The depression has hit, and Broadway producers Jones and Barry are putting on a musical. Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), who is dating the show’s financial backer Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), is set to star. A hit director, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), is hired. With all signs pointing toward success, and the crew begins holding rehearsals to choose the rest of the cast.
But of course, things don’t stay peachy for long. Naive Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a new arrival in New York from Pennsylvania, is determined to get a big role in the show despite the fact that Dorothy has already been given the lead. Julian isn’t satisfied with what he sees from the cast in rehearsals. A number of big problems pop up as they work to put on the show and make it a success – and the finances and future of the entire cast and crew, especially Julian Marsh, are depending on this production.
Lloyd Bacon directs the 1933 musical 42nd Street, a film often credited for bringing the musical genre back to life and saving Warner Bros. from financial ruin. The musical numbers are choreographed and directed by Busby Berkeley and very obviously wear his stamp. The film is based on a novel by Bradford Ropes. Appearing alongside Daniels, Kibbee, Keeler and Baxter are George Brent as Dorothy’s old friend and former vaudeville partner; Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers (who is absolutely hilarious here, and shines despite the fact that her role is quite small) as the chorus girls who take Keeler’s character under their wing; Ned Sparks and Robert McWade as co-producers Barry and Jones; and Dick Powell as Billy Lawler, one of the production’s lead actors.
42nd Street kicks off with a lot of excitement. Upbeat music and the anticipation over the new show set a high-strung mood up in the beginning, which carries on through the entire film though it doesn’t always retain the happiness that comes with the initial excitement. The music remains fun throughout, but the action takes a few deeper dives. There are a number of dramatic moments and unexpected events. (The film isn’t full of them, but there are enough to keep things interesting and to kill the happier mood that’s built in the beginning.)
42nd Street does (in the opinion of this reviewer, who admittedly didn’t live during the Depression) capture the general environment and attitudes of the period quite well. As the film progresses it deals with the Depression and the production’s issues very frankly, which sends the viewer’s (and characters’) emotions into a tailspin. As a result, the film manages to be both witty and quite cynical. It’s full of cheeky dialogue and lyrics, references to the less-than-pretty aspects of the entertainment industry (such as the infamous “casting couch”) and your typical risque pre-code moments.
As for performances, Bebe Daniels is the stand-out. She has great chemistry with her fellow actors (George Brent in particular), her character is well-written and she plays the role in a way that makes the character more likable even though she can be a bit melodramatic.
Warner Baxter comes close to stealing the spotlight from Bebe, with his near-perfect performance as a director who has been very badly hit by the Depression and is left emotionally unstable as a result. Baxter carries off the anger, deep-seated sadness and general mindset of his character without becoming a contrived caricature of someone affected by the stock market crash.
Also a contender is Ruby Keeler in her role of young and naive, but also highly motivated and talented Peggy. Her role may be a case of art imitating life in a way, as Peggy gets her first role a big production and 42nd Street was Keeler’s first big break in the film industry. She’s beautiful and has great charisma during her musical numbers, though she doesn’t come quite as close as Baxter to stealing the show from dramatic Bebe Daniels.
Overall, 42nd Street is a very engrossing film with wonderful music and above average performances from its many talented players. It’s worth a watch not only because it’s a great film, but also because of its historical significance. The score: 4/5
Interested in watching this film? Buy or stream it through the links below to make a small donation to TMP!