Sunday, February 3, 2008

Seminal movies: 42nd Street

As part of TCM's "31 Days of Oscar", there will be an interesting juxtaposition of movies overnight between Monday and Tuesday: the Best Picture of 1929, The Broadway Melody of 1929, will be airing at 12:15 AM ET on February 5, followed at 2:15 AM by 42nd Street.

Both movies have threadbare plots: in Broadway Melody a sister vaudeville act (played by Bessie Love and Anita Page) go to New York City to make a name for themselves, but the act hits a bump when one of them is noticed on Broadway, and falls for the bright lights (and rich men) of the big city. 42nd Street, on the other hand, takes a look behind the scenes of a Broadway revue, with every cliché known to man: a producer racing against the clock of life; a sugar daddy (character actor Guy Kibbee) threatening the production); a star who gets injured just before opening night, and on and on. Yet both movies are well worth watching in spite of their plots.

Broadway Melody doesn't have that many musical numbers; and what numbers it does have are very stagey. In the earliest days of talking pictures, a lot of movies looked like filmed plays in that they give the appearance of having a camera in the back of a theater, which records the action on stage. Broadway Melody overcomes this in that it has better production values for its musical numbers, and somewhat more elaborate numbers than in other early movie musicals. Indeed, the lack of imagination of other musicals meant that the genre was in serious decline by the early 1930s.

The movie that changed all this was 42nd Street. Released in early 1933, 42nd Street is revolutionary compared to Broadway Melody thanks to the work on its musical numbers by choreographer Busby Berkeley. Berkeley figured that since these were movies, and not stage musicals, there was no reason to have a static camera in the back of the theater filming the action; instead, you could put cameras almost anywhere -- notably, above the action, filming the dancers making all sorts of geometric figures. Also, not being confined to the live, one-chance action of a stage, you could produce much more elaborate musical numbers through editing and the advantages of the bigger studio soundstages. The final two musical numbers, "Shuffle off to Buffalo" and "42nd Street" show this fairly well, although it must be said that Berkeley hadn't reached his zenith yet. Compared to later movies -- even just to two other 1933 movies like Flying Down to Rio with chorus girls dancing on the wings of airplanes and Gold Diggers of 1933 with its curving staircases and neon violins, 42nd Street looks downright primitive. But put 42nd Street next to Broadway Melody, and you can see why it's such an important movie in Hollywood history: it went a long way towards revitalizing the entire genre of the musical for the next quarter of a century.

A few final notes about the casts: In 42nd Street, Ginger Rogers has a fairly sizeable role -- but astonishingly, does not dance even one step. And watch the very beginning of Broadway Melody: that music publisher is none other than veteran character actor James Gleason.

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