Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Rian James, James Seymour, and Whitney Bolton (screenplay, based on a
novel by Bradford Ropes), Lloyd Bacon (director), Busby Berkeley (musical
director) 42nd Street / 1933
Although the film musical 42nd Street was
a huge hit when released in 1933, while still watchable, today it often seems
static and clichéd. The plot is far too busy with backstage romantic links:
Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) allows the wealthy theater-backer Abner Dillon
(Guy Kibbee) to court her while still having secret liaisons with her former
dance partner Pat Denning (George Brent). Pat, in turn, is clearly attracted to
the newcomer Peggy Sawyer (the often awkward Ruby Keeler) and so too is the singer
Billy Lawler (Dick Powell). Ann Lowell, (“Anytime Annie”) is having an affair
with dance director Andy Lee (George E. Stone) which assures her and her
girlfriend chorine, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel), and, soon after, the
innocent newcomer, Peggy, will be included in the large cast; and later, when Pretty
Girl backer Dillon catches on to Dorothy’s double-timing, he takes up with “Anytime
Annie.” Is it any wonder, with so much time devoted to bedroom conversations
that, at moments, the whole affair seemingly has fallen asleep.
director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) seems free of romantic inclinations—although
in the original novel by Bradford Ropes he has a gay relationship with Billy.
Too bad the code of the day couldn’t allow for that; in the movie he is simply
self-involved, worried about his health, in need of a hit so that he can recoup
all his losses from the Depression and retire.
critic Daniel Eagan notes, Busby Berkeley’s dance numbers seemed innovative in
their day; but, I’d argue, they now appear as fascistic band-marching numbers,
with the dancers mostly moving in lockstep or hurriedly shifting into new lines
as they regroup to create kaleidoscopic circles, squares, and other geometric
shapes. While this certainly does result in some remarkable cinematic
images—which renders the reality of a stage play entirely implausible—real dancing
occurs only sporadically, and when it does it appears these lovely ladies and
chorus guys are clumsily pounding the floor with their gams rather than
tinkle-toeing across a Broadway stage. Berkeley might have made a perfect director
for a fascist parade, but through the often inventive patterns into which he
abstracts the human body, we lose the entire purpose of dance. Dance, after
all, is the opposite of “living statues."
Is it any wonder that poor Dorothy, the star of his production, twists
her foot and must drop out, and that Peggy, her replacement is told by director
Marsh "I'll either have a live
leading lady or a dead chorus girl?” By the time Ruby gets her chance to hoof
it, she does almost truly look exhausted—or at least scared out of her wits.
Meanwhile, the busy cast
members “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” sing out the joys of being “Young and Healthy”
and mumble their praises to “42nd Street,” whipping up enough musical froth to
make the viewer feel he’s getting a bang for his buck. Peggy becomes a star,
Marsh can retire, Annie gets a rich “angel,” and Bebe rejoins her true love,
Pat. As the Gershwins queried in their “I’ve Got Rhythm,” Who could ask for
The tropes of this film were
so often repeated that you’d think audiences never did ask for more—although
fortunately they got it in Astaire and Rogers and the later musicals I
celebrate in “Shall We Dance: Several Film Dancers” in My Year 2000.