Busby Berkeley first became interested in choreography while serving as a second lieutenant in the First World War. As the leader of a battery of 200 men part of his duty was to lead military drills. But rather than have his men march around in a strict regimented way he constructed elaborate maneuvers for them to follow. Berkeley developed a fascination with the artistic potential of synchronized body movements and when the war ended he leveraged what he called 'the best apprenticeship I could have had' into a career in Hollywood where he choreographed and directed some of the most memorable musical and dance films ever made.
Berkeley's films were a form of buoyant escapism that the nation desperately needed while in the depths of the Great Depression. Films like Gold Diggers of 1933, Stars Over Broadway and Footlight Parade allowed beleaguered Americans to forget their cares for a couple of hours and be transported to a fantastic world where dancers spun and swung in exotic and beautiful patterns. Of all the Berkeley films perhaps the best known is 1933s 42nd Street whose formulaic plot follows the events surrounding a washed up producer's attempt to mount one final Broadway hit.
Staring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers, 42nd Street is pure fluff of the most delightful kind. The back stage drama follows two story lines. On the one hand there's director/producer Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) who's failing health and faltering reputation may turn out to be serious impediments to the nascent show. On the other is the show's star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who spends a good deal of her time fending off the show's financial backer and attempting to reconcile with her former boyfriend. You'll see every plot twist and turn coming from a mile away, even the 'dramatic' climax but the high degree of predictability is to be expected from a genre piece like this and doesn't diminish the picture's entertainment value one iota. Of course the highlight of the proceedings is Berkeley's choreography of the final dance number which features beautifully geometric patterns as photographed from above.
Warner Home Video did a fantastic job with 42nd Street. The film elements have been meticulously restored to a nearly pristine state. The images look as crisp and clear as the day the film was released. The brightness and contrast levels are true to the original celluloid and shadow detail is particularly impressive. I wasn't able to detect a single instance of digital artifacting and though there is a little edge enhancement apparent in some scenes it's far from distracting.
The mono soundtrack for 42nd Street is just as impressive as the video images. This film is nearly seventy years old but you wouldn't know it from the audio. The dynamic range, though limited, is surprisingly broad with a good deal of low end fleshing out both voices and music. On the high end you'll find a very satisfying clarity without breakup and a notable lack of pops, hiss and other problems that usually mar films of this age.
There are a number of interesting extras on 42nd Street. Chief among them is a collection of three contemporary publicity films. First up is 'Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer.' This piece is composed of 'candid' clips of 42nd Street's composer playing some of his better known hits. Next up is 'Hollywood Newsreel' in which we're shown Dick Powell and other stars from 42nd Street out west panning for gold (the reel's intro informs us that the rush is back on now that President Roosevelt has doubled the price of gold.) Finally there's 'A Trip through A Hollywood Studio.' This is the most interesting of the three. It shows several of the main studios from the air, offers a tour of a sound stage and shows some of the times most advanced audio recording and power generating technology in action. Other extras include the original theatrical trailer and a handful of text screens covering Busby Berkeley.
42nd Street is a real gem of a film that holds up well even after nearly seventy years. Warner has done an outstanding job restoring and transferring the film and should be commended for including an interesting and valuable collection of extras on the disc. If you're a fan of classic Hollywood pictures you'll want this disc in your collection. Highly Recommended.