Samantha Pinter-Thompson wrote a featured article a few years ago on musical theatre. One of the things she said that stuck in my mind was “As a rule, the people who declare that they hate musicals have also seen very few.” I probably fit into that category of people. I’m not proud of it, I guess I just simply haven’t found one that I really like. When it comes to film musicals, it’s pretty much the same. But then I thought hard about my predicament and realised that there are musical elements in a lot of films that I have thoroughly enjoyed. For instance, My Fair Lady, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe or any number of my favourite Martin and Lewis films in which in good old Dean Martin croons in. Ok I’ll admit they are not all strictly musicals. More recently, the acclaimed La La Land bewitched us all, a film described as a musical for people who hate musicals. I was blown away, but more by the fact that two of my favourite contemporary screen stars were happy enough to choose a film to make that required them to burst into song at any given moment. La La Land is interestingly one of many new films of recent years that is breathing new life into a genre that was once a mainstay of movie-goers in the 1930s through to the early 1950s.
All this talk about musicals got me thinking about this current series on Warner Bros films. It would be a travesty not to include 42nd Street here. So I sat through Lloyd Bacon’s backstage story of a naive young woman called Peggy (played by Ruby Keeler) who not only finds love but also fame during the Depression as a Broadway dancer. In fact I sat through it twice and even enjoyed most of the eye-popping song and dance numbers.
From the very first feature ‘talkie’ in 1927 with the Jazz Singer, Hollywood, in particular, Warner studios would set in motion a frenzy of musicals. (For Warner studios it was also a complete departure to the realism and cynical nature of their gangster films.) In doing so, Warner’s set out to find the best tunesmiths and choreographers available. One of the biggest assets it seized upon was innovative Broadway director Busby Berkley. In short, his spectacular techniques in filming 42nd Street ‘s choreographed productions with booms and monorails would make the film a huge hit and in effect revolutionize musicals and to some degree filmmaking.
The glamour and glitz, the backstage outfits, the girls, the sexual innuendo, the dramatic storyline and the skill and arrangement and scale of all its musical numbers is all incredible. Berkeley’s overhead shots, in particular, were beautifully choreographed, especially the scenes with a mass of dancers who swayed and posed in an array of geometric shapes. There is even a wonderful tracking shot in which the camera darts between dancer’s legs. However the show-stopping title song ‘42nd Street’ finale sequence is arguably my favourite part of the film that unfolds to reveal a backdrop of a streetscape in which Peggy first sets the scene with a charming song and dance. As a giant curtain opens from behind Peggy, it reveals a vibrant smorgasbord of street life, presumably on 42nd Street, which even includes a sensationally choreographed murder. Berkeley’s camera precedes to follow a number of interesting characters before we are next introduced to a column of dancing chorus girls along the street. The scene eventually extends into a surreal New York skyline made from giant cut-outs. It ends with the cut-outs parting to reveal a skyward bound stairway, where the two song and dance leads, Billy (Dick Powell) and Peggy (Ruby Keeler) embrace and kiss before pulling down a huge curtain to end the number.
Interestingly, 42nd Street made a star of both Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. They would both sign on to star in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, two huge follow-up Warner Bros. hits that featuring spectacular new numbers by Busby Berkley. As for all the other major Hollywood studios, they would try to outdance and outsing Warner Bros. and each other at every possible turn, hoping to find their own little bit of Berkley magic.
Photo Credit: The header movie still image from the film 42nd Street is courtesy of Warner Bros. I make use of the image under the rationale of ‘fair use’ to help illustrate arguably one of cinema history’s greatest musicals. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the readers understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. I am not the uploader of the You Tube clip.