Saturday, March 08, 2008

Tonight's Movie: 42nd Street (1933)

There isn't a lot to say that hasn't already been said about 42ND STREET, perhaps the most famous of the Warner Bros. Depression-era musicals. It's the quintessential backstage musical, complete with the ingenue who stars on opening night when the leading lady breaks her leg: "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

Ruby Keeler is the ingenue; she's never struck me as a particularly good dancer or singer, but with her big eyes and sweet disposition, she's endearing all the same. The ill-fated, glamorous leading lady is played by Bebe Daniels. The large cast also includes Warner Baxter as the driven director; George Brent as Daniels' ex-partner; and Dick Powell as "one of Broadway's better juveniles," with Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel as chorus girls and Guy Kibbee financing the show.

42ND STREET features production numbers by Busby Berkeley, who followed up on this film later in the year with GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and FOOTLIGHT PARADE. Although many critics consider 42ND STREET to be the best of the trio, I give the edge to FOOTLIGHT PARADE, which has a more dynamic lead actor (James Cagney), a zippier plot, and more impressive production numbers.

That said, 42ND STREET has some notable musical moments, including the silly but catchy "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" (I was a bit mystified why a singer other than Dick Powell was in this one); Powell's big song "Young and Healthy," featuring Berkeley's trademark kaleidoscopic designs; and the real dazzler, the title song, a perfect blend of music and staging.

As with FOOTLIGHT PARADE, most of the film's musical numbers are stacked at the end of the film; what comes before is a fairly serious film in which characters struggle with the Depression, illness, bankruptcy, failed careers, mob threats, and the like. Fortunately Ginger Rogers is around to spice things up a bit with some sarcastic humor.

As a side note, it's important for modern audiences to recognize that while the film may seem hokey at times, it pretty much invented everything we now see as a backstage musical cliche. It's been copied -- and satirized -- endlessly, but this is where it all began. It's a must-see for those who love musicals.

42ND STREET was directed by Lloyd Bacon. It runs 89 minutes.

42ND STREET is available on video, single-title DVD, or as part of the Busby Berkeley Collection DVD set.

It can also be seen on TCM, where it next airs on April 7, 2008.

The trailer is here.

April 2015 Update: 42ND STREET is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive.

May 2015 Update: Here is a review of the Blu-ray.

November 2015 Update: Here's a review of the stage production of 42ND STREET.

1 Comments:

Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

So many great lines. So little time.

5:37 AM  

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