One of the first filmed backstage musicals, MGM’s 42nd Street is a razzle-dazzle trip to the beginnings of what would carry Hollywood for the next thirty years. Archetypal characters, business intrigue, the sweat and dedication of the performers, love, politics, and musical number after musical number at the end of the film, this classic literally carries many of the tropes that are still in use today both on stage and on the screen. Saccharine puns and witty banter abound as TEN FAMOUS STARS and their dancing feet bring you down to 42nd street. The songs are memorable, and little can keep one from smiling while watching this “dazzling (film) that brightened the decade and remains a highlight in screen musicals.” (Schneider)
I am a huge fan of Broadway and have seen this film and the stage version on several occasions in my youth. Approaching it as a grown man, I watched the film again with joy and attention as my expectations were met for a classic, early Hollywood studio musical.
Brilliant sets, impressive dance numbers, fun performances, and a toe-tapping pun-riddled script made for an ensemble piece that is about as close to Broadway as one can get on the screen. Many musicals (and films) today deny film the right to be anything but real – and that goes for musicals as well. At times this can lend itself to something entertaining because of its absurdity (Cannibal the Musical), funny because of it’s self-referential, fourth wall comedy while translating it from the stage to the screen (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), but when it is too serious, too realist, and forgets its stage origins, it can actually get weird to watch (RENT, the 2015 ANNIE, and others, and I hate to see what they are going to do with Wicked, and also hate to see what they are going to do with Hamilton so I am just hoping that the OBC stage performance they filmed was edited and directed well with many, many camera angles, and please release it already. I will pay. Take my money.)
Regardless, this is a fun film. It is not nearly on my list of favorite musicals, but the elaborate sets, dance sequences, and original camera work influenced many films that came after it. While I’ll take Dancer in the Dark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, West Side Story, Little Shop Of Horrors, and a hundred other comedies from the same time period over this one, I won’t turn down an opportunity to watch it. I appreciate Lars Von Trier’s film-within-a-film sendup in Dancer in the Dark, and most certainly appreciate it more for what it gave to The Big Lebowski – which I’ll probably end up picking before 42nd Street every time.