Warner Baxter did not receive an Oscar nomination Julian Marsh in 42nd Street.
Warner Baxter plays one of the most important roles for a back stage musical which is the driven director. Julian Marsh is especially driven since he is financially strapped and even his health is in question so the musical must be a success. An argument can be easily made that 42nd Street is an ensemble and Baxter therefore is supporting. I personally put Baxter lead because the central drive of the story is to put on the show as a success, and Marsh is driving force behind that. His screen time is somewhat limited though, but the film is constantly coming back to Marsh over every other character to basically progress the story. We go from every part of the musical production with Marsh from the casting of the parts, to the rehearsals, to the catastrophe of an important cast member industry, and most importantly the opening night.
Marsh is played by certainly one of the lesser known Best Actor Oscar winners, Warner Baxter. Like in his Oscar winning for In Old Arizona, Baxter, unlike Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, shows he obviously understands film. Baxter's performance here is always knowledgeable about the camera knowing when to simply let the camera read certain emotions, and knowing when to go a little bigger when necessary. For most of the film Baxter is regulated to a somewhat simple role as Marsh basically just keeps telling the cast and crew that they are terrible but getting marginally better each time. Although it's technically somewhat repetitive in nature Baxter's really does handle the role well. He has some excellent command and you really see the drive in his eyes with every order he gives. Baxter makes it obvious that there is never any doubt who is in charge, and he makes you remember Marsh even when he absent for some stretches of the film.
Baxter really gets his chance to shine though when he has to quickly get wannabe star Ann (Ginger Rogers) into shape for the opening night after the injury of the original star. Baxter is great in these scenes delivery so much energy in his performance and actually making it convincing that Marsh would be able to push into to shape so quickly. One of my favorite moments is when he has her try out her acting chops which do not meet his approval. Baxter is great as he quickly shifts gears and performs as Marsh performs the scene himself to show her how its done. It's great just to watch Baxter perform in these scenes and I only wish there had been more of them since Baxter makes them the highlight of the film for me. These films from the 30's are pretty short though so the tutelage does not last long and before you know it is the opening night. Baxter only can come quickly in and out of scenes for a moment as the film goes from one musical number to another.
The nature of the last section leaves Baxter limited but he still makes his mark in every moment through his passionate portrayal of Marsh's method to push Ann to her limits. Baxter throws himself into every moment and he certainly makes the line "Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" a classic since he not only convinces you of the inspiration but also suggests the desperation as shows in his eyes that Marsh does need the show to succeed. One of my favorite moments in Baxter's performance the last scene in the film as Marsh here's all the praise go to Ann and many of the patrons asserting that Marsh will taking all the credit without earning it. Baxter's subtle reaction is perfect in showing Marsh's exasperation at such a result but also his resignation like he just knew that it would happen. This is very good performance by Warner Baxter in which he basically asserts himself as the lead. My only major complaint is that the film just should have given him more to do throughout rather confining all of his best moments to the final minutes of the film.