“42nd Street” is the definitive backstage musical. It’s also the film that likely saved the movie musical genre. In the early 1930s, a slew of poorly made musicals following the advent of talkies failed to gain a following amongst critics and audiences. “42nd Street”, directed by Lloyd Bacon and featuring spectacularly-shot musical numbers choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley, changed all that.
The film follows the creation of the Broadway musical “Pretty Lady”. Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is hired to direct the production. He’s broke, so this show needs to be a hit, or he’s through. The leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), is involved with the show’s wealthy backer Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), while also seeing her old partner, Pat Denning (George Brent). Meanwhile, naïve newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is hired on as a chorus girl along with her friends Lorraine (Una Merkel) and “Anytime Annie” (Ginger Rogers), and falls for the show’s leading man, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell). Complications ensue when the star breaks her ankle right before opening night, but the show goes on and is a big hit.
Like most Berkeley-helmed musicals, the huge, elaborate numbers are saved until the very end, while the rest of the film is spent following the rehearsal drama, with possibly a few small numbers here and there. “42nd Street” is no exception; the last twenty minutes or so of the movie are devoted to extravagant numbers featuring the songs “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “Young and Healthy”, and “42nd Street”. By the time “42nd Street”, which was so profitable it saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy, was released, Berkeley had already begun working on the similar—and superior—musicals “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “Footlight Parade”.
“42nd Street” has a lot of Depression-era references that likely struck a chord with audiences going through the same problems as the characters, and fresh talent like Keeler—this was her first film—keep the story fun and energized. “42nd Street” was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture that year, spawning, as mentioned before, numerous more great movie musicals throughout the decade. This simple story’s influence continues to be felt over the years. In 1980, “42nd Street” was revived as a Broadway production, winning the Tony for Best Musical. It remains one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, and in 1998 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
“42nd Street” is currently streaming on HBO Max and can be rented on all digital platforms. Runtime: 89 minutes.