42nd Street

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

This is a really important, really seminal musical picture. You may not be aware, though, that early sound musicals can really show their age, or at least be off-putting to the uninitiated, or the unprepared. Still, for historical and literacy reasons, you should see it. Still, more than that, you should see it because crazy early sound musicals are some of the most interesting, finally some of the most entertaining films you can see.

Preposterous! Fun! We sometimes wonder what long-ago audiences could have been thinking, but I kind of assume that this played as preposterous fun when it came out, too. Get a load of Ginger Rogers! Her character brings us to an old story—we so often start with a single sense of people, and either we go on and are surprised to encounter their actual complexity and multiplicity, or we just stop there, or choose to ignore the actual abundance. As with so many pre-code (Legion of Decency, mid-1934) pictures, 42nd Street is kind of saucy, but the sauce seems quite proper and well balanced. It’s actually a lot like those José Giovanni gangster pictures in the French 50s and 60s. The reality—show people, in the case of this musical—is probably horrifically coarse, so that we’re happy to be spared the actual details. But as adults, and people living in our actual world, we shouldn’t want to be spared all of the details. The vivid, intense and convicted presentation of a representative selection gives us both cake and eating.

The usual Ruby Keeler observations apply here.  What the…? Her beau in Shuffle Off to Buffalo isn’t a wit behind in hilarious and charming ineptitude. What’s with the Warner Baxter character, I wonder? He’s crazily reactive and punitive, and it seems that we’re still supposed to sympathize with feelings, and countenance his outlandish behaviour. The Crash had crashed quite a long time since, so unless Depression references were just required, that can’t be it. I wonder. Is there a story beneath the story? Are the show people making this film about show people feeling sorry for themselves, and thinking that they’re more amazing and irreplaceable than maybe they are? Giovanni’s gangsters probably felt fairly justified in their lives as well.