42nd Street (Blu-ray Review)11 May, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell.
Though its bonus extras advance some, but not prodigiously, beyond what the 2006 DVD offered, I get the impression that Warner Entertainment is especially happy with the way that this landmark musical turned out on Blu-ray, as well it should be. Well-scrubbed but not lacquered, this is just what one would hope a pioneer Depression-grounded movie would look like in the modern home viewing era — and, if and when RKO’s Astaire-Rogers musicals finally go the high-def route, we can all be happy if they’re in this ballpark. These blacks are black, baby.
The movie that established Busby Berkeley as a major force at Warner came out in early March of ’33 — almost 10 months before Fred and Ginger first appeared together in that year’s Flying Down to Rio (albeit in supporting roles). Thus, the former’s hefty box office performance makes it undeniable that 42nd Street did indeed, as claimed, regenerate and possibly even save the movie musical after oversaturation wore out the genre’s welcome in talking pictures’ earliest days. On a revitalization level, Street’s sweaty chorus kids kind of did for musicals what John Ford’s Stagecoach did for Westerns at the end of the decade — though in this case, there wasn’t any forum for, say, Stagecoach’s Andy Devine (though Guy Kibbee, yes). The Brothers Warner could be crapshooters from time to time in their choice of green-lit material — and not just when it came to the social muckraking of a Heroes for Sale or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
Headlining here, but not necessarily dominating, are Warner Baxter (previous winner of the second best actor Oscar for playing the Cisco Kid in In Old Arizona) and Bebe Daniels — in real life, only about 31 during filming but giving the impression that she might be a little older here. In folkloric show biz style, she’s the seasoned trooper whose injury gives the ingénue (Ruby Keeler) her Big Break and resulting chance to shine in a Broadway musical — but in this case, Daniels isn’t the shrew this prototype can sometimes be on screen. Though temperamental and seen throwing a nifty fit in one scene, she’s kind of a firebrand with a cause. Part of her duties include (and this understandably chaps her) playing up to Kibbee’s elderly hayseed show backer: from Cleveland, which is apparently enough by itself to categorize him as a rube. As for Baxter, he’s characterized as one whose doctors have warned him against overworking himself due to bad overall bad health — but otherwise, he hasn’t much of a backstory. He’s all work, which means pounding the same ethic into show cast members who include Ginger Rogers (who was certainly getting around on screen in those days); chorus “juvenile” Dick Powell (in just his second year on screen) and Keeler.
If one were to have predicted from the 1933 evidence that tenor Powell, in a decade, would become one of the great film noir actor of all time (not that noir yet existed), it would have been time to call the funny farm. But he did. As for Keeler, she’s an acquired taste, but sincerity accounts for something, just as it did for Maria Montez (who also came into her own, if that’s the way to put it, a decade later as well). In fact, the biggest Montez fan I’ve ever known also loved Keeler — and this, of course, is the definitive Keeler role. Her tap dancing was never going to put the Nicholas Brothers out of business, and we keep rooting for her not to fall on her face. But she had the last laugh: a huge early-1970s stage success in the revival of No, No Nanette (supervised, as it turned out, by a still-kicking Berkeley) and then an Oscarcast presenter appearance in the late ’70s that got the kind of audience ovation that, say, Kate Hudson never seems to get.
With the early Berkeley films from Warner Bros., it’s just a question of how entertaining the early portions are because we know the finales are going to be stupendous. (See also Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, which followed the same year in one of those Preston Sturges-like “strings” you can’t believe anyone ever pulled off in a compressed time span.) In this case, the triumvirate concluder consists of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” (also spoofed in a “Merrie Melodie” bonus extra carried over from the DVD); “Young and Healthy” (with that great through-the-gams shot for its finale); and the even more expressively staged title tune — all three from the Harry Warren/Al Dubin songbook.
But the early going, which even throws in gangsters, is a better-than-decent table-setter and even gives Daniels a standard to perform: “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” which Frank Sinatra much later included to memorable effect on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, his greatest up-tempo album. Accompanying Daniels are three younger males from the chorus, the pre-Code implication being that Daniels enjoys this boy-toy trio for romping recreational purposes. This isn’t me talking (though I’m happy to concur) but, rather, some of the commentators on a newly produced featurette that traces the film’s origins and production. It’s the kind of insight you get when John Waters is one of the interviewees.