One is a (seemingly) wholesome and widely beloved classic Warner Brothers’ movie musical, featuring visually dazzling song and dance numbers choreographed by the now-legendary Busby Berkeley. The other is a crass and tacky soft core MGM porn show whose title became a punch-line even before its release.
On closer inspection however, 42nd Street (1933) and Showgirls (1995) have a lot more in common than one may suspect. To paraphrase Truman Capote, it’s like the two movies grew up together in the same house and one day 42nd Street got up and strutted out the front door, while Showgirls sneaked out the back.
Although only one takes place in Vegas, both films were a gamble.
The advent of talkies saw the success of The Broadway Melody (1929), MGM’s first “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” film, which created a firestorm of showbiz themed movie musicals. The trend for Hollywood musicals reached its peak in 1930, when over one hundred of such films were released. But by then the public had grown tired of the formula, even going so far as to stage anti-musical protests outside movie theatres. With Warner Brothers’ 42nd Street, Busby Berkeley breathed new life into the genre simply by putting the camera where a stage audience couldn’t go. The results? Box office gold.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas, the same guys who brought you Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls was the first NC-17 (a classification that replaced the X-rating) film with a wide release in mainstream theatres. Two months before Showgirls‘ premiere, the chairman of MGM/UA told the New York Times that he hoped the movie would help to remove the “stigma attached to the NC-17 rating.”* Unfortunately, the film’s NC-17 rating undoubtedly contributed to its failure both at the box office and with critics (is it just me or are most critics puritans?). Showgirls currently has a 23% rating (rotten) on Rotten Tomatoes; compare that to the rating for 42nd Street, which is 96% (fresh). However Showgirls became a huge hit on the home video market and is now one of MGM’s top-20 bestsellers of all time. As Nomi Malone, Showgirls’ anti-heroine herself, would say, “I always win.”
Come on, girls! Let us see your plot!
In 42nd Street, unemployed waif Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) finds work as a chorus girl in The Pretty Lady, famed Broadway director Julian Marsh’s (Warner Baxter) new musical revue. Unbeknown to his cast, Marsh is dying and needs the show to be a hit to pay for his doctor bills. When his temperamental leading lady Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) breaks her ankle during a drunken fit, the show must go on with the inexperienced Peggy in the lead…she’s going out there a youngster, but she’s GOT to come back a star!
In Showgirls, impoverished hitchhiker Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) makes her way to Las Vegas and winds up stripping at the low-class Cheetah club. A chance encounter with the sultry Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the hot star of Goddess, an erotic dinner theatre show at the high end Stardust Hotel and Casino, leads to an audition in the topless revue. With a little push from Cristal, Nomi is hired and later repays the favor by giving Cristal a little push herself – straight down the stairs. With the diva out of the way, Nomi becomes the lead of Goddess but quickly discovers that it’s sleazy at the top.
Both films sport a cast of showbiz tropes…oops, I mean characters: the ingenue (Keeler/Berkley); the diva (Daniels/Gershon) and her boy toy (George Brent in 42nd Street/Kyle MacLachlan in Showgirls); the hardened and hotheaded director (Warner Baxter/Alan Rachins); the loyal BFF (Ginger Rogers/Gina Ravera); the earnest nice guy (Dick Powell/Glenn Plummer) and the sleazebag (Guy Kibbee/pretty much every dude in Showgirls). And just like their respective fictional stage shows, both movies are dependent upon their leading ladies.
42nd Street was leggy Ziegfeld chorus girl Ruby Keeler’s first on-screen acting role. Life imitated art: at the end of 42nd Street, both Peggy Sawyer and Ruby Keeler have become bona fide stars. Sure, Keeler (self-admittedly) didn’t have much of a singing voice and she often looked at her feet when she danced, but what she lacked in finesse, she made up for in charm. “Her ingratiating personality, coupled with her dances and songs adds to the zest of this offering,” The New York Times gushed in its 1933 review of the film. In the 2006 documentary/featurette Busby Berkeley’s Kaleidoscopic Eyes, John Waters says “Every person in the audience wished they were Ruby Keeler,” later adding, “they don’t have stars that big anymore.”
When Showgirls bombed, it was Berkley, and not her male director, who took all of the blame. “I felt like I was the kid on the playground and all of the bullies were being really relentless,” she said in a 2008 interview.* “It’s the casting of Berkley that derails Showgirls“, a critic for SFGATE wrote in a 1996 review titled Showgirls Leaves You Slimy. He got it backwards: it was Showgirls that derailed Berkley, although only briefly. He’s also wrong about her casting: it is possible, and I say this with the utmost respect, to talk about 42nd Street without mentioning Keeler. However the same cannot be said about Berkley and Showgirls. Berkley was best known for playing bookworm Jesse Spano on the squeaky clean Saturday morning TV show Saved by the Bell. Her casting as the former crack addicted stripper Nomi Malone was big controversy at the time and her impassioned performance in the film is now legendary. Like Nomi, Berkley has something to prove and she’s going for it, as Barbara Stanwyck would say, in a big way, sister. In his book It Doesn’t Suck. Showgirls, author Adam Nayman writes that any argument of Showgirls as being either a masterpiece or a piece of sh*t, are unimaginable without Berkley’s performance.
The relationship between the ingenue and the diva is the one area where Showgirls has the leg up on 42nd Street (pun totally intended), thanks to the sexual tension and chemistry between Berkley and Gershon. Gershon in particular seems to be having so much fun in Showgirls that her glee is contagious. Plus she gets one of the film’s best lines: “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you.”
Look a Little Closer Honey, There’s More Here than Meets the Eye
In 42nd Street, it’s “let us see the legs”; in Showgirls, it’s “show me your t*ts”. The male characters in both movies objectify women, but it is important to note that the movies themselves don’t.
The dames in 42nd Street are smart, resilient and know their way around a wisecrack. 42nd Street was made and released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code era, before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code and at a time when filmmakers were pushing the envelope to see what they could get away with. Therefore there’s plenty of nudge nudge, wink wink humor in 42nd Street, such as when a haughty showgirl gives her address as Park Avenue and Ginger Rogers snorts “and boy, is her homework tough!” Or how about this interaction between Una Merkel and a chorus boy, whose lap she’s fallen into: “Where ya sittin’, where ya sittin’?” “On a flag pole, dearie, on a flag pole!” And of course, there’s the lesbian erotica in the show number Shuffle Off to Buffalo; Julian Marsh’s gangster connections and Bebe Daniels’ canoodling with nubile chorus boys as she sings You’re Getting to be a Habit With Me (sample lyric: “Every kiss, every hug, seems to act just like a drug“). After all, 42nd Street is, as the song says, “where the underworld can meet the elite” (which actually sounds like a great tag line for Showgirls).
And if 42nd Street is not quite as innocent as suspected, neither is Showgirls as vacuous.
While proceeding Busby/Warner Bros. musical comedies tackled political and social issues (the Remember my Forgotten Man number in Gold Diggers of 1933 and the sendup of censorship in Dames are but two examples), the main goal of 42nd Street is simply to entertain. But Showgirls wants to do much more, offering up a disturbing portrait of America’s dysfunctional marriage of sex and capitalism. “I’ll get you used to the money and then I’ll make you swallow”, Cheetah manager Al tells new recruit Penny, a line which sounds like it belongs in a Hubert Selby Jr. novel. Perhaps if Showgirls had not worn its heart so prominently on its pasties, it wouldn’t have taken the thrashing that it did from critics back in 1995. But then again, if the film wasn’t so nakedly earnest, we probably wouldn’t still be talking about it today.
In the era of Me Too, can we finally all agree that Showgirls is most decidedly NOT camp? Although there are plenty of sleazebags in Showgirls, the biggest one of all is also the most terrifying: beefy rock star/rapist Andrew Carver (William Shockley). “Andrew Carver is arguably the one person in Showgirls who it is impossible to laugh with, or at,” Adam Nayman writes in It Doesn’t Suck. Showgirls. In other words, Andrew Carver is not campy; instead he is a violent misogynist who wields his privilege like a sledgehammer. It is important to note that Showgirls the movie hates Andrew Carver.
In the film’s most disturbing and brutal scene, Carver and his cronies violently rape Nomi’s best friend Molly (Gina Ravera) at a party. In addition to being the only character in the film with a moral compass, Molly is Black and working class, while Carver is white and wealthy. The true sins of Sin City, and America at large, are not cocaine and bare boobies but rather racism, misogyny and income inequality. It is made clear that the rich and powerful Carver will go unpunished. In an important 2020 interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, Ravera said “I took the rape scene very seriously, because when you see rape on film, you know you’re representing people who have lived through it. I thought, ‘I’m going to do this scene so the girl who goes to that party and gets asked to that room doesn’t go into it.’ I was willing to do the scene for that person, because this is a real moment in the world, unfortunately. Women are victims of this violence.”
More than just a ‘Pretty Lady’: She’s a Goddess
In 42nd Street, the “Pretty Lady” show goes on with Peggy Sawyer (Keeler) in the lead. At the end of the film, Julian Marsh (Baxter) collapses on the steps outside the theatre’s exit, head in hands. The exhaustion may be a side effect of his illness but perhaps he’s also crushed under the weight of Peggy’s rising star. “Without a kid like Sawyer, you wouldn’t have a show,” an audience member gushes. “Marsh will probably say he discovered her – some guys get all the breaks!” another snorts.
Meanwhile in Showgirls, Nomi is getting into costume for her own performance – as archangel avenger of Molly’s rapist. Getting ready for her “date” with Carver, Nomi meticulously paints her claws gold and silver. “It’s showtime,” she whispers, before slinking into Carver’s hotel room in a leopard print miniskirt and matching bustier top. This cat is hunting rats and she’s caught a big one. In the film’s homage to Pam Grier, Nomi pulls a switchblade out of her G-string and holds it to Carver’s neck before repeatedly kicking him unconscious with her thigh high boot. “He wants to sleep”, she purrs to his body guards upon exiting his room.
After saying a heartfelt goodbye to Molly and making amends with Cristal, Nomi hitchhikes to L.A. She’s done with Las Vegas but she’s not done for. The film freezes in on a billboard of her painted face: NOMI MALONE IS GODDESS, it reads.
In both 42nd Street and Showgirls, the future is female.
Written by Heather Babcock, 2021
*Reference Source: It Doesn’t Suck. Showgirls, Adam Nayman (ECW Press)