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42nd Street, Musical Genius

Updated on January 14, 2014

42nd Street (1933) is a behind the scenes musical story of life on Broadway. It was nominated for a Best Picture (and Sound Recording) Oscar and features all the stars of the day including Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ned Sparks, Allen Jenkins, and Ginger Rogers in all their glory. It is fast moving, refreshing and a sheer joy to watch.

Its titled theme is #97 on AFI's 100 Top Movie Songs of All Time. Baxter's inspiration line to Keeler "Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" is #87 on AFI's 100 Greatest Movie Quotes list. #13 on AFI's 25 Greatest Movie Musicals list.

Although the movie is about the Depression and set during the Depression it has a message of optimism and hope. It is the quintessential film about those who dream of becoming a star on the world's biggest stage.It actually helped save Warner Brothers from bankruptcy and was a contributory force to its growth into a major studio.

Ruby Keeler


Plot Outline

The movie starts with Andy Lee, the dance director auditioning kids for the chorus of 'Pretty Lady'. The show's writers, Bert and Maggie, are pleased with what they see on stage, but they warn the dancers that the seats are expensive and the audience will demand some spectacular dancing. Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has missed the audition and Billy, the romantic lead, tries to help her see the producer, Julian Marsh. He has no patience for latecomers and Peggy rushes off the stage. Meanwhile, Bert and Maggie try to encourage Julian about the show's prospects of success. He is worried about some of the cast, especially Dorothy Brock, the leading lady. Her last hit was ten years earlier, but her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon, is backing the show.

Realizing that she has forgotten her purse, Peggy returns to the stage. Maggie invites her to lunch with three of the girls. The five dance off stage. As they settle in at the Gypsy Tea Kettle, the girls are amused by Peggy's naïvete. They follow with an amusing account of the Broadway facts of life, and dance back to the theater. This number evolves into an audition for Peggy. When Julian walks in he is angry to see Peggy disrupting things again, but he is struck by her remarkable talent. He orders everyone back to work and tells Andy to hire Peggy for the chorus.

Dorothy and Billy begin their rehearsals. The love scene they are rushing through comes under the scrutiny of Abner. He objects to it and handshakes are substituted for kisses.

Peggy, weak and overcome by an exciting day, faints on stage. She is carried to Dorothy's dressing room where Pat Denning, Dorothy's real boyfriend, is waiting. Dorothy walks in, and misreading what she sees, thinks that Pat is two-timing her. Julian suggests that Pat leave town.

Word arrives that the Atlantic City run of the show has been cancelled and that Philadelphia has been substituted. The company packs up for the Arch Street Theatre.

Dress rehearsals begin in Philadelphia. Julian congratulates the kids on a number well done and sends the cast off to relax.

The cast is throwing a party and Peggy asks Julian if he is coming. Captivated by her charm, Julian decides to go. Dorothy, who misses Pat, has drunk a bit too much, and tells Abner to take his money and leave. Abner is ready to close the show, but the kids are able to talk him out of it.

'Pretty Lady' opens spectacularly with We're In the Money. Then Dorothy rushes onstage to lead the Act I finale. She is accidentally knocked down by Peggy and can't get up. A furious Julian fires Peggy and cancels the rest of the performance.

Act II opens with a doctor telling Julian that Dorothy's ankle is broken. Fear and panic spread through the cast. Julian says he will close 'Pretty Lady' for good, but the cast won't give up. The cast thinks that Peggy can save the day. Julian finally agrees that Peggy might be able to take over for Dorothy. Peggy has already left for the train station and Julian rushes after her. Julian convinces Peggy to return.

Peggy has exactly 36 hours to learn 25 pages, 6 songs and 10 dance numbers. As Julian says, by the next evening, he'll have either a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl!

At long last the Broadway curtain opens on 'Pretty Lady'. The show is a fabulous hit and Peggy Sawyer is a sudden sensation. Julian reprises the glory of "42ND STREET." Ahh, a happy ending.

Bebe Daniels

Ruby Keeler

Its A Special Movie

Four of the show's songs became extremely popular, with "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" becoming a standard. In the picture it is sung by Bebe Daniels, as a Broadway star troubled by a slipping career and a mixed-up love life.

Once heard, the Warren-Dublin tunes are unforgettable. Wonderful melodies like Shuffle Off to Buffalo and You're Getting to be a Habit With Me really get the feet tapping and they're just superb. Yet, if possible, Busby Berkeley's choreography and production design overshadows even the music's invaluable contribution. The synchronised steps are electrifying, delicate and captivating, all pointing back to Berkeley's pinpoint accuracy. He really pulls out every stop here, guiding photographer Sol Polito into the middle of his organised mayhem, placing us in a unique vantage point amongst the guys and gals of the line. It's near impossible to over-praise Berkeley's work on 42nd Street.

In many ways director Lloyd Bacon is giving us two events rolled up into one, doubling our entertainment value. Most obviously there's the film about Pretty Lady, a touching and hilarious jaunt into the topsy-turvy land of Broadway. Set against the Depression, there's added bite in knowing that everyone on the payroll is working to survive; with these themes bonded together 42nd Street becomes more like a family album of outrageous relatives than an act of fiction. Yet this is exactly where we're awarded our second string, in the stage show itself. Not content with tracing a path through people's efforts to learn their lines, Bacon presents us with several entire musical numbers. Channelled through agile and nervous foot soldiers, these scenes climax an already stunning production.

The finale of 42nd Street is Berkely's elaborate staging of the title song. Warren's staccato melody provides a perfect basis for tap dancing and rapidly switching camera angles. Ruby Keeler's dancing feet hammer out the message of jazzy night life in mid-Manhattan, and the chorus declaims "a rhapsody of laughter and tears" and the glory of the big parade that goes on for years. What looks like the skyline of New York bursts into squads of dancers, each manipulating a cardboard cutout of a skyscraper, and the number ends with a swift pan to the top of a building, where Dick and Ruby beam with satisfaction, as well they should.

42nd Street is a still marvellous film, entertaining decades after it was created. In my opinion it is better than the modern versions.


The budget for "42nd Street was set at four hundred thousand dollars, a large one for that time, particularly in view of Warners' lagging financial condition. It is doubtful whether the film would have materialized without the enthusiastic drive of Darryl F. Zanuck. His gamble paid off handsomely, and such was the zest and zip of the movie that it opened the door to a new concept in making movie musicals. Much of this was due to the appealingly bizarre and visually fascinating choreography of Busby Berkely, but it was also due to Lloyd Bacon's taut, upbeat direction.

Audiences seeing the picture early in 1933 could hardly fail to be aware that this was a breakthrough in the presentation of song and dance on the screen. Powell and Keeler, Berkely and Bacon, Warren and Dubin, all swept up by fate and thrown together in great success, almost as if in a Warner Brothers Musical. The time, the talents and the elements were in perfect harmony.

ICall it dated, but it's aged to perfection, and the final twenty minute sequence will leave you tapping your toes, with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Movies--never mind musicals--just don't get any better than this. Its an absolute gem.

42nd Street on Amazon

Main Cast List

Warner Baxter... Julian Marsh

Bebe Daniels... Dorothy Brock

George Brent... Pat Denning

Ruby Keeler... Peggy

Guy Kibbee... Abner Dillon

Una Merkel... Lorraine Fleming

Ginger Rogers... Ann

Ned Sparks... Barry

Dick Powell... Billy Lawler

Allen Jenkins... Mac Elroy

Edward J. Nugent... Terry

Robert McWade... Jones

George E. Stone... Andy Lee


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