When I was 18 years old, my school’s musical of the year was 42nd Street. Now, almost six years on, I still feel safe in considering the length of time it took to audition, rehearse and perform that musical as one of the best times of my life – my friends of the cast are almost certain to agree with me there.
Now it may be that I’m biased on this front, given my fond memories of the show I was in (save for one particularly evil wig), but the 1933 movie musical on which the show is based is just…well it’s great, but it’s nowhere near as good as its contemporaries.
The times have dramatically changed since the days of Busby Berkely and his musical numbers (or in the case of 42nd Street, his numbers of legs) but his musicals are definitely the pioneers of the movie musicals we know today. The thing is, most of them still hold up today – Golddiggers of 1933 is an absolute delight to behold, and Footlight Parade is a complete spectacle even today (in the best possible way).
42nd Street on the other hand, while not a chore, is certainly on the weaker side of the scale. Or perhaps “unfocussed” would be better. There’s essentially a triangle of components that make up the movie: 1) spectacular dance numbers, 2) 1930s sassmouth dialogue, and 3) awkward love subplots that don’t quite work. The problem is, the triangle doesn’t quite fit in the square hole that’s demanded by the putting-on-a-broadway-show plotline.
The movie is enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but it seems like the brothers Warner rushed in to make a movie without having everything in place, and it’s like the separate elements of the movie are spinning plates that keep threatening to overbalance as the running time ticks on.
However, the good is there when it wants to be. Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers are good fun to watch as the sassy veterans of the chorus line, the men of the cast are suitably snappy in the way they take three times as long to say what they mean for the sake of biting dialogue. And those musical numbers are incredible. I like that they completely do away with the conceit of it being a stage musical to bring us shots like this:
I also like the raciness of the pre-Hays era Hollywood show. Even though it’s tame by today’s standards I love the innuendo in the audition scenes (“Oh it’s Anytime Annie – she only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question!”) as well as some of the wit of the era (“It musta been tough on yer mother not havin’ any kids!”)
Also, that’s not a body stocking under the fox…
And of course, my favourite of the jokes – when our doe-eyed ingénue has brought a recently-punched-up friend home and her prudish landlady gives her the run-down on having men in the house, and how wise she is as to what goes on under her roof, only for this to appear in the background:
The love stories of the film just bring it to a halt, and they’re forced in so haphazardly that it means the resulting film suffers for it.
I like the film. In fact, I have a soft spot for it. But in comparison to the other films that came out in its wake, it just doesn’t hold up as strongly. It’s great as a piece of nostalgia (…for a time period I never lived in, but go figure) and the final presentation of the Broadway show is phenomenal. It has heaps of eye-popping moments, but by far the best is when all the chorus girls assemble on stage to assemble the skyline of New York City – I still think it’s one of the coolest things out there.
So, unfocussed it may be, weaker in comparison with its contemporaries too, but still a great little gem of a movie that deserves its place in history.
And as for its legacy? It’s trickled down into many things. Go back to some of the best Looney Tunes, and you’ll see its influence both musically and stylistically. The show-within-a-show format helped pave the way for things like Singin’ in the Rain, and it’s plot eventually got retold from a more malicious angle in All About Eve…which of course means that we can blame/thank 42nd Street for the wonderful miracle of terribleness that is Showgirls.
Also, if you have a thing for legs, this is the movie for you: