Sunday, April 14, 2024

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street, released in 1933, is of course the great backstage musical. This was the first of the great Warner Brothers musicals. There had been musicals prior to this but there had been nothing like 42nd Street. Musicals had had a brief vogue early in the sound era but faded quickly. No-one had yet worked out exactly how to make film musicals.

42nd Street is a hardboiled musical. Yes, there’s plenty of emotion and quite a bit of corniness but it has that Warner Brothers hardboiled edge that prevents it from descending into syrupy sentimentality. The characters are outrageous and larger-than-life but we believe in them. We believe that they feel things. We believe in their heartbreaks and jealousies and insecurities. It’s like a delicious cocktail but with enough hard liquor in it to give it a real kick. 42nd Street is gritty reality and fantasy combined.

It was also the first musical to feature the genius of Busby Berkeley’s extraordinary big production numbers. Musicals wold never be the same again.

It’s also a pre-code musical which gives it an extra bite that would be sadly missing from musicals once the Production Code came into force.

Warner Brothers knew that they had a winner and three more great musicals followed in quick succession - Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames - but after that the Production Code exercised its dismal effect and the golden age of Warner Brothers musicals came to a close.

The plot has been recycled many times but in 1933 it was still fresh.

Genius producer Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is putting on a new Broadway musical comedy show, Pretty Lady. Despite his string of hits he’s broke (he lost everything in the Wall Street Crash) and his health is breaking down. Pretty Lady has to be a hit. He has established star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) as the headliner. Tycoon Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is putting up the money because Dorothy Brock is his mistress.

For young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) this is her first show. She’s only a chorus girl but it’s a start. She doesn’t know it yet but this show is going to make her a star, by pure accident.

The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes, a novel that was sleazy and scandalous. So sleazy and scandalous that Warner Brothers simply had to buy the rights.

This movie features a galaxy of acting talent all playing outrageous characters. There are just so many wonderful performances. There’s Una Merkel as cute but ditzy chorus girl Lorraine, there’s Ginger Rogers demonstrating her comic skills as the adorable Anytime Annie (the girl who never said no). Guy Kibbee gives one of his trademark performances as the ludicrous Abner Dillon. George Brent is solid as the man Dorothy really loves. Dick Powell is charming as the show’s juvenile lead.

Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh is like a force of nature. He’s hardbitten and cynical but while he’d hate to admit it he loves show business. It’s in his blood. Bebe Daniels is extremely good. Ruby Keeler is ridiculously adorable.

But the real star is Busby Berkeley. Lloyd Bacon is the director of the movie (and he does a fine job) but Berkeley directed the musical production numbers. What makes those numbers so great, and what makes this movie so great, is that these numbers are supposed to be taking place on a stage in a theatre but they’re pure cinema. They’re staged in such a way that they can only be appreciated when seen through the camera’s eye. Berkeley’s genius was that he understood that this is the way to do it. He understood that he was working in film, not on stage.

I love the final shot in this movie. It’s not what you expect in a musical but in this film it works.

42nd Street is a good example of the inherent aesthetic superiority of black-and-white. Shot in colour it would have looked tacky. Shot in black-and-white it looks all class and style. It’s also a movie that would never have worked in a widescreen format. If you have real talent you don’t need colour or widescreen.

42nd Street was not just the first great movie musical. It remains the greatest of all movie musicals. Very highly recommended.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray offers a lovely transfer and quite a few extras.


  1. Very entertaining movie. The story of the 1980 Broadway production, which paralleled in real life the events of the musical, is worth checking out.

    1. That's interesting, thanks for that. I'll read up on it.