42nd Street invented or perfected all the clichés of the backstage musical.
42nd StreetDirector: Lloyd Bacon
Cast: Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler
Distributor: Warner Archive
US DVD release date: 2015-04-21
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.
There's the innocent debutante (Ruby Keeler), a hoofer in the chorus who's encouraged by the young singer (Dick Powell) until, in the most inevitable yet incredible (ankle) twist, the sweet young lass becomes a last-minute replacement for the diva (because there's no understudy?) and has to save opening night and "come back a star".
Two prominent jaded chorines are Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers, the latter especially funny and eye-catching in her every scene. Also on hand in character roles are Allen Jenkins, Ned Sparks, George E. Stone, Charles Lane, and Louise Beavers.
The real star isn't any of these, but rather Busby Berkeley, given carte blanche to stage the dances after producer Darryl Zanuck saw his work on Whoopee, and he modulates his effects carefully. A rehearsal of the simple, small-scale "You're Getting To Be a Habit With Me" doesn't prepare us for the train set of "Shuffle Off to Buffalo", the iconic unleashing of legs for "Young and Healthy", or the dizzying finale of seemingly a whole city dancing to "42nd Street". Of course, it helps that these songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin already bring the pizzazz.
A real cinematic visionary, Berkeley flexes his muscles, and those on dozens of chorines' gams, with conceptions in composition and editing that would make little or no sense in a Broadway theatre but dazzled everyone at the movie house. The overhead geometries and traveling shots through a triangular tunnel of legs are only a warm-up to the title number, with its sweeping panorama of individually conceived citizens strutting and trucking on down, its journey in and out of apartment windows, its shorthand melodramas, and its culmination in a living cityscape and vanishing-perspective skyscraper.
Jaws were dropped, and Berkeley was just warming up. His Gold Diggers series and Footlight Parade are even more astounding. The studio knew it had something big, and advertised the movie as "A New Deal in Entertainment", timed with Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential inauguration. This is discussed in the newsreel extras and making-of section. The bonuses, including a couple of black-and-white Harman-Ising Merrie Melodies in the rubbery fake-Disney manner (complete with celebrity impressions and racial gags), are preserved from the previous DVD release for this Blu-ray mastering, where the main feature looks and sounds as crisp and clean as it deserves. This picture is still young and healthy after all these years.