42nd Street (VHS, 2000, Classic Musicals Collection)

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42nd Street (1933)

Dec 9, 1999 (Updated Dec 22, 1999)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:choreography, direction, cinematography

Cons:script, characters

Musicals were the first genre to take full advantage of the sound era. In fact, "The Jazz Singer" from 1927, the film that established the talkie, is a musical. In the early 1930s, musicals had lost their novelty and were on the wane.

In 1933, however, the Warner Brothers studio revitalized the musical with three highly successful films: "42nd Street", "Footlight Parade", and "Gold Diggers of 1933". These films had in common the actors Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Guy Kibbee. But more important was the role of choreographer Busby Berkeley, who staged the showy, inventive musical numbers.

But it has to be kept in mind that the elaborate productions only take up at most 15% of the film. As is the case for a drama, the strength of a musical still rests largely on the quality of the script.

The good news is that the script for "42nd Street" has some witty lines, especially the catty remarks made by the showgirls. And unlike many musicals, a solid story is present. Lecherous, comic relief Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is funding a new Broadway musical, "Pretty Lady". The star is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), who not coincidentally is the escort of sugar daddy Dillon. Veteran Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is enlisted, despite chronic health problems and a reputation for depression and tyranny. Jaded showgirls Lorraine (Una Merkel) and Annie (Ginger Rogers) are cast for the show, as well as naive young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler).

Romantic entanglements are complex. Daniels tries to keep clumsy Abner at a distance, favoring her longtime lover Pat Denning (George Brent). Denning, however, begins dating Peggy, who is worshiped by 'juvenile' Billy Lawler (Dick Powell, then in his late 20s). Adding to the drama is Dorothy's ankle injury the night before the show opens: can the show be saved by plucky newcomer Peggy? (Answer: How else can the entertaining stage productions be worked into the story?)

I have to admit that "42nd Street" is a pleasant way to spend 100 minutes. There's humor, dancing, drama and pretty faces. But it doesn't impress me nearly as much as another 'backstage' film from 1933: "Morning Glory", for which Katherine Hepburn won her first Oscar for Best Actress.

One problem may be the story's predictability: the romances between Keeler and Powell, and Daniels and Brent end as expected. There's little suspense in which showgirl will rescue the production. Baxter's angst, Keeler's innocence, and the eternally chivalric Powell and Brent don't quite ring true. The script may have some clever lines, but there's also some melodrama, especially with Baxter, and between Daniels and Brent. However, my opinion is in the minority. "42nd Street" is universally considered to be a classic musical.

"42nd Street" received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound Recording. (55/100)


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