Producer: Busby Berkeley
Starring: Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel, Dick Powell, Bebe Daniels, Warner Baxter
I’m going to admit something right now that is going to make me incredibly unpopular in film blogger circles. I love musicals. I do, god help me. I was raised on them; they are the cinema of my childhood. A weekend afternoon wasn’t complete without Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire singing and dancing. They remain my ultimate cinematic feel-good flicks.
Having said all of that, though, I will now say that despite my adoration, all musicals are not created equal. I can’t get enough of the Golden Age MGM musicals, with all their Technicolor glory and extended fantasy ballet sequences, but give me Rodgers and Hammerstein and I will leave the room. Early Hollywood musicals, which started as soon as sound in film began, were one of two varieties. There were the “Let’s put on a show!” musicals, the type to which 42nd Street belongs, where all the musical numbers take place in the context of a stage act and have precious little to do with what is going on in the film. Because this is what Busby Berkeley liked to do, these types of musicals also typically involved a ridiculously stagey and showy final dance number. The other variety of musical is the type where the musical numbers further the plot; or at very least, deal with the plot. You know the kind, where the hero sings about how much he loves the heroine right after meeting her. A theater needn’t be a part of the plot of these musicals; they can be about anything, and the song and dance numbers fit in with the overall emotional arc of the film. Think René Clair’s 1931 duology of Le Million and À Nous la Liberté.
Guess what: I love the latter type of musical, and am really not a fan of the former.
In case you forgot, 42nd Street is the former.
Perhaps the greatest showbiz myth ever, the plot of 42nd Street centers on Peggy Sawyer (Keeler), a newbie trying to make her way on Broadway. She shows up for an audition for Julian Marsh’s latest musical (Baxter), and a great deal of luck lands her in the chorus to Dorothy Brock’s (Daniels) lead. Rehearsals are tough and Sawyer passes out right into the loving arms of the singularly uninteresting Billy Lawler (Powell). A lot of random guff happens, people get drunk and fight, Siobhan stops paying attention to plot, then Dorothy breaks her leg and Peggy has to take over as lead at the very last minute. Like I said, greatest showbiz myth: chorus girl plucked from the back line to become the new star.
42nd Street is brief in its approximate 90 minute running time, but it drags on and on and on. And on. And then on some more. For a musical, there is almost no music in the first hour. The musical numbers for which it is remembered are all in the last twenty minutes of the film; up to that point, there are only so many times I can hear the strains of “Getting to Be a Habit With Me” before I want to punch someone. The final three musical numbers all come back to back to back, and they’re, frankly, a breath of fresh air in the otherwise dull film. I just wish they weren’t all saved until the end. It’s the classic “too little, too late” problem.
|As pretty as this shot is, no musical talent was required to produce it.|
|Best part of the movie, right here.|
In short, the stage musical is everything that the film version is not.
Give me the stage musical of 42nd Street any day over Berkeley’s nonsense.
Arbitrary Rating: 4/10. AND I LOVE MUSICALS. If I were trying to turn someone onto the genre, this would be the last one I would show them.