The narrative for 42nd Street is as familiar and comfy as Bing Crosby’s crooning baritone. The ingénue with a song in her heart comes to the big city with even bigger dreams. She gets a small part in a Broadway show. She works hard. She gets noticed. And out of the blue, the day before the show opens, the temperamental star injures herself. The ingénue is plucked from the chorus line to replace the star. The show becomes a hit and a new star is born. That is the bare bones plot of many a backstage musical cranked out by Hollywood in the 1930’s. It is, indeed, a timeworn narrative; however, the motion picture 42nd Street, conceived during the feisty, freewheeling pre-code era of Hollywood, is abundantly fleshed out with provocative patter, eye-popping dance numbers, and an unusual denouement.
Most of the stagehands are looking to score on the girls in the chorus. The streetwise chorus girls (with the exception of the ingénue, played by Ruby Keeler) are armed with an arsenal of wisecracks to keep all lechers at bay. On the other hand, as struggling dancers, they are apt to do whatever it takes to get a part in the show; that includes a willingness to kick up their legs off stage as well as on. One of them (Ginger Rogers) even goes by the moniker, "Anytime Annie". In other words, there’s a bit of a smudge on the rosy cheeks of this "Depression Era" fairy tale.
The genius of Berkeley is another facet that makes this movie such a gem: the groundbreaking dance numbers designed by Busby Berkeley. “Designed” being more apropos than “choreographed.” Assembling his routines with the camera in mind, Berkeley created unique and truly cinematic experiences. In this and other films, many Berkeley routines would begin on a stage, they’d gradually expand, and before you knew it the dance numbers were extending beyond anything a normal stage could hold. Also, the camera would go places and shoot from angles that no one watching a stage show would be able to see. For example, Berkeley will station the camera directly above the dancers, turning their performance into a kaleidoscope of patterns created by limbs and torsos moving in unison and counterpoint.
Finally, the melancholy denouement is a risky note on which the filmmakers chose to conclude the film. Yes, the ingénue becomes an overnight sensation, and yes, she discovers her true love. This is the high note where a movie like this would normally fade triumphantly to black. Instead, we are led outside where the director of the Broadway show, exhausted and drained by all he had to expend to keep the production together, overhears the exuberant comments of audience members as they stream out of the theater. All the praise is heaped on other participants in the production. No one wants to give him any credit for the show's success. He remains isolated, slumped on a stairway in the alley, possibly wondering if any of this has been worthwhile.
After eighty-nine minutes of risqué hijinks and promises of fairy tale resolutions, 42nd Street ends on a poignant note that will either baffle or intrigue you. It is a daring choice that elevates the film above the more standard fare coming out of Hollywood at the time.
42nd Street airs on TCM February 2, at 4:45am (ET).