In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present the classic comedy musical 42nd Street.
42nd Street is the original jukebox, putting on a show backstage musical. Made in 1933, during the pre-Code era, it is raucously funny and inventive from the get go. In the first number Ginger Rogers sings We’re in the Money, first forwards then backwards. Just how subversive is that! This film was made and released in the midst of the Great Depression and the first number is all about being splendidly wealthy. And yet, the singer is so poor she has to share one good dress with her other three roommates.
Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is hired to direct a new musical and newcomer Bebe Daniels is hired along with old hands Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. There are romantic entanglements, worries about money and critics and music and dancing galore. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley takes on responsibility for the dance scenes with a choreography which includes the camera sweeping through space in a way that is gobsmacking to this day. Likewise the level of sexual comedy and innuendo might come as a surprising to modern audiences. The script is bright and sharply witty, but waters down some of the grittier exposé elements of the novel. It also removed references to Julian’s homosexuality.
The grit is still there though. One of the major song and dance sections features drunkenness and domestic violence. This is a comedy that never lets go of reality. It has escapism and flights of fantasy. But drags behind it a cynical/realistic view of society. Even the end has a coda where the director overhears everyone praising the debut star and dismissing his work. This is the kind of film that makes you fall in love with cinema and musicals. In fact, its financial success led to a revival of the form. Remember: “You got out there a youngster, but you have to come back as a star!”