The Warner Archive Blu-ray edition of 42nd Street glimmers from the first frame. Even the title card looks magnificent. The credit "Silks by the Cheney Brothers" never looked more glamorous. To see the film that I watched dozens of times as a teenager on a VHS copy recorded from TV this way is almost like seeing an entirely new production.
42nd Street revived the screen musical after a brief period where audiences, tired of the glut of early sound productions, were unwilling to endure another awkward kickline or ungainly dance specialty. It had polished dialogue, full of snap and cynicism, sleek, sharp-witted showgirls and it wasn't afraid to show the unglamorous exhaustion and heartbreak at the center of it all.
It's easy to forget that Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels and George Brent were the headliners of this influential musical. While they are sympathetic and effective in their roles, they always seem to be playing support to the supporting players.
Full of youthful confidence and energy, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler steal the movie--they're the first thing you think of when you hear the title. Not far behind them are the now familiar cast of Warner Bros players: the sleazy boob Guy Kibbee, flat-voiced Ned Sparks, the simultaneously delightful and irritating Una Merkel. And then there's Ginger Rogers, already something special and ready to grab the spotlight.
As much as Ruby Keeler grates on me, with her slow-witted line readings and the anxious way she glances at her clomping feet, she is the only star who could have played the ingénue who becomes a star overnight. Everyone else knows where the bodies are buried, only Keeler can portray a woman who doesn't know enough to realize the full risk of her situation, but is wise enough to raise an eyebrow when a man closes a door behind her. She's equal parts clod and sparkling and perhaps that's the magical combination: she's both girl-next-door and fast-tapping superstar.
Keeler is the only female cast member to get to the top with her taps. Daniels, Merkel, Rogers and the mysterious chorine with a Park Avenue address ("is her homework rough!") all lean on men to get ahead. It's a dark message, barely glossed over by the sprinkling of musical numbers at the end. Even there, the dominance of men is reinforced, with a dancer being stabbed to death in a vignette.
The thrilling 42nd Street finale is a chills-inducing production, because you know how much passion went into it. All the sore feet, shouting and exhaustion have come to this giddy moment and you can see the joy in the performers. Their feeling of accomplishment and delight in performing is palpable. The number brought the fun of musicals back to the silver screen, by showing how much heart they had. After that, a revival of the genre was inevitable.
Special features on the disc include a fascinating featurette on the history of the 42nd Street book and musical, brought over from the DVD release. There are also a couple of cartoons, a newsreel and a short film paying tribute to composer Harry Warren, whose significant contribution to the film and musicals in general is often overshadowed by the flash of Busby Berkeley's dance direction.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.