42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon / U.S., 1933):

The Solidarity Song of showbiz, on stage the Depression sufferers raise the Tower of Babel and bring down the asbestos curtain. (Altman in The Company tells another version.) The mixed timbre of desperation and snap is swiftly set as the ruined theater director (Warner Baxter) looks out his window at "that gulch down there," and itís unclear whether heís cursing Wall Street or Broadway. For the swarm of troupers hoping for a part in his new production, audition consists mainly of lifting their skirts: "Oh dear, not a calf in the cartload," cracks Ginger Rogersí "Anytime Annie," her faux-cultured accent not quite masking the occasional Bronx bleat. (Watching the rehearsals, producer Guy Kibbee gives a rich rendition of an exhausted fetishist: "After three weeks of this, a leg ainít nothing but something to stand on.") To revive the musical here is to ground it in the grime of the times, the theater exudes a ribald sweatshop atmosphere, reeking of peroxide and swollen toes. The juvenile tenor (Dick Powell) resembles an inflamed ventriloquist dummy, gangsters and casting couches are never far from the wings, the leading lady (Bebe Daniels) is replaced by a sniffling ingťnue (Ruby Keeler) who tap-dances like a weightlifter. And out of all this comes the sublime absurdity of the spectacle, the careful building of the eye-level proscenium thatís exploded by swooping cinematic music. (To tell when Busby Berkeley takes over from Lloyd Baconís prologue, just keep an eye out for the low-angled camera that looks up the chorinesí dresses as they kick onto the stage.) "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" is a horizontal scan across a cross-section Pullman car humming with impending hanky-panky, "Young and Healthy" rotates white furs against black backgrounds and dives into a tunnel of spread legs. Finally, the title number dreams of New York ŗ la Murnauís vamp in Sunrise, everybody and everything bouncing like Fleischer toons until a murder takes place and "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is born. His work finished, the director chews on a sour cigarette in an alley (cf. Godardís For Ever Mozart). With George Brent, Una Merkel, Allen Jenkins, George E. Stone, Ned Sparks, Robert McWade, and Eddie Nugent. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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