Directed by: Lloyd Bacon.
Written by: Rian James & James Seymour based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.
Starring: Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh), Bebe Daniels (Dorothy Brock),
The highlights of the movie are the musical numbers that take up the majority of the final third of the film. In the hour leading up to those numbers, we are treated to witty backstage banter, and numerous romantic entanglements. This part is clichéd, yet fun. Warner Baxter was never a subtle actor, and here, he’s perfectly suited for the egotistical Julian Marsh, who was once the finest musical comedy director on Broadway, but has squandered all of his money. He wants one last big hit before he retires. Luckily, he’s able to cast Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), in the lead role for his new production, which means financing is secure because the exceedingly rich Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is in love with her, and will give any amount of money to a show with her in it. But Dorothy is in love with Pat Denning (
Brent), her old vaudeville partner, who never did become a star, and is tired
of mooching off of Dorothy. He meets Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a young,
talented chorus girl in the show, and the two flirt. Peggy also flirts with
Billy Lawlor (Dick Powell), more of her age bracket. Observing all of this with
wry smiles and witty comments are two aging chorus girls (Ginger Rogers and Una
We know what is going to happen before the characters do. These early scenes are handled well by director Lloyd Bacon and his cast – which makes everything lighthearted and witty. Even the various love triangles don’t really provide much in the way of tension, because we can tell from the beginning who belongs with who. These are fine, but nothing all that special. They work, but are largely forgettable.
What isn’t forgettable are the musical numbers that mainly come at the end of the film. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, who also supervised building of the massive sets,
created the modern movie musical numbers as we now know them. Intricately
choreographed, and shot from above (so the chorus girls can make out various
shapes, which of course wouldn’t work on stage, but are Berkley’s main
innovation), the musical numbers – including “You’re Getting to Be a Habit to Me”,
“Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “It Must Be June” and the title song make up the
backbone of the film – and are the main reason to see it. Although the numbers
may strike you as clichéd now, in 1933, they were hugely innovative, and were
the reason why the film was an enormous success for Warner Bros. The film is
credited with saving the then struggling studio, as well as ushering in the
modern movie musical. If for no other
reason, Berkeley 42nd Street
should be seen by film buffs to know how musicals started. True, the movie does
not seem as good today as I’m sure it did in 1933. But that doesn’t mean there
are not delights to be had in watching it.