42nd Street

Dir. Lloyd Bacon; writ. Bradford Ropes (novel), Rian James & James Seymour; feat. Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Ginger Rogers (NR)

"Jones and Barry are doing a show! Jones and Barry are doing a show!"

Few of us live in a world where news of an upcoming stage production sets tongues wagging. For those who wish they did, the backstage musical is one of Hollywood's greatest creations. The once-flourishing genre transports viewers to an age when Broadway really mattered - all for a tiny fraction of the price of plane fare, dinner at Elaine's, and a Times Square hotel room.

42nd Street
Tuesday, January 27
$10 Texas Public Radio members
$12 non-members
The Bijou at Crossroads Theatre
4522 Fredericksburg 737-0291
42nd Street stands as one of the genre's best-known films, and its plot elements read like a recipe: Take one lecherous financier, suspiciously friendly with the leading lady; one brilliant director for whom the play's success is a matter of life or death; and one girl straight off the bus whose shyness hides a truckload of moxie. Stir together with backbiting and wisecracking, two- and three-timing stage door romances, and a pinch of mobster menace, and let simmer. Then - wait for it! - have the star of the show sprain her ankle the morning of opening night.

If the plot and atmosphere are familiar, with certain tropes ("You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star.") feeling as ritualistic as Christmas mass, the movie surprises with the occasional left-field zinger ("He looks like a Bulgarian boll weevil mourning his first born.") or unusually frank sexual innuendo.

It also derives charm from its own flaws: A long party sequence features some of the worst drunk-acting in history; the ingénue is a horrible flirt, and her introduction to Suitor Number Three is clumsier than a cow on roller skates; the ladies in the chorus sing like the Little Rascals. (All the folks who like to say of contemporary musicals that "so-and-so can't sing" should take a look at the genre's landmarks.)

And it has Busby Berkeley, the legendary choreographer who convinced studios to let him direct the filming of his routines. Berkeley creates winning set-ups for memorable songs like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the title tune, but it is on the weaker ditty "Young and Healthy" that he really wows us - with an astonishing set piece incorporating three concentric revolving platforms, dozens of dancers, and Berkeley's trademark overhead camera. (Big Lebowski fans will grin at the scene's final camera-through-legs shot.) Broadway may be a bloated, Disneyfied shadow of its former self these days, but 42nd Street lives on. •

More by John DeFore



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