In 1933, Warner Brothers released a musical film called 42nd Street. The film has been called a “backstage musical” as it focuses on a group of dancers and actors who were putting on a musical production, and it highlights the competition between the actors and a love story at the same time that it showcases their singing and dancing.
In October of 1933, people in Bangkok were able to watch this movie at the Sala Chalermkrung, a recently-opened movie theater.
The film was advertised as a love story of the world of dancers that is filled with beauty and dazzling songs.
The names of the main actors and actresses were also all transliterated into Thai: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell and Ginger Rodgers.
The names of the songs in the movie, on the other hand, were left in English, but a comment was added in Thai that “Once you’ve heard these songs, you won’t listen to any others.”
In looking at some of the musical pieces from this movie, it’s fascinating to think about what Thai viewers might have thought about movies like this.
The song “Young and Healthy,” for instance, contains a seen where a man and woman kiss while women dance in a circle around them. At the time in Thailand (and still today), such public displays of affection were not common at all.
That said, it’s also not clear to me what Thai viewers actually saw. It looks like 42nd Street showed in Singapore shortly before Bangkok. And if the version that showed in Bangkok was the same as the one that had been shown in Singapore, then what Thai viewers saw was a censored version of the film.
In colonial Singapore, the police were tasked with censoring films. In reading a recent article about this, I found that anything to do with white women who were either nude or “indecently” dressed was censored. In other words, there was a limit to how much of a white women the colonized were allowed to see.
It’s not surprising then to find that in an article in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (12 August 1933, pg. 4) that informed readers that 42nd Street was soon to be shown Singapore, the writer stated that,
“Of course, the picture has been cut. Leg shows have not been banned, nor anything that is directly part of the revue proper, but some of the little scenes which show the ladies having their ‘curves’ surveyed for the purpose of picking a perfectly balanced chorus, are denied us.”
So while viewers in Singapore and Thailand may not have seen the “curves” of the actresses in 42nd Street and in other Hollywood films in the 1930s, they did see their hair, and they did attempt to copy their hairstyles.
We can see this from the advertisement above, from March 1933, which is for a curling iron that would enable one to make one’s hair look like the hair of movie stars.
Hollywood’s influence on the world is something that people take for granted, and there is no question but that Hollywood films have been incredibly influential. Nonetheless, these details from the 1930s are fascinating in the ways that they demonstrate how local interests sought to “control” the films at the same time that I’m sure that local businessmen sought to capitalize on them.
[The Thai-language advertisements are from the Krungthep Warasap กรุงเทพวารศัพท์.]