“You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”
Hollywood has made scores of backstage musicals over the years, some of them like “Cabaret” and “Chorus Line” more meaningful and more revealing than others, but none of them has ever been more fun, more tuneful, or more entertaining this 1933 Warner Bros. release, “42nd Street.” It’s the film that practically invented every backstage musical cliché we know today, and it remains a remarkable achievement for a film over seven decades old.
First, let me assure you that practically nothing in the film seems dated; with the exception of the standard-screen black-and-white print and the monaural sound, it merely looks like a good period piece that might have been made yesterday. I suppose those exceptions sound like a bit much, but you forget about such trivialities while watching the movie.
“42nd Street” is filled with great songs, great singing, great stars, and the great dance routines of legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. I mean, what more could you want? Well, you could want a story you haven’t heard before; but this is the story that started them all, so what could be better than the one that every backstage musical has copied ever since?
Ruby Keeler stars as Peggy Sawyer, a sweet, naive youngster who’s just been hired by New York’s 42nd Street Theater as a chorus girl in her first big musical show. She’s wide-eyed and ready to hit the big time. Warner Baxter plays the show’s hard-driven, overworked boss, Julian Marsh, described as “the greatest musical-comedy director in America today.” Bebe Daniels plays his leading lady, Dorothy Brock, Broadway’s biggest attraction, who’s got a rich sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), financing the show for her. Then, there’s George Brent as Pat Denning, Dorothy’s old dance partner and part-time boyfriend, which sets up a romantic intrigue with Dorothy and the old man; and Dick Powell as Billy Lawler, the show’s juvenile lead.
Add to these names the additionally well-known or soon-to-be-well-known names of Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel, and Ruth Eddings as chorus girls, plus character actors George E. Stone and Allen Jenkins, and you get quite an impressive cast of which even Damon Runyan would be proud.
The story line is pretty obvious, but it isn’t the story that counts. Marsh is a slave driver; Billy and Peggy have eyes for one another; and on the day before the show opens, the star can’t go on, meaning guess who is called upon to save the day?
Look for Berkeley’s signature overhead kaleidoscope dance numbers. Look for teasing sexual innuendos that seem pretty strong for the era. Look for a love triangle that is really a love quadrangle. Look for a title introduction of the film’s primary actors in shots from the movie, making our recognition of the characters all that much easier. And look for hats. Everybody, men and women, wear hats in the story, inside buildings and out. Another day, another age.
Look for the lickety-split direction of old hand Lloyd Bacon, who also did “Honky Tonk,” “Footlight Parade,” “Knute Rockne All American,” “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now,” “Brother Orchid,” “The Fighting Sullivans,” and “Give My Regards To Broadway,” among many, many more.
Most important, look for the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, which don’t actually get underway until well over halfway through the picture. But when the songs start, you’ll recognize them, no matter how old you are: “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me,” “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” (with its line about panties and scanties), “Young and Healthy,” and the title song, “42nd Street,” which lasts a good ten minutes or more.
“42nd Street” has wit, charm, humor, sarcasm, backbiting, sorrow, heartache, and inspiration mixed in with a fine cast, good songs, and inventive dance routines. Yet the movie is relatively brief and to the point. Modern directors could take a lesson.
The WB video engineers transferred the picture from the original camera negative, and the result shows little sign of age. There is some minor grain, of course, expected from so old a film, but it never interferes with one’s enjoyment of the movie. Otherwise, it is a clean print, with very few flecks or specks and no scratches or lines. The black-and-white contrasts show up well, with very deep blacks and very bright whites, although overall object delineation seems only about average.
The disc case says the soundtrack is in stereo, but it is, in fact, in 1.0 mono. With Dolby Digital processing of the original optical audio track, the monaural comes through splendidly, smooth and mellow, with hardly any background noise. Just don’t figure on much in the way of frequency response, dynamics, or anything but center-speaker sonics.
There is a decent selection of vintage materials accompanying the disc that should prove almost as much fun as the movie itself. To begin, there are three featurettes: “Harry Warren: America’s Foremost Composer” from 1933 is a delightful, nine-minute tribute to the famous tunesmith; “Hollywood Newsreel” from 1933 is an eight-minute look at the stars of the day; and “A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio” from 1934 is a ten-minute peek behind the scenes at Warner Bros. First National Studios.
The extras also include a brief note on the Broadway revival of “42nd Street”; twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; a theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The Busby Berkeley Collection:
“42nd Street” is available separately or in a box set of five Busby Berkeley movies: “42nd Street” (1933), “Footlight Parade” (1933), “Gold Diggers of 1933” (1933), “Dames” (1934), and “Gold Diggers of 1935” (1935). Unfortunately, just “42nd Street” is available separately; you can only get the other movies as a part of the big box-set package. However, as compensation, the box also comes with a sixth DVD, “The Busby Berkeley Disc,” which includes twenty-one musical selections from Busby Berkeley films, 163 minutes in all. Dating from 1933 to 1937, they are basically his most-famous musical numbers, and there are no distracting characters or story lines to get in the way of the singing and dancing.
The show must go on. “42nd Street” is just swell.