"42nd Street" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
As I have explained before, what makes a great musical is a great musical score. A musical should be a celebration of song and dance. All I feel a musical needs is a decent enough storyline built around some great songs. The better the songs the more I'll enjoy the movie. The real star of "42nd Street" (1933) is the score by Harry Warren an Al Dublin.
On the surface "42nd Street" will probably seem pretty cliche to today's movie audience. It will have a "been there done that" ring to it. And even by 1933 standards I'm willing to bet none of this was really that new and fresh. It is suppose to be a gritty back-stage look at what goes on leading up to a Broadway show. All the hard work the actors go through in learning the songs and dance routines and all the personal drama going on in their lives. But that personal drama doesn't mean a thing once that curtain goes up and the show begins.
The film follows Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) seen as one of the great directors of musical comedy. He has fallen on hard financial times due to the Depression. He needs his latest show "Pretty Lady" to be a smash. Julian is having some health problems, so it is likely this will be his last show. His doctor advises him against directing because of all the stress involved but it is a gamble he must take. He wants to retire from the business.
The star of the play is going to be Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Her sugar-daddy, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is going to produce the show. But what Abner doesn't realize is Dorothy has a lover whom she sees on the side, a washed-up actor, Pat Denning (George Brent). The two used to be a team on Broadway, their act broke up when Dorothy went on to greater fame. She has a soft spot for Pat, because without him, she feels, she never would have made it. But Julian is afraid once Abner finds out about Pat he will pull his money out of the show. Something will have to be done about Pat.
In another movie that would probably be enough plot to hold a movie together. Not here. The other performers in the play also have background stories. We have Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler, in her feature film debut), a young wanna-be dancer. She is trying out for the chorus but manages to catch the eye of the leading man, Billy Lawyer (Dick Powell). Other chorus girls include "Anytime" Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel).
Old timers, like myself, will recognize all these people. The film has an amazing all-star cast and manages to give everyone an opportunity to appear on-screen and do their stuff. Ever character has a story and is essential to the plot. It is a pretty difficult task to juggle but the film pulls it off. Though I do question some storylines. The one I have the biggest objection to is Julian Marsh's storyline. Why mention the fact he is dying? Nothing is really mad of it. My guess is the writers felt this added some human drama, but, did they have to go to such extreme and include death? What about saying he is washed up and desperately needed money to retire. He had lots of debt. What's wrong with that idea?
The soundtrack includes songs like "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me", sung by Bebe Daniels, "42nd Street" sung and dance by Keeler in an amazing finale. Here I think Keeler shows us some of her best steps. The ending was the product of Busby Berkeley and it is in itself a mini movie. Viewers should be impressed. There is also the very suggestive "Shuffle Off to Buffalo", a song about a couple's honeymoon and what they expect on the big night. And Dick Powell gives us a rousing rendition of "Young & Healthy".
The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon who was behind a few other memorable musicals. He directed "Footlight Parade" (1933) and the Al Jolson vehicle "Wonder Bar" (1934). He also did "Knute Rockne All American" (1940) a film for some reason people think of as a Ronald Reagan picture. He actually has a small role. It is Pat O' Brien's film all the way. And he also directed the comedy/mystery Erroll Flynn movie "Footsteps in the Dark" (1941).
Of all the actors Baxter and Daniel's had been around the longest at that point. Baxter had been in movies since 1914. Though personally I am not familar with much of his work. Daniels on the other hand I've seen in more movies. She appeared in a lot of two-reelers with Harold Lloyd. She was also in two Wheeler & Woolsey comedies (actually she gets top billing) "Rio Rita" (1929) and "Dixiana" (1930). She was said to have a good singing voice and was considered to be a beauty.
George Brent did a lot of movies with Bette Davis; "The Great Lie" (1941), "Jezebel" (1938) and "In This Our Life" (1942) and a movie I like very much "Tomorrow Is Forever" (1946). He was a leading man type but did have the macho appeal of a Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.
The film also started the wonderful collaboration with Powell and Keeler. Together they would appear in "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) which would also bring back various other cast members and "Colleen" (1936) along with "Dames" (1934). I would recommend seeing all of those movies. Each is charming and delightful. I should review every single one of them. But we'll see. Unfortunately Powell would stop appearing in musicals in the 1940s. He did some comedies like the Rene Clair's "It Happened Tomorrow" (1944) which I have reviewed, and "Murder, My Sweet" (1944) plus the Preston Sturges' comedy "Christmas in July" (1940).
These kind of stories usually require a little comedy and for that we have Guy Kibbee and Una Merkel. Kibbee was a Warner Brothers regular. Usually playing well to do older gentlemen who would become suggar-daddy types. His role here is that much different from his role in "The Gold Diggers of 1933". He was also in a Joe E. Brown comedy "Earthworm Tractors" (1936) a decent comedy effort. Merkel on the other hand usally played smart smart, wise-cracking gals. She was in the W.C. Fields comedy "It's A Gift" (1934) and did some work with Harold Lloyd. She gets in a few good shots here too. Pay attention to her dialogue.
"42nd Street" is a real treat to watch. Other than the Julian Marsh sub-plot I can't think of anything wrong with the film. It does so much right. And as I said the songs are show-stoppers. The film was actually turned in a Broadway musical. A few years ago I saw a revival on Broadway. I didn't like it as much as I did the movie, mostly because they change a lot of the story and added some new songs, like "Lullaby of Broadway", which originally appeared in "The Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935). Still the story has an almost timeless appeal about the up and comer becoming a star. On Broadway everyone has a shot at being a star.
For the amazing musical charm, endless charm of the actors, and sheer delight the film is able to spin "42nd Street" is one of the masterpiece of cinema.