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Before it was even published, Warner Brothers bought the rights to 42nd Street for sixty thousand dollars. For the adaption, Darryl Zanuck turned to director Lloyd Bacon (who replaced Mervyn Leroy after he got tonsillitis) and Busby Berkeley.
Star Ruby Keeler remembered, “It was a wonderful era, and those pictures, directed by Buzz Berkeley, will never be forgotten.”
1. Some of the cast won by a knee.
Busby Berkeley was responsible for filming the dance sequences. Hundreds of dancers auditioned for only 57 spots. Berkeley cast the roles based on the way the dancers’ knees looked, and the women with the winning knees were given sixty-six dollars a week. Darryl Zanuck was so impressed with Berkeley that he gave the director free reign while filming, and later, a seven year contract with the studio.
2. Ruby Keeler auditioned without knowing it.
Keeler was married to singer and actor Al Jolson and “starred” in a test short that showed how to capture tap dance on film. The legend goes that Zanuck saw the short and hired Keeler afterwards. It was a big break for the actress – her first credited role – and she received rave reviews about her charming performance. Keeler said, "I hope I'm good in the movie and that the fans will like me. Any girl in a thousand could have played the part, but I happened to get the break."
3. The publicity had a nod to Roosevelt.
Warner Brothers advertised the film as “inaugurating a new deal in entertainment!” The New Deal was, of course, the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s regulations that hoped to spur on recovery after the Great Depression. Interestingly, the promotion for the film came out before he was even elected and was based on a speech in which he mentioned the name.
4. They had a 42nd Street train.
After winning the White House, President Roosevelt invited Jack Warner to his inauguration. To coordinate with the event, the crew traveled on a promotional seven-car train named the “42nd Street Special.” Celebrities in attendance for the inauguration included Keeler, Bebe Daniels, Dick Powell, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, and Ginger Rogers.