Saturday, February 9, 2013

42nd Street (1933)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                 Writers: Rian James & James Seymour
Film Score: Harry Warren                            Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell

It’s easy to see the appeal of 42nd Street, even from today’s vantage point: the Great Depression was so grim it could suck the joy out of putting on a Broadway musical. Today the film is mostly known for being the breakout film for choreographer Busby Berkeley who, after staging individual dance scenes in several earlier films, began a series of musicals for Warner Brothers that made him an overnight celebrity. His work uses all of the techniques of cinema to create dance numbers that could never be duplicated in the same way and with the same effect on the stage. And because of the often minimal, or pedestrian nature of the story lines, he is the real reason for the lasting impact of these films. 42nd Street was good enough to earn an Oscar nomination, but lost out to Cavalcade.

Warner Baxter is a big-time Broadway director who has lost it all in the stock market crash. He’s desperate for a hit and that desperation, mirroring many of those in the audience, is palpable throughout the film. It’s what set’s 42nd Street apart from the dozens of similar vehicles at the time. Silent star Bebe Daniels is the big name who has been lured into headlining the production. Ruby Keeler, a curiously awkward dancer, plays the small town unknown who saves the show. Guy Kibbee is the moneyman behind the show, financing the production to gain the affection of Daniels. Dick Powell is the male lead of the show, and Ginger Rogers is the experienced chorus dancer who finally gets Keeler in front of Baxter. This was Powell’s first big film after being in Hollywood for less than a year. It was also Keeler’s first film ever as well as being one of Daniels’ last.

One of the first thing one notices is the fluid camerawork by Sol Polito, nice tracking shots down the theater and across the stage. And, of course, during the musical numbers. Unfortunately, most of the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin are rather forgettable, unlike the dozens of songs that would become standards from the RKO musicals of the same period. “You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me,” is the only enduring number from the film. Berkeley’s numbers don’t appear until the last twenty minutes of the show, but only the last two are really memorable, “Young and Healthy” which is still a bit stage-bound and the completely cinematic finale “42nd Street.”

Emanuel Levy’s A List review does a nice job of filling in the background history of the picture, the director, the stars, and Berkeley. He admits that the film has definite flaws, and that it certainly isn’t an integrated musical as those films would come to be defined in the forties and fifties. But there are a few quibbles. He calls Warren and Dubin’s score “glorious,” which I would argue against. He also never really hits upon the main strength of the film, the Depression era ethos, until the final couple of paragraphs, but in the end Levy’s analysis is fairly accurate and definitely informative. Though it certainly doesn’t hold up to some of the classic RKO musicals of the time, 42nd Street is one of the best Warner Brothers’ entries, and a great representative backstage story of the 1930s.

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