Play It Again: 42nd Street

Play It Again: 42nd Street. By Jess Lomas.

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which classic-film connoisseur Jess Lomas revisits a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up … or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).

Few choreographers can rival the famous Busby Berkeley, who brought the glamour of stage musicals to the silver screen and created some of the most memorable dance sequences ever committed to film. In 1933, his work could be seen in four productions: Roman Scandals, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street.

In 42nd Street – directed by Lloyd Bacon and with a screenplay adapted by Rian James and James Seymour from the Bradford Ropes novel – Warner Baxter plays Broadway director Julian Marsh. His health is suffering, as is his bank account after the 1929 stock market crash, but Marsh attempts to stage one last show with the help of a wealthy beneficiary. Bebe Daniels stars as Dorothy Brock, who is set to play the lead in the show until she breaks her ankle and is forced to retire the role to newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). There’s also several love stories going on behind the scenes, with Dorothy taking advantage of the show’s beneficiary while also rendezvousing with her old flame Pat Denning (George Brent). Meanwhile, newcomer Peggy finds herself falling for the show’s male lead Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

It’s a star studded musical if ever there was one, and includes an early performance from the fast footed Ginger Rogers. 42nd Street is a real treat for lovers of Broadway, showing the casting and rehearsal process as well as showcasing twenty glorious minutes of Busby Berkeley choreographed production numbers. The desperation of the women is palpable as they dance as though their lives depended on it and fight off the sabotage attempts from those around them.

Nominated for two Academy Awards including Best Picture, 42nd Street was another milestone for Warner Brothers, who had brought “talking pictures” to the world six years earlier with The Jazz Singer. With 42nd Street, they began to lead the pack when it came to experimental filming techniques. Embodying all that is show business in just one line – “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – 42nd Street is a real gem.

Discuss: 42nd Street!

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