Movie review: “42nd Street”

42nd street

I think about movies a lot. Well, of course I do: I’m a gay man over fifty. And sometimes I wonder: Is there really such a thing as “the best movie”?



It would need to be Practically Perfect In Every Way: acting, direction, cinematography, dialogue. It would need a cleverly-constructed plot that ends satisfactorily. It would need to leave you feeling profoundly moved – amused, charmed, thoughtful – so that, a week later, you’d still be thinking about it.



As it turns out, there are a number of movies like this (for me, anyway). So: is it “Annie Hall”? “Casablanca”? “Duck Soup”? “The Maltese Falcon”? “Godfather Part II”? “The Lion in Winter?”



I can’t do more than make a list of ten or fifteen that fit all the above criteria: dynamite acting, beautiful direction, a crackerjack plot, sharp dialogue. All of the above fit the bill.



And so does “42nd Street.”



This is a gem from 1933, and it’s easily the best “hey, let’s put on a show!” movie ever made. In short: it’s the Depression, and two amusingly morose Broadway producers are putting together a Broadway show. They hire the mercurially brilliant director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), and the charming leading lady Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Dorothy sprains her ankle right before opening night. What will become of the show? Well, thank goodness there’s a plucky young chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) who can take over the part . . .



This sounds corny, but you can’t imagine how much fun it is until you’ve seen it. The dialogue – from eighty years ago – crackles with wit. (My favorite: the chorus performs an awful musical number, and the director screams in agony for them to stop. The musical director runs up front. “Didn’t you like it?” he asks. “Yes!” Warner Baxter screams. “I’ve loved it since 1905!”) The portrayals make me laugh, especially Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel as two sassy chorus girls, Ned Sparks as Morose Producer #1, and Guy Kibbee as a plump millionaire who likes to pat chorus girls on the bum. (The movie was pre-Code. Follow this link if you don’t know what that means. In short, for the rest of you: it means that the moviemakes could do pretty much what they felt like doing without censorship.)



This movie has some of the best musical numbers ever staged. Some of them are staged, remarkably enough, as practice numbers: you’re seeing them as if they’re being practiced for the Big Show. Naturally, you don’t see them in full costume and with full choreography until late in the movie, and then you see the genius of Busby Berkeley in full flower: the naughty hilarity of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and the huge (and strangely moving) New York panorama of the title number.



And at the end, we see Warner Baxter the director on the sidewalk listening to departing audience members  talking about the show. They loved it! But why does the director get all the credit? It’s the leading lady that makes the show . . .



It’s a perfect ending.



It’s a perfect movie.


About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

3 Responses to Movie review: “42nd Street”

  1. starproms says:

    I can feel the warmth you have for that film. I have a list of favourites too. I like to go back to them once a year maybe. They always seem fresh and comforting. I don’t know this one! you may be surprised to know. I must watch it sometime.

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