers, and movie makers, to all of whom she symbolized the larger problem of changing gender relations. Prey and predator, exploited and exploiter, disciplined and out of control, the chorus girl emerged as a capacious symbol of modern womanhood.(Glenn, 190)
One of the common characterizations of a chorus girl was that of a “gold digger”: a woman who uses her feminine charms to extract favours, mostly monetary, from beguiled men. As an example, in 42nd Street Dorothy Brock uses Abner Dillon as her “sugar daddy” in order to obtain the starring role in Pretty Lady. Indeed, there was a common perception that the female chorus was a form of “commercialized prostitution.”(200) If the chorus was an opportunity for women to transgress their traditional gender roles, then perhaps their abjection was society’s way of punishing their transgression.
What role does the audience play in the identity of chorus girls? Who is the audience? With their physical attractiveness and alluring attire, the show seems to have been produced for male consumption, even though film musicals have not generally been considered “men’s pictures.” Nonetheless, Laura Mulvey theorizes that visual spectacle is produced for a male gaze:
The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed…Women displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfield to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire.(Mulvey, 19)
The chorus girl’s social significance effectively demonstrates her nature as the object of male scopophilia: although chorus girls were denigrated as “gold-diggers,” during the Depression they were seen as symbolic of the American working class. The chorus girl was seen not only as a “symbol of the fast and wasteful ways of the nation of the 1920s,” but also as “the engine of national recovery. On her shoulders the fate of the Broadway musical and by extension the fate of the economy must rest.”(Glenn, 211) In the Warner musicals, the chorus girls “start out unemployed, hungry, desperate and disillusioned.”(Peary, 103) They represent the plight of the proletariat to whom the film wished to speak; they too were out of work, hungry, and would likely do what was necessary to survive. When Peggy Sawyer is drafted to replace Dorothy Brock in the lead, Julian Marsh tells her that the chorus, the directors, the electricians, and all the others who worked on the show are depending on her: the people who worked on the show represent the workers in the real world who desperately needed work. When Sawyer becomes a big hit, it seems to assure the working class audience that things will work out because “hard work, diligence, and a little luck will lead to success in business.”(104) Since at this time, according to cultural stereotype, the man was the one who provided for his family, the chorus girls performed the plight of the impoverished working men.* The chorus girls performed not only their own gendered identity, but that of their audience as well. One question remains though: what effect would this have on masculine identity, if their hardships were depicted by women?
Stage director Julian Marsh performs a complex gendered identity. Throughout the film, he appears to perform traditional markers of masculinity. At the film’s outset, he agrees to direct Pretty Lady, solely out of concern for his financial well-being. His dialogue with the show’s producers reveals much about his character:
I’ve given everything I’ve had to that gulch down there and it’s taken all I had to offer. Oh it paid me, sure, in money I couldn’t hang onto. Fair-weather friends, women, headlines! Hah! Why even the cops and the newsboys recognize me on sight–Marsh the Magnificent, Marsh the Slave-Driver! Actors tell you how Marsh drove ‘em and bullied ‘em and even tore it out of ‘em...Pretty Lady’s got to be a hit. It’s my last show and it’s got to be my best. You’re counting on me. Well, I’m counting on Pretty Lady, cause it’s got to support me for a long time to come.
Marsh mentions his reputation as a slave-driver: during rehearsals we see Marsh relentlessly rehearses the chorus, constantly berating their performances with such comments as “what is this amateur night?” At one point, he rehearses the group until all hours of the night; the piano accompanist is seen nodding off several times out of exhaustion. Early in the rehearsals, Marsh declares his dislike for a number to the songwriter and drops it from the show. Through his almost tyrannical control of the rehearsals, Marsh exercises his power, his male identity, over the group.* Marsh also demonstrates his power when he learns that Dorothy Brock is carrying on an affair with Pat Denning behind Abner Dillon’s back, he calls a mobster friend to rough Denning up and convince him to stop seeing Dorothy. Of note is his reluctance to give unqualified praise to anyone in the show: for example, after he has rehearsed Peggy five hours before the show, he says her work is “only fair.” His reluctance to engage in superlatives conveys a sense of detachment. Marsh attempts to reject emotional excess; being extremely critical curtails display of positive emotions. If his only concern is money, Marsh cannot let anyone see any other emotional investments.
Concern with financial well-being, display of power, and control of emotional display: all of these traits would seem to mark Julian Marsh as an example of normative masculinity. Yet several acts problematize Marsh’s construction of masculinity. Marsh’s very name is problematic. Julian resembles Julie; Marsh’s name clouds gender. Bradford Ropes’ novel portrayed Julian as “healthy Englishman with two secrets. No one knows the first–that he’s descended from shopkeepers–while everyone knows the second: he’s gay.”(Leff, 6) The 1930 Motion Picture Production Code forbade any depiction of what it called “sexual perversion.”(4) Nonetheless, the film manages to depict Marsh’s difference (the film also changes him from an Englishman to an American), especially compared to the other male characters. As Leonard Leff writes:
Scoffing at Hollywood protocols, 42nd Street never shows Julian Marsh, its handsome leading man, with a romantic (or any) female other. A riot of compulsory heterosexuality toward the end of the picture further points up the anomaly. Peggy Sawyer and Billy Lawler…have fallen in love; hoofer Ann Lowell has snagged sugar daddy Abner Dillon; and even Dorothy Brock and her down-and-out mentor, Pat Denning, have planned to wed. Peggy and Billy. Ann and Abner. Dorothy and Pat. Julian and…(5)
Marsh’s lack of female companionship marks him as an “other” compared to the other men in the film, who actively pursue women.* Julian has no social life whatsoever. “He lives alone in what an early screenplay draft calls ‘a room of grace and proportion. From hangings to small objects it shows taste, a taste…too flawless to have been fully masculine.’”(9) Also “like Pat Denning, another bachelor, Julian has fresh flowers in his sitting room…But unlike Pat, who has two framed photos of leading lady Dorothy Brock on display…Julian has nothing to ballast the delicacy of the flowers…and thus assure a masculinity that reads heterosexual.”(9) It is interesting to note that the screenwriters consider “taste” and appreciation of “art” to problematize masculinity. Similarly, Leff reads the presence of the flowers as a signifier of femininity. I find such readings to border on essentialism (flowers and femininity having a one-to-one correspondence for example), but they do effectively demonstrate Marsh’s performance of otherness compared to the other (heterosexual) men in the film.
Marsh performs his difference most tellingly after a gruelling rehearsal the night before the Philadelphia premiere. As Andy (one of the choreographers) prepares to go to a company party at the suggestively named Congress Hotel with Lorraine (one of the dancers), he is summoned by a forlorn Marsh. Julian asks “what are you doin’? Got a date tonight?” He puts his arm around Andy and says “come on home with me, will you? I’m lonesome.” How are we to read this request? Is this a desire for friendly companionship? Or could it be considered a sexual proposition? After all, Marsh has made no such requests of any of the numerous females in the show. Also, Marsh’s room is located at the Congress Hotel.* Interestingly, Andy accepts his offer, much to Lorraine’s consternation. After the successful premiere of Pretty Lady, exiting male patrons profess disdain for Marsh. One of them says “these directors make me sick” a similar phrase often heard from homophobic men about gays. Have the men in the audience discerned Marsh’s otherness and read it as homosexual? Although I would not say that the above examples of Marsh’s difference (sexual or otherwise) are necessarily unequivocal evidence of homosexuality, his performance of stereotypically masculine ontology as well as acts of difference from normative masculinity create a complex gendered identity. Is he masculine? Is he feminine? Does his identity run a gamut between the two?
Billy Lawler’s gendered performance is also of interest; from the beginning of the film, he is marked as a heterosexual man. He takes an instant liking to Peggy when she walks in on him changing and helps her get a part in the chorus. He continues to court her throughout the rehearsals, encouraging her, and helping her backstage after she faints. Before the premiere, Billy declares “I’ve been for you ever since the day you walked in on me in my BVDs.” Lawler would appear to be portraying a typical heterosexual male, pursuing a woman who has caught his eye. However, part of Lawler’s gender performance consists of acts that call into question his adult masculine identity. As with Marsh, Lawler’s first name conveys an ambivalent identity. Lawler identifies himself as Billy as opposed to “Bill” or “William.” His name seems more apt for a child than a grown man.* “Billy” may also be interpreted as “Billie,” a female name.* Lawler identifies himself to Peggy as “one of Broadway’s better juveniles.” Later, one of the men in the chorus disparages Billy’s dancing: “get a load of the juvenile. Didn’t know we had elephants in the show.” Billy’s status as a juvenile lead marks him as a performer who “falls short of full manhood.”(13) Since members of the chorus mock his juvenile status, perhaps “juvenile” may be considered along with “feminine” in terms of marginalized social groups. Billy’s cherubic appearance carries further signifies adolescence or femininity: the flesh on his face appears very smooth with no wrinkles or creases; his lips are very thin; his cheeks when he smiles are rather large, as though he still had “baby-fat” on them. His features portray him as a somewhat child-like man, or perhaps a woman in her late teens. His immaturity is demonstrated by his dialogue when he couples with Peggy: he says he is “for” her rather than “in love” with her and admits that the lines are “new” for him.
When Billy sings “Young and Healthy,” a sense of dissonance is created by the lyrics he sings and his vocal timbre. He sings lyrics of heterosexual lust to an attractive blonde (who never says anything herself):
I’m young and healthy
And you’ve got charms
It really is a sin
Not to have you in my arms.
His vocal timbre consists of strong chest voice, not an operatic heldentenor, but still requiring considerable technical facility, along with vibrato. The lustful lyrics along with the powerful vocal create a conflict with Billy’s immature/effeminate appearance. The conflict is further conveyed when Billy sings that he is “full of Vitamin A”: Billy is seemingly overstating his virility and needs “vitamins” to boost his libido. The question that one must ask is this: is Billy a juvenile performing adult masculinity? Or is he a masculine adult performing adolescence/femininity? Or is neither his “true” identity, instead continuously performing aspects of adolescence and masculinity to create a complex gender?
Throughout this study, I have attempted to demonstrate that the various characters in 42nd Street do not “have” a gender, or “have” a particular sexuality. Rather, their identities are formed from a continuous series of bodily performances; these performances carry culturally inscribed semiotic codes that mark them as “masculine,” “feminine,” “heterosexual,” “Other,” “innocent,” “experienced,” etc. To conclude this paper, I offer a final quote from Judith Butler:
Genders can be neither true nor false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived. As credible bearers of those attributes, however, genders can also be rendered thoroughly and radically incredible.(Butler, 180)
If gender is no longer reified as something biological, then gendered and sexual identities no longer belong to the realm of the “real,” rather they belong in the realm of the “fantastic.” Perhaps Busby Berkeley’s production numbers may be read as a visual analog to the fantasy of gender: if his numbers are too elaborate to be performed on the theatre stages they are supposedly occurring on, then they reside along with gendered and sexual identity in the realm of the fantastic.
*Marsh is gay in the novel. Although to read Marsh’s sexual difference as gay is somewhat problematic in my opinion, perhaps the screenwriters worked coded markers of homosexuality into the film character.
*Note the ermine-fur attire of the chorus girls in 42nd Street’s “Young and Healthy” number. It seems to me that the furs could fall off at any time, leaving them completely nude even though the film audience can clearly see that they are wearing undergarments. Perhaps the diegetic audience would not be able to see this and thus, the possibility for nudity would still be there for them.
*See Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood,” in Locating American Studies, ed. Lucy Maddox (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 43-70.
*There are men in the chorus as well, but it seems to me that the women are the “stars” here. Perhaps this is another instance of transgression, where the female asserts dominance and pushes the men into the subaltern position.
*It would be foolish to state that there were no working women, but the man was the one coded as the “breadwinner” for the family.
*Since power, particularly political power has been held mostly by men, it is likely that power has been coded as a masculine trait.
*In a different context (such as a cop or “buddy” film which stresses male bonding), perhaps Marsh’s lack of interest in women, his “immunity” to feminine charms would carry the semiotic value of ideal masculinity.
*It is also interesting that Marsh makes this request during the only time he is free with his emotions
*His exact age is not identified, but he looks to be in his late teens at the youngest.
*The wife of Florenz Ziegfield was named “Billie” Burke.
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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Cusick, Suzanne G. “Feminist Theory, Music Theory, and the Mind/Body Problem,” Perspectives of New Music, 32/1 (Winter 1994), 8-27.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979
Glenn, Susan A. Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Leff, Leonard J. “‘Come on Home with Me’: 42nd Street and the Gay Male World of the 1930s,” Cinema Journal, 39.1 (Fall 1999), 3-22.
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Reich, Nancy B. “Women as Musicians: A Question of Class,” in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie, 125-146. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Rubin, Martin. Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
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