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42nd Street
USA 1933
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Running time 89 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


It was The Great Depression that gave us the film musical as we know it today and largely thanks to Darryl F. Zanuck, executive production head at Warners. 42nd Street was his maiden voyage with Busby Berkeley as his 1st mate. Audiences had been bombarded with musical film in the early years of the sound era but in a form that largely preserved traditional stage presentation. Mervyn LeRoy had originally been assigned director but he fell ill and the job was given to Lloyd Bacon, a Warner’s studio director. It was however Berkeley who directed the dance sequences which are the film’s greatest strengths. What was new about 42nd Street was that Berkeley made full use of the camera to take audiences to places where they had never been before.

The storyline follows the already well-established “putting-on-a-show” format with Warner Baxter, a popular leading man of the silent era, as a Broadway director financially ruined by the Wall Street Crash of '29 and attempting to put on one final knock-‘em-dead production to recoup his losses (the character was based on Julien Mitchell, a well-known director for Florenz Ziegfield). Things go awry when his leading lady, played by Bebe Daniels, another silent era star, injures her ankle 24 hours before opening and chorus girl, Ruby Keeler (then married to Al Jolson), has to take her place. The outcome, of course, is never in doubt and the pay-off is that we get 3 fabulous Berkeley interpretations of songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin to finish the film: Shuffle Off To Buffalo, Young and Healthy, sung by popular crooner, Dick Powell and featuring one of Berkeley’s famous “top” shots and, of course, the title song that performed to a complicated tableau of the famous street’s “gaudy, bawdy” life. Aside from this, the pre-Hays Office script is a good deal more than throwaway, giving us a pretty credible representation of back-stage life where sexual favours are often a girl's best meal ticket. To this point Ginger Rogers, not yet teamed with Astaire, and already a veteran bit player, has a minor role as a chorus girl who has no qualms in selling her charms.

 

 

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