If MGM's 1929 The Broadway Melody invented the musical, Warner Bros.' 42nd Street saved it. The four years between the two movies had seen the genre driven practically into the ground, as the studios, still struggling with synchronized sound and what to do about it, ground out one ill-advised musical after another, few terribly good as music and most even less impressive as movies. It had gotten so bad that by 1932, theater owners were protecting their box office with signs announcing, for any "suspect" title, "NOT A MUSICAL!" It was into that environment in 1933 that Warner Bros. released 42nd Street, directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Busby Berkeley--and it revived and revolutionized the whole musical genre, by taking it to the long-delayed next step. It was during the making of The Broadway Melody that filmmakers discovered that they could separate the shooting of a musical number from the recording of its music. Berkeley and cinematographer Sol Polito took this notion to the next step by removing the camera from the studio floor. Under their direction, shots were done from overhead angles and other locations from which no person could ever actually observe in real life, and the dancers' motions were, in turn, designed to exploit those angles; in effect, they created the true movie musical, as opposed to a musical that happened to be on film. Bacon's direction of the dialogue portions of the story, with both dramatic and comic content, was also very sure, no surprise for a man later responsible for dramas like The Fighting Sullivans and comedies with Red Skelton, which meant that the movie held up even when there was no dancing or singing on the screen; and when there was, the music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin was downright clever; and the acting, though a little broad by modern standards, was of first caliber, also unusual for a musical, ranging from serious dramatic lead Warner Baxter to comic relief from George E. Stone as the mousy, lecherous stage manager and Guy Kibbee's befuddled, lecherous backer, with Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers at their most delectable. The audience devoured it, and Warner Bros., Berkeley, and company rose to the occasion of delivering more and better musicals like it for much of the rest of the decade.
by Bruce Eder review