42nd Street - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1933

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Production: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 85 minutes, some sources list 89 minutes. Released 4 March 1933 (premiere). Filmed in Warner Bros. studios in Hollywood, cost: budgeted at £400,000.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis; screenplay: James Seymour and Rian James, from the novel by Bradford Ropes; photography: Sol Polito; editor: Thomas Pratt; art director: Jack Okey; music numbers: Al Dubin and Harry Warren; costume designer: Orry Kelly; choreography: Busby Berkeley.

Cast: Warner Baxter ( Julian Marsh ); Bebe Daniels ( Dorothy Brock ); George Brent ( Pat Denning ); Una Merkel ( Lorraine Fleming ); Ruby Keeler ( Peggy Sawyer ); Guy Kibbee ( Abner Dillon ); Ned Sparks ( Barry ); Dick Powell ( Billy Lawler ); Ginger Rogers ( Anytime Annie ); George E. Stone ( Andy Lee ); Eddie Nugent ( Terry ); Allen Jenkins ( MacElroy ); Robert McWade ( Jones ); Harry Axt ( Jerry ); Clarence Nordstrum ( Leading man ); Henry B. Whitehall ( The actor ).

Awards: National Film Registry, National Film Preservation Board, 1998.



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* * *

42nd Street was the first of three films released in quick succession by Warner Brothers in 1933 (the other two were Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade ) that are generally regarded as having revitalized the musical as a genre. 42nd Street gave Busby Berkeley (known for his unique overhead camera shots in Eddie Cantor films) full rein to develop his ideas of choreography. The Depression-weary public was obviously fascinated: Variety listed 42nd Street as one of the top six money-making films of 1933, and it was nominated for an Oscar as best picture. Based to some extent on The Broadway Melody (MGM, 1929), 42nd Street continued the sub-genre of the "backstage musical" but added new dimensions with its hard-hitting references to the Depression and with Berkeley's opulent staging of the musical numbers.

The film refuses to be completely escapist: the main thrust of the narrative is the need to get a job, create a viable product (the show Pretty Lady ) and to make money. The structural tension results from the separation of the production numbers (glimpses of Pretty Lady ) from the narrative; those numbers are indeed escapist in nature. Richard Dyer, in "Entertainment and Utopia," regards this separation as an ideological method of suggesting that the musical numbers are the Utopia we all seek from the hard work of the narrative reality—that the "ills" of capitalism (the Depression) can be resolved through the "means" of capitalism (putting on a successful show). Mark Roth puts forward a similar theory; he notes a social connection between 42nd Street and newly-elected President Roosevelt's New Deal: by working together under a strong leader (the director), the United States (the cast and crew) can lift itself out of the Depression and towards prosperity. ( 42nd Street opened in Washington, D.C. on March 4, 1933, the day on which Roosevelt was inaugurated).

Regardless of these factors, 42nd Street is usually labelled a "Busby Berkeley musical." Backstage musicals had existed since the beginning of sound, but they were always shot straight-on, as if on stage. Berkeley freed the camera and took advantage of its mobility. He was not a trained dancer, and consequently his "dancers" did not dance so much as move about; the camera did the dancing. By disrupting spatial integrity (the production numbers would begin and end on a theatrical stage but would inevitably move into a realm of limitless dimension), Berkeley created a surrealistic world that thrilled movie audiences. His predilection for beautiful women resulted in some of the most voyeuristic fantasies ever put on film. Recent feminist film critics, particularly Lucy Fischer, have justifiably attacked Berkeley's objectification of the female body.

42nd Street also introduced Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell to movie audiences and contains that immortal line, ". . . You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

—Greg S. Faller

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