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42nd Street (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on April 14, 2014

Theatrical director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) is staking his future on his latest production, “Pretty Lady”.  Financier Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) has guaranteed the leading role to the object of his desire, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  But Dorothy is still seeing her old vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (George Brent), on the side and if Dillon finds out, the show is dead.  Besides the usual stress and headaches of putting on a show, Marsh also has to contend with an untried novice (Ruby Keeler), not to mention a pair of wisecracking regulars (Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel).  It’ll be a miracle if he gets through this without having another nervous breakdown.

One thing I hate as a reviewer is coming back to a movie I previously gushed about and finding it doesn’t thrill me as much as it used to.  Especially when I still really, really like it… just not quite as much as before.  The review often ends up sounding way too negative as I list off the reasons for my change in opinion.  So this time I will reiterate what I do love about this movie.  And since I know it will be redundant anyway, I’ll just be simple about it and quote my previous comments.  From my first review: “Giddily entertaining musical comedy, with truly funny (and bawdy) jokes, terrific songs, those magical Busby Berkeley dance numbers, charming performances, and a plot that never gets too fussy.  The camerawork is quite impressive, too; despite being entirely about a stage production, Bacon & Berkeley utilize techniques that are purely cinematic.”  That’s all pretty much still true.  I believe this was my first review of a Busby Berkeley film, and at the time I didn’t realize how critical those “purely cinematic” techniques were to his charm.  Probably anyone watching one of his works for the first time will balk a bit at how, within the universe of the film, the production numbers would be meaningless to the theatre audience, if not impossible to stage.  But that was the point… to use movie magic to achieve what a theatrical production could not.

And yep, the plotting is achieved admirably without too much confusion, the jokes are terrific, the performances are charming, the song and dance are dazzling.  It’s a really good time.  So what’s my beef?  Perhaps a case of heightened expectations.  I was showing this movie to my girlfriend — her first Busby Berkeley — and although she was enjoying it (she likes “behind the scenes” movies about music/dancing, so I had a hunch she would) I kept thinking “Just wait until the ending!”  And the climax is wonderful, but it’s not that wonderful.  “Young and Healthy” in particular was a little underwhelming.  The title song ends on a really weird downer note that takes some of the fun out of it, followed by a somewhat less than satisfying coda.  I’ve always held on to 42nd Street as the peak of Berkeley, but now I feel like there are better examples… maybe Dames or The Gang’s All Here or Gold Diggers of 1933.  Or maybe those don’t hold up quite as well either.  We will have to see.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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