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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » 42nd Street (Blu-ray)
42nd Street (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // April 21, 2015 // Region Free
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 12, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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For many decades after its original release, and to some extent even now, the seminal backstage musical 42nd Street (1933) has been regarded as something like entertaining frivolous camp. It's the musical choking with clichés, outrageous Busby Berkeley numbers, the one where the star of the show breaks her ankle and the lowly chorus girl is catapulted to fame and fortune, with the show's director cautioning her, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

Here the thing, though. They weren't clichés then. Rather, 42nd Street was setting precedents and cementing the archetype that less imaginative moviemakers would copy in the wake of its huge success. Most importantly, lost on later audiences, though perhaps a theme that might resonate better today, is that, fundamentally, 42nd Street is the story of 200 mostly working class people at the height of the Great Depression, whose very livelihood hangs in the balance. If the show-within-the-show is a success, they'll eat and be able to pay the rent for perhaps the next nine months. If it proves a flop, they might well wind up homeless. The movie never shows chorus girls collapsing from malnutrition, electricians spending their nights in Hoovervilles. Back in 1932, no such exposition was necessary.

Context is what's missing from that oft-quoted speech delivered by director Warner Baxter to chorus girl Ruby Keeler. Here it is in its entirety: "Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can't fall down. You can't because your future's in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I'm through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!"

Warner Archive's new Blu-ray is a knockout, as good as any black-and-white 1930s title in high-def to date. Previously available extras have been repurposed here.

Wealthy Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), sugar daddy to veteran stage star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), agrees to back a new Broadway show, Pretty Lady, with hit-maker Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) signed to direct it. Having lost his fortune in the 1929 Stock Market Crash, Marsh needs the show to be a hit; his frail health might not survive even this last show.

A casting call for chorines brings naïve newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), along with streetwise dancers "Anytime" Annie (Ginger Rogers), pretentiously wearing a monocle and affecting a high society accent; and Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel), girlfriend to dance director Andy Lee (George E. Stone). The juvenile lead, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), takes Peggy under his wing. (In Bradford Ropes original novel, Billy has a homosexual relationship with Marsh.)

The show's financial backing is at risk when it's discovered that Abner's mistress, the star of the show, is secretly in a relationship with her washed-up former Vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (George Brett, who gives the film's best and most underrated performance), whom she still loves. Marsh, concerned that Dorothy is endangering the show's future, has a gangster (Tom Kennedy) sock Pat in the jaw and who orders Pat to leave town.

As opening night gradually draws near, Pretty Lady is a long way from being ready, and other last-minute disasters threaten the entire production.

Feature-length movie musicals began, of course, with The Jazz Singer in 1927. There followed a glut of mostly crude, largely static musicals over the next few years, but the public quickly tired of these generally unrewarding films. In 1930 more than a hundred were produced. In 1931, just 14.

42nd Street takes a very different approach compared to those dawn-of-sound musicals, and it remained a world apart from the glamorous fantasy/wish-fulfillment of the musicals RKO and MGM would produce soon after. The musical part of 42nd Street really only comes at the end, during the film's last 10 minutes or so: the rest is just a tease. The audience sees bits of numbers rehearsed and hears portions of a few of the songs, but mostly the movie wisely dramatizes all that's at stake during the first 75 minutes so that the payoff, a condensed version of the show itself, not only dazzles with its striking choreography, but also satisfies, even exhilarates audiences because we see all that hard work finally pay off, in spades.

Made in "Pre-Code" Hollywood, 42nd Street is sassy and sexy, with lots of funny innuendo. When Peggy's landlord catches Pat in her room, she threatens her with eviction, while in the background a man slips out of the room belonging to a woman wearing a negligee. And then there's Andy, talking about Anytime Annie: "Who could forget her? She only said ‘No' once, and then she didn't hear the question!"

While 42nd Street was being made, 5,000 banks had failed and unemployment was pushing 25%. In the movie, the show's company of 200 is at the mercy of one-percenter Abner Dillon's drunken, horny whims. Everyone must band together and work themselves into states of total exhaustion if there's going to be any chance of turning Pretty Lady into a long-running hit. People wrongly remember the Dorothy Brock character as vain and temperamental, but she too acts in the company's best interests, in the end offering sage advice to new face Peggy. Instead of being frivolous and corny, 42nd Street in fact is one of the most political movie musicals ever made. No wonder an entire advertising campaign was tied to Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Inauguration.

Except for Ruby Keeler, only a fair dancer and a mediocre actress, despite a great, innocent-looking face perfect for her character here, the cast of 42nd Street is outstanding, especially Warner Baxter, George Brent, Ginger Rogers, and Dick Powell, the latter two becoming major musical stars after their supporting parts in this. And, of course, Harry Warren and Al Dubin's songs became standards (and endlessly quoted in myriad Warner Bros. cartoons). Berkeley's choreography became world-famous, though Lloyd Bacon's first unit direction is just as imaginative and exciting.

Video & Audio

Warner Bros.'s restoration of 42nd Street is practically perfect, with only a couple of shots apparently not sourced from original film elements. Praise that a 75-year-old movie looks "brand new" is often bandied about when discussing Blu-rays such as these, but here the term really applies: indeed, it probably looks cleaner and sharper than original theatrical prints, certainly far superior than the various 35mm, 16mm, and laserdisc versions I've seen through the years. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono is notably robust, and optional English subtitles are offered.

Extra Features

Supplements are all repeats from earlier DVD releases: three vintage featurettes ("Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer," "Hollywood Newsreel," and "A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio"); a retrospective featurette, "From Book to Screen to Stage"; and two 1933 cartoons (Shuffle Off to Buffalo and Young and Healthy).

Parting Thoughts

A must for all ages, 42nd Street is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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