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Hollywood conjures New York City to wonderful effect in 42nd Street (1933), which has been called "the virtual debut of the screen musical as a viable force in Hollywood." On huge sets constructed at the Warner Bros. studios, director Lloyd Bacon and choreographer Busby Berkeley create their own stylized Manhattan, epitomized by the production number built around the title song. Emerging star Ruby Keeler appears in close-up as she performs a dance routine, and as the camera pulls back she is discovered to be tapping atop a taxi at the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street. The surrounding skyline suddenly begins to move, as we realize that it is a series of buildings painted on boards held by Berkeley's celebrated dancing girls.
Berkeley, who also designed many of the sets used in his numbers, brought a scale to the movie musical that was truly gargantuan, involving hundreds of dancers moving in unison with all manner of props through fantastic environments. In one number for 42nd Street he created three enormous cylindrical turntables, each higher than the next, that spun in opposite directions as an army of chorus girls tapped on the discs.
42nd Street, which follows a Broadway musical from casting call to opening night, became a landmark film that turned the tide for the movie musical. At the time, the genre had slipped in popularity due to overexposure after numerous attempts to duplicate the success of MGM's Oscar-winning The Broadway Melody (1929). But 42nd Street, which won an Oscar nomination as Best Picture, helped Warner Bros. emerge as a major force in film production and established Berkeley as the "mad genius" of musical production numbers. "A lot of people used to believe I was crazy," Berkeley would later admit. "But I can truthfully say one thing: I gave 'em a show!"
Keeler (then Mrs. Al Jolson and making her film debut) plays Peggy, the starry-eyed chorus girl who replaces leading lady Bebe Daniels in the Broadway musical Pretty Lady. The show's director, Warner Baxter, famously tells her that "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" In another star-making turn, Dick Powell is Peggy's leading man - a role he would fill for Keeler in several other musicals. 42nd Street was also an important movie in the career of the young Ginger Rogers, who plays a chorus girl named "Anytime Annie," of whom it was said, "She only said 'No' once, and that was when she didn't hear the question."
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck, Hal B. Wallis (associate, uncredited)
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Rian James, James Seymour, Whitney Bolton (uncredited), from novel by Bradford Ropes
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Original Music: Harry Warren
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Editing: Thomas Pratt, Frank Ware
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Principal Cast: Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh), Bebe Daniels (Dorothy Brock), George Brent (Pat Denning), Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer), Guy Kibbee (Abner Dillon), Una Merkel (Lorraine Fleming), Ginger Rogers (Ann Lowell), Ned Sparks (Thomas Barry), Dick Powell (Billy Lawler).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe