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42nd Street (1933)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1999

If Pretty Lady was a stage show, I'd pay good money to go and see it, maybe several times. It's got everything that you could ever ask for -- human drama, explosive musical numbers, sets both technically astonishing and pleasing to the eye, all coupled to a story with the pulling power of a locomotive. The film, built around the show, drives ever upward in a parallel to the production's evolution. Ramshackle, fluffed line rehearsals give way to tight, convincing formations. Yet, in the best tradition of the business, it all falls into place when the curtain rises for the first time. In the spotlight's glare the audience witnesses only professionalism.

This is in some contrast to the backstage antics that form a large part of 42nd Street. When prima donna's, hoodwinked financiers, driven artists and hormone-charged youngsters rub shoulders, there's bound to be friction. Rian James' screenplay, based on Bradford Ropes' novel, takes advantage of the situation, warranting dialogue studded with bitchy comments, sharp lines and desperate speeches. This to-and-fro is delightful, intimate and personal in a way that seems to come naturally to show-business folk. By leading us behind the scenes in this way, from the moment of the show's birth, 42nd Street demonstrates how ideas and talent can merge to produce a thing of beauty. While the cast members are frustratingly incompetent, in just five weeks they ascend to breathtaking assurance.

Because of this, the film is extremely cast-driven. Sure, there are external forces at play, but it's the characters that matter; their relationships, reactions and triumphs make us attentive. Warner Baxter, as famed director Julian Marsh, pours his heart and soul into making this his best and most successful musical ever. The rest of his life depends on Pretty Lady, forcing Baxter to plumb the depths of dependence with a palpable passion. Unfortunately Marsh's broken health creates a reliance upon others, most critically stage director Andy Lee (George E. Stone) and star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Driven hard by Marsh, their personal lives are placed in jeopardy by the insistent demands of this job. In time ripples spread wider, containing and changing people as different as chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) and transport-magnate Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee).

Of course any discussion of 42nd Street could hardly be complete without considering the song and dance numbers, bread and butter to the show. Once heard, the tunes penned by Harry Warren become unforgettable, their rhythms and rhymes etched into memory. Classics of the form Shuffle Off to Buffalo and You're Getting to be a Habit With Me really get one's feet tapping and body moving, they're just superb. Yet, if possible, Busby Berkeley's choreography and production design overshadows even Warren's invaluable contribution. The synchronised steps are electrifying, delicate and captivating, all pointing back to Berkeley's pinpoint accuracy. He really pulls out every stop here, guiding photographer Sol Polito into the middle of his organised mayhem, placing us in a unique vantage point amongst the guys and gals of the line. It's near impossible to over-praise Berkeley's work on 42nd Street.

In many ways director Lloyd Bacon is giving us two events rolled up into one, doubling our entertainment value. Most obviously there's the film about Pretty Lady, a touching and hilarious jaunt into the topsy-turvy land of Broadway. Set against the Depression, there's added bite in knowing that everyone on the payroll is working to survive; with these themes bonded together 42nd Street becomes more like a family album of outrageous relatives than an act of fiction. Yet this is exactly where we're awarded our second string, in the stage show itself. Not content with tracing a path through people's efforts to learn their lines, Bacon presents us with several entire musical numbers. Channelled through agile and nervous foot soldiers, these scenes climax an already stunning production.

This is inspired direction, taking the best cuts from stage and screen, then cooking them up together. It's all here, fresh and exciting in a fashion that few films achieve. The chorus line helps, stuffed like a Christmas turkey with long legs and hysterical smiles, as does the presence of enough lascivious men to satisfy a brothel. Their banter is base and crude, slang real enough to make 42nd Street a masterpiece of pure hard-pressed theatre. Yet when you depart the cinema, it's Berkeley's routines and Warren's songs that stick in the short-term memory; the former's grasp of patterns and spatial dynamics is incredible, while the latter shapes lyrics of rare beauty. 42nd Street is a still marvellous film, entertaining decades after the culture that gave its genes to the film has faded.


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