Wednesday, March 23, 2011

42nd Street (1933)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Five days before 42nd Street premiered in New York, Franklin Roosevelt was first sworn in as president. The next day, Roosevelt closed all United States banks and froze all financial transactions, a bank holiday that would last for eight days. The day of the film's premiere, March 9th, 1933, Congress began its first 100 days of enacting the New Deal. This was the world that audiences were living in when 42nd Street was released. Viewed through a modern context, the film seems short on plot and character and unremarkable for all but the final 20 minutes. When viewed through the lens of early 1932, it is easy to see why 42nd Street was such a beloved film.

42nd Street is the granddaddy of backstage musicals. A Broadway company works to put on Pretty Lady, a musical. Just before the opening light, the company's female lead (Bebe Daniels) sprains our ankle, and the film's young heroine (Ruby Keeler in her breakout role) must fill in to replace her. A few subplots weave through the film, but this is the crux of the story. One of the difficulties of evaluating older films is that what has often become formulaic was once brand new, and this is the case with 42nd Street. The conventions of the backstage musical - the wide-eyed newcomer, the cynical older performers, the tyrannical director - all were brand new when 42nd Street debuted. What seems conventional now was in no way conventional then; viewing the film with this in mind, it is impossible not to appreciate 42nd Street.

The film was released only six years after the first true musical, The Jazz Singer, and it is almost unbelievable how much the filmmakers (directors Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley) were able to do so soon after the advent of the genre. Much has been made of Busby Berkeley's bird's eye choreography, and this choreography is on stunning, albeit brief, display here. Berkeley was a true cinematic pioneer, and the beautiful geometric shapes he creates out of his dancers (it's not a surprising realization that he was nearly the same age as M.C. Escher) are some of the most recognizable images in cinematic history. What is overlooked is how talented a choreographer Berkeley was in non-overhead shots. The film's final song, Forty-Second Street, is perhaps even more impressive than the overhead choreography. The camera flies around the stage, capturing various dance routines depicting life on forty-second street. In an era where the camera was still largely confined to a single spot, Bacon and Berkeley create a sense of freedom and fluidity.

Though the lack of character development in the script doesn't allow for much in the way of "serious acting," the film does feature nice performances by a number of performers, particularly Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels, Guy Kibbee, and a young Ginger Rogers (playing the wonderfully and innuendo-laden named Anytime Annie). No matter what else is successful, an ensemble film without a strong cast will never succeed. The cast is a successful mix of actors who were all relatively new to "talkies" and are clearly working hard to prove themselves.

The first years of sound films ran concurrently with the Great Depression, and thus the catalog of early talkies is filled with escapist films of one kind or another. 42nd Street is one of the most important and lasting of any of these films, helping to launch the careers of many young stars (Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell) and to create the sub-genre of the backstage musical. Though it is definitely dated and feels entirely conventional, it was the film that created most of these conventions, and is one of the most historically significant films of its era.

Remaining: 3161 films, 880 Oscars, 5443 nominations

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