I have a confession to make. In order to write my comments on “42nd Street” I re-watched the film last night… and slept through much of it. Or rather I kept drifting off and whenever I jolted back the film seemed to be on the exact same place as when I left it. Either my naps were really short or nothing substantial happens in “42nd Street”. It is of course entirely disgraceful that I am trying to comment on a film I may have missed substantial parts of, but I did see it before not too long ago and this viewing mainly confirmed the opinions I had already made of this musical. So, bear with me or scoff at me if you must. I am NOT going to see this film anytime soon again, even for writing a review.
When I saw this one the first time round a year ago I did not have so many antique musicals under my belt. Or more specifically I had not yet had the pleasure of acquainting myself with “Footlight Parade” or the musicals with Mr. Astaire. I was convinced that musicals were not for me and “42nd Street” did not do anything to change that sentiment. I have since changed my opinion on that, but watching “42nd Street” again I see why it was not this movie that opened my eyes to musicals.
Reason number 1: The story is sooooo boring.
Some people need to put on a blast of a show. Some newbie straight from the street enters the ensemble and end up being the lead because the original lead, who is a prima donna fractures her foot and leaves the show. Well, that is about that, stretched out about an hour. It is not funny, it is not thrilling and the romances are sort of predictable. The most interesting part is the old pig of a financial backer (Guy Kibbee) who gawks at all the choirgirls and takes his pick for personal use. Naughty naughty old man. But basically he is just disgusting.
Reason number 2: Ruby Keeler
A lot have been said and written about Ruby Keeler playing the newbie Peggy Sawyer. I do not know if she is terribly bad, but she is not particularly interesting either and I suppose that is a necessary trait in a female lead in a musical especially since she is supposed to sing, dance and seduce both local audience (on the stage), general audience (us) and Dick Powell as Billy Lawler. I do not know that you can do that being the faint and clumsy housewifey type. She is best when she is supposed to be bad and not really convincing when she is supposed to be good.
Reason number 3: The surrealism around the songs.
This is a classic Busby Berkeley feature. The songs are supposed to be performed on a stage, but no way that is possible. It is just way to elaborate with angles a spectator in the theater would never get. This bothers me not at all in “Footlight Parade”, but in “42nd Street” it really annoys me. Maybe because the entire film is build up around the backstage life to set up this show. A sort of realism that breaks to pieces the moment the show begins.
In all fairness the film does have something going for it: The title song 42nd Street. That is a truly catchy song and in itself it deserves a lot of credit. If I only saw and heard this song I would think much more highly about this film. Trouble is that it stands very much alone. The other songs do not resonate with me and, well, I already mentioned the plot of the film.
I would like to join in on the chorus that three Busby Berkeley musicals from 1933 is overkill. The list could have managed with one and there the choice would be obvious and it would not be” 42nd Street” if I had any say in it.