42nd Street can still surprise first-time viewers who tend to think of musicals as feather-light contraptions interrupted by elaborate numbers. Most of them are, including the run of Warner Brothers ‘30s musicals that this one high-kicked off. But 42nd Street acts as a serious or least straight-faced drama for its first 75 minutes, albeit with saucy little pre-Code one-liners here and there with sexual implications. It’s put across with director Lloyd Bacon‘s workhorse combo of smoothness and punch, saving the eye-popping production numbers for the last reel.
There’s the slave-driving director (Warner Baxter) who wants to pull of the greatest show of his career before a possible heart attack; his method consists entirely of screaming at people. There’s the surprisingly human diva (Bebe Daniels) who stars in the show, thanks to the deep pockets of her besotted backer (Guy Kibbee), while she’s secretly in love with an old vaudeville partner (George Brent), who chafes at hiding and being a kept man. He says there’s a word for it, and it isn’t a nice word.