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42nd Street Movie Review

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Starring: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins, Edward J. Nugent, Robert McWade, George E. Stone

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Sound Recording, Best Picture

Ahh, the show that started it all. Thought to be the granddaddy of all those movie musicals we’ve come to know and love, 42nd Street is the O.G. “show about a show”.

When a famed Broadway producer decides to put on his last great show in spite of his failing health, he must risk everything, including his reputation, when the star of his show is injured before opening night and he’s forced to cast newbie chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer, as the lead.

Covering the production of a show from concept to casting, 42nd Street takes us backstage to see how the sausage is made, so to speak. We see the cynicism of the production staff, the raging jealousy between seasoned performers and their newer, younger replacements. We see the chaos and exhaustion of daily rehearsals and the sexism that still exists in performance art today. From this perspective, it’s easy to argue that 42nd Street was groundbreaking in its day.

That being said, the biggest enemy to a movie like this is time. The jokes are dated. The plot is so silly and predictable that you can see it coming a mile away. Honestly the only thing that really kept me engaged in this film were the amazing Busby Berkeley numbers.

With shots that would come to define Busby Berkeley as a gifted choreographer, this film contains musical numbers that could never have the same power and visual appeal on stage. The camera weaves between dancers, high kicks create amazing shapes on the mirrored ceiling, simple camera movements help us feel like we’re right there on stage, experiencing these numbers first-hand. Honestly, the movie is worth seeing if not for these numbers alone.

When all’s said and done, 42nd Street didn’t quite do it for me, but it certainly was instrumental in paving the way for better ones to come along. If you love shows like The Producers, White Christmas or Noises Off, give a shout out to the musical that first showed us the nitty gritty life of theater production – where the underworld can meet the elite – 42nd Street.


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