PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
It is 1932, during the early days of the Depression, and Broadway producers Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks) put on Pretty Lady, a musical starring beautiful Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Brock is involved with industrialist Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), who is the show’s “angel” (financial backer). But while she is busy keeping Dillon both hooked and at arm’s length, she still secretly meets her old vaudeville partner and lover, the out-of-work Pat Denning (George Brent).
To ensure success Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), who is the best, is hired to direct. But Marsh is ill, destitute, friendless, and bitter as a result of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. “Did you ever try to cash a reputation in a bank?” he asks the producers who are surprised to hear his desperation. Gambling with health and life, Marsh must make his last show a major hit and financial success if he is to have enough money to retire on. “This time I’m going to sock it away so hard you’ll have to blast to get it out” he says after signing up to direct, referring to his financial situation.
Cast selection and rehearsals begin amidst fierce competition, with not a few “casting couch” innuendos flying around. Naïve newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who arrives in New York from her home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is duped and ignored until two chorines, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) and Ann “Anytime Annie” Lowell (Ginger Rogers), take her under their wing. Lorraine has an “in” with dance director Andy Lee (George E. Stone), while the show’s juvenile lead Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) takes a liking to Peggy and puts in a good word for her with Marsh.
Rehearsals continue for five weeks to Marsh’s complete dissatisfaction, until the night before the opening in Philadelphia when Brock fractures her ankle. Next morning Abner Dillon wants Marsh to cast his new interest, Annie Lowell, as the star. Annie decides she is not talented enough but tells Marsh that the untried, green, Peggy Sawyer is.
With 200 jobs and his own financial and personal future riding on the outcome, Marsh rehearses Sawyer mercilessly (vowing “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl”) until an hour before curtain time on the night of the premiere Brock, soon to be married to Pat, arrives and wishes Peggy luck, and the show is on. Nearly twenty minutes are devoted to three Busby Berkeley production numbers: Shuffle Off to Buffalo, Keep Young and Healthy, and the title song 42nd Street. The show is a success, and in the final scene Marsh turns wearily away from the brightly lit theatre entrance and slumps down on a fire escape as theatre-goers depart praising the musical.
When people speak of musicals, 42nd Street is usually one that is immediately brought up. The film version, though, is slightly different from the stage rendition, but do those changes work to make this a better or worse flick?
What worked for me?
Believability. I found it very easy to follow these characters and believe their plight, especially the up and coming star. Yes, we’ve all seen tons of films like this, but this is one of the few where I actually believed the performance.
Story. It is obvious that this was written in a time when people actually cared about fine storytelling, as there are no obvious plotholes and the story has more heart and soul in it than we modern audiences have gotten accustomed to seeing.
Production. The musical production numbers are astounding, especially for a film that was released in 1933. Also, the fact this takes place mostly backstage is a nice touch and is something we non-showfolk don’t get to see very often.
What didn’t I like?
Music. It isn’t that the music is bad, but rather it is just not memorable. The only exception is the final number, “42nd Street”. There are a couple of other numbers that will have your toes tapping, but no sooner than the last note has sounded then you’ll have forgotten them.
Slow. While I give the film all the props one can give for taking the time to develop the characters and tell a good story, there are times when this film just drags on and almost turns the audience off.
Love Triangle. Yes, there is a love triangle in this film, but here’s the kicker…when the film ends, it is not known which guy she chooses. Sometimes a cliffhanger or unresolved issue like this works. However, for musicals, in my opinion, everything should end up packaged in a nice neat package.
42nd Street left me torn as to my opinion of it. On the one hand I liked it, but on the other hand I just wasn’t crazy about it, either. Perhaps it is just the overhyped this film tends to get, or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to watch it tonight. Whatever the case may be, I just thought it was an o.k. picture. Still, I would recommend you check it out. It is one of those films that you should not die without seeing.
3 out of 5 stars