I’ve always heard such good things about 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, USA, 1933), so I’m kind of scratching my head at the extremely lackluster film I actually watched. This kind of backstage story that Hollywood seemed to churn out in countless variations during the 1930’s are always a lot of fun, typically an opportunity to showcase a lot of witty/bitchy banter, shrewd satire, colorful personalities, to say nothing of impressive sets, costumes and choreography.
Most of these are rags-to-riches tales with wide-eyed ingenues discovering their fated fame as superstars, and I suppose in this critical way, 42nd Street is different than most. Because the star that is born in this situation is Ruby Dee, whose leaden feet rather inexplicably seems to inspire a sense of awe in everyone she interacts with (or, more often, inadvertently stumbles upon). So much so that they all her peers help her along to her destined spot as the last-minute replacement for the show’s leading role, even at the sacrifice of their own careers. Eh…? It’s almost as if the film is pulling a prank on the audience―how else could this clearly mediocre dancer/actress make such a startlingly easy ascendancy to the top? But the audience never gets a wink to let us in on a joke, if it is, in fact, a joke.
That said, it might be a bit harsh to pin most of the film’s shortcomings on Keeler, especially since there’s a surprising lack of zip in the rest of the proceedings in general, even in the Busby Berkeley extravaganza that concludes the film, which seems a bit… heavy. For my money, one merely need look as far as the vastly superior Joan Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady from the same year–it might lack the participation of Berkeley, but it’s a the chance to watch a real star claw her preordained way to the top!