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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Backstage > Great Depression > 42nd Street (1933/Warner Archive Blu-ray)

42nd Street (1933/Warner Archive Blu-ray)

Picture: B- Sound: B- Extras: B Film: B-

PLEASE NOTE: The 42nd Street Blu-ray is now only available from Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive series and can be ordered from the link below.

As movies musicals go, Warner Bros. 42nd Street (1933) is the Big Bang. It's the film that set the template and sensibilities for decades of all-singing, all-dancing talkies. It's the film from which all other cinematic musicals emanate. Before 42nd Street, there were crude vaudeville-acts-on-celluloid pictures; after 42nd Street, there was bombastic, sexy, meticulously-choreographed extravaganzas that sent moviegoers home floating on air. And for all that, it earns its place in the pantheon - not just of cinema, but of American art and culture.

Problem is, the film isn't really that good. It's narrative is cliche, the staging of the numbers is creaky, there actually aren't that many numbers, and the acting is a step up from summer stock. All of that is terribly unfair - we're talking about, essentially, a genre prototype released in early 1933 when talking pictures were themselves relatively new. But it's impossible to watch 42nd Street from the standpoint of a viewer from more than 80 years ago, and watching it today can be difficult.

Based on a book by Bradford Ropes, directed by Lloyd Bacon, and choreographed by Busby Berkley with songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, 42nd Street is a kind of live-action New Yorker cartoon about life on Broadway, from aspiring ingénues (in this case played by Ruby Keeler) to the actor stuck in the Juvenile role (Dick Powell) that every revue called for, to the harried director looking for one last glory (Warner Baxter). The plot, insofar as it matters, is concerned with the director, Julian Marsh, facing long odds and a difficult star (Bebe Daniels) as he attempts to mount a new show. Hijinks and high melodrama ensue in equal measure.

What really matters, this being a musical, is the numbers. And there are a few classics: ''You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me,'' ''Shuffle Off to Buffalo,'' ''Young and Healthy,'' and the titular ''42nd Street.'' The film is only 89 minutes, and the first real number - ''You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me'' - doesn't appear until about 42 minutes in. (Coincidence? Or a sly bit of editing?) And then the rest of them don't really manifest until the show within the show begins, about 71 minutes into the film. That's a lot of time to muddle through a plot that's neither compelling nor engaging. Making it tougher is that, while the numbers build to an interesting crescendo with ''42nd Street,'' we have to sit through some musty moments first.

But our reward is Busby Berkley's first true show-stoppers. One is ''Young and Healthy,'' a dizzying display of rotating platforms, crazy geometry, wild camera angles, and the kind of stage-shattering choreography and bird's-eye views that would be utterly impossible if it existed in a real theater (as it's supposed to in the film). At points it anticipates ''Petting in the Park'' from Gold Diggers of 1933, released by Warners two months after 42nd Street, and it has been referenced countless times by other films, most notably in The Big Lebowski. The shot of the Dude flying under the skirts of a line of women atop a bowling alley is taken directly from ''Young and Healthy.'' The other is the closer, ''42nd Street,'' a weird slice-of-life that's a bunch of tropes and stereotypes of '30s New York thrown together on a huge, sprawling set that ends with everyone becoming a skyline. It's a fun, momentous number that adequately sends you away with a big grin. But it, too, looks ahead to Gold Diggers and its closing ''My Forgotten Man.'' Viewed a certain way, ''42nd Street'' acts like a dress rehearsal for the later, better number.

Indeed, it's impossible to watch 42nd Street today and not dwell on Gold Diggers of 1933. Partly because of the similarities - from the overlapping cast to the similar choreography; the films even use the same Pekingese dog! - but mostly because Gold Diggers is lightyears ahead of its slightly-older sibling. Where 42nd Street and its ''putting on a show'' plot is kind of saccharine despite a number of pre-Code skin peeks, Gold Diggers is more a farcical, transgressive revue with the barest hint of a, surprise, putting-on-a-show story (which is ultimately just an excuse to stage numbers). Where 42nd Street feels like everyone from the studio to Berkley is working the kinks out, Gold Diggers is a fully formed whole, with massively creative staging and tons of wit, that also fully embraces the kinky. It's also far more sure of itself. While the Depression exists as background white noise in 42nd Street, it is front and center in Gold Diggers. Making a frothy musical meant to distract attention away from the Depression about that very thing is a gutsy decision, and it shows how far Warners and Berkley had come in matter of mere months.

In other words, one is spectacular and classic and fun - and the other is 42nd Street.

It's undeniable that 42nd Street is Important. It's the ur-musical. It birthed a genre and contributed numerous pieces to the Great American Songbook. But time has not been kind to the film itself. It's hacky, unsure of itself, and kind of a slog as a moviegoing experience. Still, it is a film every cineaste must see, at least once, if only to discover where musicals began.

For that, look no further than Warner Archive's Blu-ray of 42nd Street. While not perfect, it is nevertheless the best presentation the film has received in a home release. The 1080p 1.33 X 1 black & white high-definition video is soft and grainy in spots, but otherwise as crisp as you could hope for in a film that's 83 years old and hasn't been fully restored. On the audio side, the DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 2.0 Mono lossless soundtrack is solid. Ultimately, what we hear is only as good as the elements at Warners’ disposal, and more often than not it sounds fine. We're not watching Moulin Rouge here, so the soundtrack doesn't have to do too much and it succeeds in that.

Where the disc really excels, though, is in the extras. There are three vintage featurettes (''Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer,'' ''Hollywood Newsreel,'' and ''A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio''), two vintage Warner cartoons (''Shuffle Off to Buffalo'' and ''Young and Healthy''), and the retrospective featurette ''From Book to Screen to Stage.'' All of these, I believe, were ported over from an earlier DVD release. But they add a certain amount of context to 42nd Street and its impact on both Hollywood and America at large, which is always welcome. And in this case, a great surprise since Warner Archive titles, more often than not, are barebones affairs.

To order the 42nd Street Warner Archive Blu-ray, go to this link for it and many more great web-exclusive releases at:


- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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