"The greatest aggregation of dancing beauties ever seen together on stage or screen".
That's what they wrote back in 1933 to publicise 42nd Street and it's still true today, even after the glories of Chicago.
42nd Street is one of the earliest of the 'making of' movies - this is a film about the making of the consummate Broadway musical. We take part in the initial preparation. We watch the casting calls, as the director tells the girls to hitch their dresses higher. We suffer through their ordeals, the crisis as the leading-lady collapses with a sprained ankle, and the triumph as the unknown girl is yanked from the chorus and given the lead.
It's all a cliche now; I guess it was pretty well a cliche back then too. But it's done so well, and still comes up so fresh and exciting.
The singing lead is Dick Powell. He is a great performer, and his singing has just the lift and lightness needed as vocal texture while the chorus girls go through their paces. The director is Busby Berkeley, here just getting started on his way to becoming Hollywood's most famous choreographer and dance director. This is the first time we can see his trademark - the distant shot, when the girls start to revolve and become human parts of an awesomely choreographed kaleidoscope.
For his most spectacular scene, Busby had the studio cut through the roof so he could track his camera high enough to just give us a screen-full of flish-flashing legs. It's a spectacular achievement even today. There is only one real down-side to this movie - the casting of Ruby Keeler in a lead role, where she comes over more as heifer than hoofer, as she lumpenly pounds the boards.
But there's lots of compensation for her, including the early appearance of Ginger Rogers, in her days before Fred. The final 15 minutes of this movie are amongst the finest ever produced in any filmed musical. You'll end up watching the complete movie maybe a couple of times, and the final sequences endlessly, without count. It's totally addictive, as the best musical cinema always is.
I would place this in my personal list of the ten greatest Hollywood musicals, alongside Swingtime and The Gay Divorcee, Three Little Words, Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, Meet Me in St. Louis and right on through up to the latest entrant in that list, this year's Chicago.
42nd Street is earlier than the others and some details have become dated. But the energy, beauty and inventiveness of it survives. It's an important movie in the history of movie musicals - but more than that, it's still grand entertainment.
This 1933 movie has been transferred from an excellent print and the quality is simply outstanding.
While the sheer quality mightn't be as high as possible under the PAL system with its extra resolution, this NTSC transfer is still amongst the best I've seen from films of this vintage. The crispness of the black and white tones is a sheer pleasure to behold - it shimmers at times with a platinum-toned radiance.
When black and white is this good, who needs colour?
The mono Dolby sound is surprisingly clear, strong and musical, without too much harshness. There is peaking at times, as would be expected from a film of this period. But if there has been some digital taming of the soundtrack, it hasn't muted what is an outstanding soundtrack for its period.