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2014's Whiplash was the brutal, Bizarro World version of those inspirational melodramas about eccentric instructors and the pupils whose creative potential they were hell-bent on liberating. Its characters strove for genius, and for their sins, they made it, guaranteeing themselves lifetimes of suffering for their art like those of the masters they sought to emulate. This isn't the first occasion of the musical genre peeking at the harsh reality behind the curtain of performance, but that such subversion could be spotted in the golden age of flashy, frivolous, song-and-dance spectacles is a bit surprising. 1933's 42nd Street is credited with helping revitalize audience interest in tuneful romps upon its release and inspiring a wave of imitators, but there's so much more to this picture than its legendary, Busby Berkeley-choreographed set pieces. Although its music may be catchy and its technical accomplishments nothing short of marvelous, there's a darkness under the film's glitzy surface that seals the deal on it being among the most observant takes on its subject matter ever filmed.

42nd Street
All of Broadway is abuzz with the news of producers Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks) mounting a new revue. With famous director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) standing at the helm and the beloved Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) in the lead role, their cavalcade Pretty Lady is primed to be a smash -- if it ever gets off the ground. As the public waits for the musical spectacular with bated breath, forces behind the scenes keep the show teetering on the edge of oblivion. Following a career wracked with unending stress and press scrutiny, Julian has banked everything on Pretty Lady being the show to solidify his legacy and let him walk away from the business for good. Thus commences the five weeks of hell known as rehearsal, wherein dancers are run ragged, songs are cut, and everyone's patience is tested, in service of Julian making sure the final product is as perfect as can be. Meanwhile, romance blooms amongst the cast, as rising chorus girl Peggy (Ruby Keeler) and juvenile actor Billy (Dick Powell) strike up a close kinship, while Dorothy reconnects with an old love (George Brent) -- as she strings along Pretty Lady's lecherous backer (Guy Kibbee). There's an old saying that the show must go on, but with all of these shenanigans afoot, will Julian's baby go bust before opening night?

42nd Street aspires to expose the theatrical world's unsavory underbelly and still make it all feel so alluring, a tall order that would test any movie's multitasking skills. Fortunately, director Lloyd Bacon ( A Slight Case of Murder) and company have brought their "A" game, effectively selling us on both the hardships its ensemble endures and the payoff of their efforts on the stage. As it's a showbiz musical, basically all of the film's numbers take place within the context of a rehearsal or performance, with the lyrics themselves having very little to do with the story. But that's more than okay, as the words, the melodies, and the visuals that accompany them all contribute a little something. The lyrics pop with a touch of pre-code naughtiness (especially in the "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" sequence), and in typical Berkeley fashion, the photography defiantly thumbs its nose at the thought of aesthetic confines. With its dancers assembled into nigh insane geometric patterns filmed from jaw-dropping angles, 42nd Street's elaborate production numbers are unabashedly more for our benefit than realistic reflections of what the in-movie audiences are watching. While I can certainly understand how fourth wall-obliterating moments such as these can rub some the wrong way, they're so visually-appealing, expertly-crafted, and charged with energy, it's hard to imagine someone not admiring them even just from a technical standpoint.

42nd Street
But then there are 42nd Street's more sinister aspects, which Bacon allocates as much effort to doing justice as he does the movie's toe-tapping interludes. Although it may not come across as very bleak overall (this is still the 1930s, so don't expect Day of the Locust levels of brutality), the film still possesses an honesty that few glittery musicals of the era could claim. Julian verbally abuses his crew, the performers are worked to the point of exhaustion, and the only reason that the show has any money is because Dorothy is essentially prostituting herself for a dirty old man. Even the journey of Keeler's sweethearted Peggy from faceless member of the chorus to star in the making has a tragic bent. When Peggy is called upon to fill a prominent role in Pretty Lady, she's subjected to a grueling crash course rehearsal, and while she succeeds, we're left with the distinct impression that this won't be the last time she'll be put through the process. Don't get me wrong, 42nd Street is also a very funny film (thanks mostly to Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel, and their catty one-liners), but even the humor comes from a place of pain, a working knowledge of show business and all its seductive trickery. The cast is a dream team of classic character actors who each play their roles (great or small) to a tee, though the flick does leave you wishing it had hung around certain figures for a little bit longer. At just short of 90 minutes, the film only has so much time to ration out amongst the members of its talented and robust ensemble, and while the acting is uniformly solid, a couple subplots get lost in the shuffle and don't arrive at the satisfying conclusions one might like them to receive.

42nd Street
Video
Warner Archive presents 42nd Street in a fullscreen, 1080p, 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Save for a select few instances wherein the picture quality drops during dialogue-heavy scenes (most likely the result of working off of an iffy source print that was the best they could do), the transfer is top-notch. The grand musical numbers that take center stage in the final act obviously benefit the most, although the straight dramatic scenes are quite crisp in their own right. The black-and-white blend holds up throughout, providing a much sharper picture in comparison to Warner Archive's Yankee Doodle Dandy Blu-ray this past fall.

Audio
42nd Street comes with an English 2.0 Mono, DTS-HD Master Audio track. The crackling, popping, and hissing that's fairly common in features of this era are nowhere to be heard. The overall presentation is very well-balanced, with equal care dedicated to making both the snappy dialogue and the Harry Warren/Al Dubin songs come through loud and clear.

42nd Street
Extras
  • From Book to Screen to Stage (18:02), which covers 42nd Street's literary origins, the making of the film itself, and (very briefly) its resurrection as a Broadway show.
  • Hollywood Newsreel (8:55), a promotional featurette with some of the movie's stars.
  • A Trip Thru a Hollywood Studio (10:06), an embellished but somewhat informative behind-the-scenes look at the studio production process of the time.
  • Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer (9:08), a medley of some of the songwriter's most famous tunes, starring Warren himself.
  • The 42nd Street Special (5:45), a one-reel chronicle of the train Warner Bros. commissioned in the film's honor venturing to Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential inauguration.
  • Two "Merrie Melodies" cartoons that heavily feature songs from the 42nd Street soundtrack: Young and Healthy (7:27) and Shuffle Off to Buffalo (6:51), the latter of which contains some more culturally-insensitive content prefaced by a disclaimer.
  • A theatrical trailer (2:20)

(Note: While the "Merrie Melodies" cartoons appear to be in very good shape, most of the special features here have been presented in standard definition.)

42nd Street
Overall
42nd Street is the latest (and, thus far, greatest) picture to join the Warner Archive Collection's still-growing library of Blu-ray musicals. For fans of the genre, the film itself is reason enough to warrant a purchase, but its decent line-up of extras, perfect sound, and near-impeccable visual quality should clinch your hard-earned dough with no reservations. 42nd Street is a whip-smart masterpiece of melody that's been given a new lease on life, in an edition that will hopefully pave the way for more Berkeley vehicles and other vintage tunefests to make their high-def debuts in the near future.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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