Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
42ND STREET (1933)
Oh, goody, I was burnt out on the bland tone and lack of choreography in some more recent musical films; let’s head back to the good old days of mind-blowing Busby Berkeley numbers with 42nd Street. Before we get to the gigantic sets and the crazy dancin’, what’s the plot?
Aww, shit, I forgot… older musicals tend to not have any songs in them for, like, an hour.
Talk talk talk talk talk.
Going into 42nd Street, I sort of felt like I’d already seen it, thanks to The Broadway Melody and Gold Diggers of 1933. Let’s put on a show, money is tight because it’s the Thirties, showbiz is hard, romantic entanglements, rehearse rehearse rehearse…
Dance dance dance dance dance dance.
…and then the third act is the actual show, featuring some incredible song and dance sequences (which we’ll discuss in their own section).
Now, it’s a fine story with plenty of intriguing plots to juggle, but it left me itching to see those big numbers, so I lost interest a few times on the way there. Now, 42nd Street predates Gold Diggers of 1933 but comes after The Broadway Melody, and for all three sharing a fairly similar structure, each of their lead-ups to the finale has a different tone. If you want romantic melodrama, go with The Broadway Melody. If you want comedic mishaps, put on Gold Diggers on 1933. And if you want the turmoil of showbiz, 42nd Street has got you covered.
Warner Baxter is fantastic as the director Julian Marsh. His doctor has informed him that the stress of showbiz is killing him and he’s got to retire, but because of that pesky economy he’s got no money left, so this show has to be a hit at all costs. Baxter’s performance is dripping with desperation and anguish and he gives J.K. Simmons in Whiplash a run for his money as he pushes the limits of his dancers.
Facepalm: Classic Edition.
I’ll be honest, Baxter’s intensity stole the show so much that I didn’t pay much attention to the other actors. Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers are a lot of fun in smaller roles as experienced dancers pretending to be rich and snooty.
Ridiculous small dog included.
Dick Powell is enjoyable as always. This time he’s Billy Lawler, the lead in the show, and he’s his usual adorable self.
Ruby Keeler is great as the newcomer Peggy Sawyer. Her sweetness makes you cringe in anticipation of her eventual squeezing through the showbiz ringer.
Aww, they are just gonna break you down!
And there are several other fine actors as well!
As with other musicals leading up to opening night, we get little practice snippets of the music, lyrics, and dances that will be part of the finale. Um, with the exception of “It Must Be June,” which we only see a bare-bones rehearsal of without ever witnessing the polished version in the show’s debut. Huh. The choreography’s shaky, the singing is flat, and characters are talking over it, but there it is.
Interesting choice, movie.
Actually, the next tune is technically also a rehearsal number, but it’s far more ready to hit the stage. Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) sings “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” and while the lyrics suggest the singer is gonna have to face it that they’re addicted to the love of one person, the accompanying dance involves four gentlemen passing her around and even sandwiching her in the middle of a soft shoe man pile. This ties in with her character arc, since *gasp* she is fooling around with two men!
Not being shocked by this sort of thing wasn’t invented until the ’60s.
There’s a cute little ditty called “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” that takes place between newlyweds on the back of a train AND THEN THIS HAPPENS:
“Is this a hold-up?” “It’s a musical number!”
And then they dance up and down the inside of the caboose and it is just the best and that is not even all the Busby Berkeley magic in this movie by a long shot. Next we get a song called “Young and Healthy” which I’m pretty sure is about being prime physical specimens suitable for fucking, but the gorgeous choreography that goes with it is entirely for leg fetishists:
Legs legs legs!
And lastly, there’s the titular “42nd Street,” which is catchy as hell and tries its damnedest to capture the feeling of being in New York City. There’s a gigantic set with lights and signs and windows and brick walls and crowds of people and yeah, it ends with dancing skyscrapers.
Seriously. Each one is a dancer.
No GIF for you. You’ve gotta see it for yourself.
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
“Young and Healthy” is kind of a weird tune, but for the most part, it’s just a celebration of being spry and limber and strong enough to bone. It’s a fine song in its own Pre-Code erotic-yet-not-raunchy way, but there’s one line that repeats over and over that’s either an easy rhyme or a forced metaphor for libido or maybe just straight-up semen…
“If I could hate you, honey, I’d keep away,
But that ain’t my nature, I’m full of Vitamin A…”
42nd Street is an amazing film. My grumpiness over the wait time for the musical numbers doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a solid story with wonderful performances and mesmerizing choreography. It’s just that when you know Busby Berkeley is the one making dessert, you want dessert right now.