For Reel

42nd Street (1933)
July 21, 2012, 6:52 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Audiences had already become exhausted with musicals in the early days of sound after a number of pictures imitating MGM’s 1929 success The Broadway Melody overwhelmed the market. Then, at the peak of the Depression in 1933, Warner Brothers would reinvigorate the genre with 42nd Street, a film most famous for introducing audiences to Busby Berkeley’s geometrical, highly sexualized dance numbers. Ruby Keeler, with a natural, likable beauty, plays the ingenue chorus girl who gets promoted to star when the leading actress of a musical becomes injured only days before the premiere. As one of the most lasting of backstage films, the picture aided in the typifying of the characters that have come to be expected in the genre – the weary director, the fading star and her young competition, the sleazy moneyman, etc. While Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (for whom this picture was a major step towards stardom) would advance the musical in years to come with more consistent and memorable numbers incorporated throughout the narrative, 42nd Street has a sass and eroticism that is distinctly pre-Code, with a number of obvious allusions to the chorus girls sleeping with producers, not to mention Berkeley’s iconic camera track that leads the audience through dozens of bare legs. Keeler was not a particularly great actress, and as a dancer was frankly a little clumsy, but nonetheless she looked much different than the typical Hollywood woman, possessing a palpable naivete that the more seasoned screen veterans couldn’t pull off.

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