Monday, November 30, 2020

A Musical Review: 42nd STREET

 by Robyn Buckley and Anthony King

A new series on musicals from two people who really love musicals.

Anthony: Welcome to the first edition of A Musical Review! My name is Anthony King. Robyn and I are going to talk about some of our favorite musical movies in this column, and more than likely we’ll be focusing on older movies. I was recently on an episode of F This Movie! and mentioned that my favorite musical was Fiddler on the Roof. What about you, Robyn?

Robyn: I find choosing my favorite musical to be as difficult as choosing my favorite movie. I have so many! If I have to narrow it down - Little Shop of Horrors is always on the top for me, along with Singin' in the Rain and Sound of Music. Movie musicals are such a transportive medium - they provide a sense of wonder that is difficult to find in other genres. I love them.

We started this column because of our mutual love of musicals, and first up in our journey is 1933's 42nd Street. Directed by Lloyd Bacon with showstopping musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street tells the story of director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) trying to put together a hit musical during the Great Depression. He is surrounded by an eclectic group of cast and crew who each have their own storylines: there's Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), the newcomer to the stage who manages to make basically everyone fall in love with her. Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as a background actor who is quick to try and woo Peggy. If I listed every character I'd be here forever… but Ginger Rogers! Bebe Daniels! It's a who's who of 1930s casting.

Anthony, did you have a favorite storyline in 42nd Street? How do you compare this movie musical to others that you have seen?
Anthony: I just love the story of a show being put together. And in five weeks to boot! That’s what I love about theatre and film: the idea of a group of people coming together to create this spectacular thing in a relatively short amount of time. The TV show Smash was very much like that (which is why I loved it - judge me all you want). I loved watching Baxter literally kill himself trying to get “Pretty Lady” off the ground, the assistant director and stage manager constantly hollering, and the accompanist waking from a dead sleep on his piano to play the big chorus.

As far as other movie musicals go, 42nd Street is one of my favorites. Of the musicals from the '30s, I slightly prefer the Warner Bros. pictures over the the RKO pictures because they seemed to embrace and show the fact that these stage productions were affected from The Great Depression, whereas the RKO musicals with Fred Astaire were more romantic and dream-like, completely ignoring the fact that the United States was impoverished. That isn’t to say I don’t love the RKO musicals, or any pre-code movies for that matter.

Do you have a favorite character from the film? Ginger Rogers had me dying with her fake posh accent. She and her friend reminded me of the women from Sex and the City (keep judging).

Robyn: Bebe Daniels as Dorothy Brock was my favorite character! There's something almost heartbreaking about her character. She's stuck in a difficult position: be with the man she loves or the man who will finance the show. She does a fantastic job alternating between lovesick and biting cruelty. I also really enjoyed Peggy's (Ruby Keeler) easy chemistry with literally every other character; I don't know if I've ever seen such realistic casual flirting in a movie.

I feel like we wouldn't be doing 42nd Street justice if we didn't discuss the Busby Berkeley numbers at the end. I love them all (how could I not!), but my favorite is “Young and Healthy” sung by Dick Powell. The innuendo! The overhead shots! The wink that Ginger Rogers gives! It's all perfection. Did you have a favorite Busby Berkeley number?
Anthony: It’s gotta be the title number for me. All of the final production numbers, but especially “42nd Street,” are impossibly big compared to what we see in the rehearsal process. There’s no way this show, as is, could take place on stage, but that’s the point of a lot of these old movie musicals, though. Berkeley and his contemporaries were able to do on a soundstage what they only dreamed of doing on a Broadway stage. Not only did Berkeley choreograph all the production numbers, he also directed them, which allowed him to do those famous under-the-legs shots and all the overheads.

I also love “42nd Street” because we really get to see Keeler’s moves. She’s more Gene Kelly than Fred Astaire -- not as light on her feet, which allows the sounds of her dancing to really show and rattle the rafters. She is absolutely adorable in her first role here, and being paired with the ultra-charming Dick Powell, on top of all the pre-code unmarried kissing makes the movie seem all the more racy, which is why I especially love all these older musicals.

Robyn: Anthony, thank you for starting this journey through movie musicals with me. Anything that brings more dancing and singing into my life is a positive. 42nd Street was a great starting point and I'd recommend that all readers seek it out. You won't be disappointed!

Up next for A Musical Review is Holiday Inn (1942). See everyone next time!


  1. I love 42nd Street! I'm excited for this column because I had already decided that December is going to be my musicals month. Now I have some extra motivation to spur my viewing!

    My favorite musical is Singin' in the Rain, but I'm also a huge fan of Jacques Demy's Young Girls of Rochefort.

    When it comes to Busby Berkley, the Gold Diggers movies are my faves.

  2. I'm thrilled to see more classic movie and musical coverage. To me, 42nd Street always suffered from "Seinfeld is Unfunny" syndrome for me, where it pioneered many techniques that were copied by other musicals to the extent that it's hard to appreciate how unique it was for its time.

    Looking forward to the Holiday Inn discussion, I have conflicted feelings on that one

  3. I have a lot of fondness for musicals, so a column like this is completely up my alley. I have not watched many this year, though. There is so much ground for the two of you to cover: Fred and Ginger, Judy and Mickey, Betty Grable, Esther Williams, Rita Hayworth, etc.

    For the 1930s, I also prefer the Warner Brothers musicals. Their grittiness has always had more appeal. Gold Diggers of 1933 is, for some reason, the one I remember the most. That ironic opening, the unforgettable Forgotten Man number (Joan Blondell is a favorite from that time), to the comedic take on Depression-era hardships emblazoned that film in my memory.

    I remember watching Holiday Inn on AMC back when it was still a classic movie channel. I do not remember much about it besides it being the introduction of White Christmas to the world.