#266) 42nd Street (1933)


#266) 42nd Street (1933)

OR “The Deuce is Loose!”

Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley.

Written by Rian James and James Seymour. Songs by Al Dubin & Harry Warren. Based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.

Class of 1998

The Plot: “Pretty Lady” is the latest Broadway musical from director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), who is putting his financial standing and physical health on the line to make this show a smash. There are further complications when the show’s lead actress, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) is cheating on producer Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) with her old dance partner Pat Denning (George Brent). Denning is also involved with fresh-faced chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) who’s been flirting with juvenile lead Billy Lawler (Dick Powell). To make matters worse, Dorothy breaks her ankle the night before the show’s out-of-town opening, and Julian chooses Peggy to take her place. That’s a lot of plot resting on a handful of musical numbers.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a fast-moving picture that crackles with great dialogue” and goes on to praise Busby Berkeley and the song score. Weirdly, the only actor who gets a superlative is the “adorable” Toby Wing, who has a non-speaking part in one number.

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “42nd Street” prior to this viewing, and I got to say I was a bit underwhelmed. For the first “backstage musical” this one hits the “backstage” part a lot harder than the “musical”. There are only five songs, and most of them are at the end. The film is justifiably iconic and entertaining enough, but I think “Gold Diggers of 1933” does everything this movie does more successfully. “42nd Street” is on the NFR for its historical significance more than its entertainment value.

Everybody Gets One: Oscar winner Warner Baxter, and Bebe Daniels who, while mostly forgotten today, had her heyday in the silent era. Unfortunately, most of her films have been deemed lost. Check your attics.

Wow, That’s Dated: Lots of Depression talk in this one, plus attitudes towards women in the theater that would not survive the #MeToo environment.

Take a Shot: We get easily one of the top five title numbers of all time. It’s just a shame you have to sit through the rest of the movie to get to it.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit that helped Warner Bros. get through the Depression, “42nd Street” received two Oscar nominations: Best Picture (losing to “Cavalcade”) and Sound Recording (losing to “A Farewell to Arms”). There was no Best Song category yet, but Warren & Dubin would win in 1935 for “Lullaby of Broadway”.

Other notes

  • The film was originally slated to be directed by Mervyn LeRoy, but delays in “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” caused him to be replaced by Lloyd Bacon. LeRoy did, however, get one of his casting choices into the final film: his then-girlfriend Ginger Rogers.
  • I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Jones and Barry are doing a show.
  • Boy the exposition in this movie is not subtle. Surely even Depression era audiences could put two and two together on their own.
  • Ginger Rogers’ character is “Anytime Annie”? I guess the writers were having one last hurrah before the Production Code got implemented.
  • Best line in the movie: “Must’ve been tough on your mother not having any children.”
  • Although many sources state this is Ruby Keeler’s film debut, she has a cameo in 1930’s “Showgirl in Hollywood” alongside her real-life husband Al Jolson.
  • As shown in the film, “It Must Be June” was cut during rehearsals, to be replaced with something about Joan?
  • Oh Ned Sparks, how I’ve missed you and your deadpan demeanor.
  • My god, this is one intense rehearsal process. “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” was more humane to its dancers.
  • Ah the gentle punching of 1930s cinema. Just lightly tap your opponent’s face with your fist and we’ll Foley in the rest later.
  • So much talking. More musical numbers, please!
  • Well, I got my wish with “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”, but is the guy at the end supposed to be dressed like Gandhi? BROWNFACE WARNING, everyone!
  • Andy looks like he should be starring in “The Young Walt Disney Chronicles”.
  • Tap-dancing in heels will never not be impressive. Get it, Ruby Keeler!
  • Claudette Colbert: THAT’S who Bebe Daniels reminds me of! It’s been driving me crazy this whole movie!
  • Did “Pretty Lady” not have a tech rehearsal before opening night?
  • “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star! But no pressure, just remember to have fun out there!”
  • The first Busby Berkeley trademark overhead shot doesn’t happen until 83 minutes into the movie. It’s worth the wait.
  • The title number finale is lively and rightly remembered, but once again I must ask how any of this would fit on a real theater stage. Now Busby, we’ve talked about this.
  • Did we need the final scene of Marsh sulking by the stage door? We couldn’t have ended on a literal high note?


  • “42nd Street” launched a series of backstage musicals, many of them featuring Busby Berkeley’s innovative choreography. “Gold Diggers of 1933” was already in production when “42nd Street” was released, but does feature many of the same cast and creatives. The success of “42nd Street” did, however, help increase the budget on Warner Bros.’ next backstage musical: “Footlight Parade”.
  • After seeing his work on “42nd Street”, Warner Bros. hired Busby Berkeley full-time. His influence on the movie musical can still be felt 85 years later.
  • Cashing in on the ‘20s and ‘30s nostalgia craze Broadway was experiencing throughout the ‘70s, David Merrick produced a stage version of “42nd Street” in 1980 that was a runaway hit. The show incorporated many songs from the…oh my god, Gower Champion died!
  • The “legs shot” from the “Young and Healthy” number has been spoofed over the years, most memorably in “The Big Lebowski”.
  • Cool, I can reference “The Drew Carey Show”!
  • Many performers have had their own “42nd Street” moment where they were plucked from the chorus to play the lead and became a star overnight. Catherine Zeta-Jones had her moment during a production of…“42nd Street”!

9 thoughts on “#266) 42nd Street (1933)”

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