42nd Street February 16, 2015
“Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard!” Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) exclaims with exasperation to his leading lady, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). “Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you!”
Julian Marsh is the kind of stage director that forces his dancers to stay up hours upon hours to perfect a particular dance routine. So imagine his anxiety when Peggy, who has only wafted through the chorus line in her short theater career, is, out of anguish, cast as the female lead after the real star (Bebe Daniels) twists her ankle.
In the wholesome sheen of 42nd Street, of course Peggy will do a stupendous job, of course become a star, and of course end up in the arms of the man of her dreams. But as the quintessential, and perhaps one of the first, “behind-the-scenes” musicals, 42nd Street is a breezy and often times impressive film, a popcorn flick that benefits from its extraordinarily bubbly cast and Busby Berkeley’s famed choreography. Until the last ten minutes of the film, there is nothing in store that we haven’t seen before. But I’ll be damned if those last ten minutes aren’t some of the best last ten minutes the musical genre has ever seen.
The first half goes by wearing Depression-era movie glitter as a jacket, warmed by romantic misunderstandings, catty one-liners, and conflicts that most likely seemed ridiculous to the many Hooverville housed audience members. All the fluff eventually seems like a pastime when putting the closing number into perspective; considering every single song, dance, and bit of spectacle is saved until later, the stuff that takes place in reality rather than the realm of the stage is only slightly unexciting. The far better Gold Diggers of 1933 had a big closer, true, but it also gave us sneak peeks of the extravaganza early on, and the cast, which featured comedic champs Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon, added an extra zip that made everything just a little more self-aware.
The second half is when the goods kick in, and boy, do they kick. Several of the actors are finally given the chance to show off their hidden musical talents, and Berkeley’s seminal routines are put on display with startling gusto. A master of creating kaleidoscopic shapes with his dancers, the aerial shots are staggering, with close-ups transforming his subjects into pieces of an accomplished puzzle. Months from now, you and I will not remember the romance between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, the underuse of Ginger Rogers, or the music; the routines are what make 42nd Street the classic it is today. In films like this, you can save the dialogue for later. Because we want dessert immediately; dinner can wait. B