42nd Street

  • Title: 42nd Street
  • Director: Lloyd Bacon
  • Choreographer: Busby Berkeley
  • Date: 1933
  • Studio: Warner Brothers / Vitaphone
  • Actors: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Warner Baxter
  • Genre: Musical
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format: Region 1, NTSC

You’re going out there a youngster – but you’re coming back a star.

The plot of 42nd Street, such as it is, is rather thin. A producer (Warner Baxter), somewhat recovered from a “nervous breakdown” has decided to bring his new show to Broadway – a comeback of sorts, he’s depending on the success of the show to restore his reputation after his breakdown, and to restore his bank account after the stock market crash (this is a Depression-era film). Meanwhile, because no one involved in the artistic side of the show has any money, they are depending on a used-car salesman from Cleveland to bankroll the show to the tune of $70, 000 (which sounds impressive now – must have been a fortune back in 1933). To keep the investor happy, they’ve set the star of the show, Dorothy, on the investor – keeping him happy and occupied. She, however, is secretly meeting up with an old boyfriend – a failed Vaudeville star that she’s been supporting. The first half of the film, predictably, follows the chorus as they get ready for the show – with occasional forays into what attempts to be a plot. Other characters include — Ginger Rogers as the sassy, knows everything, world-weary Ann (or “Anytime Annie” as the backstage boys call her), and Peggy (Ruby Keeler) – the new kid in her first role in a chorus.

As the rehearsals wrap up, the production company moves to Philadelphia for the out-of-town test run opening. There, during a pre-opening party, Dorothy gets drunk, throws out the “Angel”/used car salesman, and basically pitches a fit. In desperation, she calls up the old boyfriend, who she had previously dumped, causing him to move to, guess where? Yep – Philadelphia. He shows up, but so does Peggy – who had also been seeing him. The resulting catfight results in an unconvincing fall for Dorothy, and the stereotypical broken ankle. And thus, it’s Peggy who will take the stage for opening night. She and the producer literally cram all day to get her ready, but she does, predictably, take the stage by storm and become a star. Dorothy, meanwhile, is free to have the one thing she now knows she always wanted – to be with her old boyfriend.

So — why bother, you might ask? Well, the last half-hour of the film, the “show-within-a-show” that Warner Brothers excelled at for years, is a Bugsy Berkeley masterpiece. Featuring three production numbers: “Shuffle off to Buffalo”, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”, and “42nd Street” — it’s very fun to watch, and especially “42nd Street” shows a mastery of both black and white photography and Art Deco set design (and costume design). Back in the 30s — directors knew how to film in black and white, and sets and costumes were designed for it. Berkeley excelled at using the contrast of glossy jet black and crisp white to add to the image. He also filmed from a variety of angles, not just the “audience” pov at the stage but from directly above looking down at the dancers as they form patterns and even from stage level looking at the line of chorus girl legs. 42nd Street features a rotating stage with dancers in concentric rings (moving in opposite directions), a bi-level train that opens up, and even a model of (old) New York with taxis, fruit carts, a murder (guess New York hasn’t changed that much!) and even a police officer on horseback. The street scene, in fact, in the “42nd Street” number is chaotic and impressive, even though it (probably intentionally) looks like it’s on a stage.

The last half hour definitely makes the film worth seeing once, though I would admit — not the best of the 1930s black-and-white musicals I’ve seen. One major pity of this film is that Ginger Rogers is terribly under-used as Annie – a bit more than a cameo, but not by much. Though, I did have to smile at her criticism of marriage in the “Shuffle off to Buffalo” number. The film would have been much better if Rogers had played the part of Peggy and Keeler the part of Annie (even if both actresses had – had to change hair colors). I will say this, though, like most musicals, it’s still a fun escape. It’s only half in jest that one of my personal sayings is, “The best cure for depression is a box of really good gourmet chocolates and a black-and-white musical.)

Recommendation: See it only if interested in the history of the American musical.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Next Film: 9 to 5