Cinevent May: 42nd Street (1933)

May is typically capped off by our favorite movie convention, Cinevent. This year’s festivity—co-presented by Columbus Moving Picture Show—is rescheduled for October so we’ve decided to honor the annual rite of Spring by looking at films inspired by the great Cinevent lineups of years past. This week Adam and Rodney discuss the Busby Berkeley musical 42nd Street which was shown at the very first Cinevent.

ADAM: 42nd Street is a war horse. It’s one of those movies where every moment has been absorbed into popular culture; even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’ve experienced it second-hand. In short, it’s about the high-stakes world of Broadway: the seasoned veterans, the wide-eyed ingénues, the director at the end of his tether, and the backers with equally oversized banking accounts and libidos. Along with the stars Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, and Ruby Keeler, there’s a stacked supporting cast including Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ned Sparks, and Allen Jenkins. Of course, it culminates in a leggy Busby Berkeley fantasia.


RODNEY: I can’t explain how this happened, but I had somehow managed to miss seeing this film in the past (I’ve neglected a lot of the “true” classics, something that I have every intention on remedying in the future). Like you, I was surprised by how much of it I was already familiar with. The cast was naturally well known to me, and I knew most of the songs through their use in early Merrie Melody cartoons, which were often used to sell sheet music for songs from the Warners catalog. Even things that I had just taken for granted as simple clichés all started here. Watching for the first time was a revolution in many ways for me.


A: I’ve reached the point where I treat unseen “classics” like bottles of wine in the cellar. They’re waiting for me when I seek them out. I’m in no hurry to see everything and am happy to have new experiences to anticipate.


Details about Cinevent’s debut in 1969 are scarce. Legend tells that in the first year it had no name and there was no program, just a gathering of film fans with 16mm prints in tow. In a convivial free-for-all, films unspooled as the owners of the prints suggested them. I imagine it was some kind of mix of a British House of Commons debate and an auction. The memories are hazy over a half-a-century later, but sources say 42nd Street reached consensus and was one of the films shown that first year.


42nd Street Busby Berkeley Dick Powell pre-code precode musical 1933 Lloyd Bacon Warner Baxter cinevent
Ruby Keeler & Clarence Nordstrom en route to Buffalo.

R: I personally have a hard time imagining what that was like. SO many films that we take for granted now were so much more difficult to see then, it must’ve been a real event to see these kinds of films with an audience. Of course, repertory theaters still existed in those days and black and white films were still on TV with some frequency, but I often reflect on my collection and how it’s a veritable film school in my own home. Still, I’d never give up the opportunity to participate in events like Cinevent. Humble beginnings to be sure, but the longevity speaks for itself.


A: If you need a case for this being a perfect movie to begin the Cinevent story, look no further than the opening 120 seconds of the film. It’s a perfect distillation of the golden age of Hollywood. The iconic Warner Bros.-Vitaphone pennant displays under the opening brassy punch of Harry Warren’s tune “Forty-Second Street.” After the title, the main characters are each given separate title introductions while the supporting cast is given side-by-side panels, each separated by a slow wipe. The film begins with an aerial shot of Manhattan. As Warren’s tune quickens in tempo and gets punctuated with car horns and police whistles, there is a montage of 42nd Street signs from various intersections culminating with Times Square. This is followed by a quick-cut game of telephone as the news spreads around town that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a show. (Incidentally, the first person to get the news is actor Milton Kibbee—Guy’s brother.) From the penthouse lofts to the underground cable layers, everyone gets the news in kaleidoscopic fashion. Behind a crisscross pattern of cables, a switchboard operator smartly says, “You’re telling me!?” If these two minutes don’t make you smile, just give up!


R: These are definitely checkboxes for letting you know that you’re in for a good pre-code musical, which is almost always one of the touchpoints of the Cinevent program. And yes, the opening two minutes of this film are near perfect and it was then that I immediately knew that I was going to have a really good time watching this movie.


42nd Street Busby Berkeley Dick Powell pre-code precode musical 1933 Lloyd Bacon Warner Baxter cinevent
Warner Baxter being temperamental.

A: It’s fortuitous that Columbus, Ohio-native Warner Baxter got a chance to shine in the inaugural Cinevent. He relishes each moment of screen time as the quintessential temperamental director, employing every trick of the trade: hair which seems to unravel the angrier he becomes, a cigarette perpetually on the cusp of burning his finger, pit-stained shirts, and a tie that’s either partially undone or completely flapping in the wind. His greatest moment, and the one that’s enshrined in the annals of backstage musical cliché, is after the last dress rehearsal. Baxter slowly mounts the stage mopping his brow. Exhaustingly he utters, “Well…it’s not good...and it’s not bad. That’s all for tonight.” He is the linchpin of the production, the one that cares the most, the one whose face never gets emblazoned by the spotlight. The ending of the movie drives the point home further—when a beleaguered workaholic fulfills their job perfectly, they don’t even get noticed. (Hopefully, the same can’t be said of Cinevent’s staff.)


R: It’s always interesting to me to see these cliches before they were cliches (at least, I’m pretty sure that they weren’t cliches yet). Makes me wonder, and I’m going to ask our readers this in hopes that we can attract someone who was there in 1969: “Was 42nd Street chosen because of Baxter’s origins in Columbus, or was that just a coincidence?” Either way, it’s a tour de force for him. Nobody is bad in this movie though. It just flows effortlessly and wonderfully.


42nd Street Busby Berkeley Dick Powell pre-code precode musical 1933 Lloyd Bacon Warner Baxter cinevent
Busby Berkeley dreams.

A: It’s obvious to movie buffs but it’s worth reiterating: 1933 was an incredible year for film. 42nd Street was released in March, Gold Diggers of 1933 in May, and, as if that wasn’t enough, Footlight Parade premiered in October. This trio of Busby Berkeley musicals may be the best gateway to an interest in classic film. I would highly recommend any of them to newcomers. To the jaded cinephiles: watch them again, it’s like a second Honeymoon. Four stars.


R: 1933 was one of those years that completely changed the game. In the depths of the Depression, Hollywood did what Hollywood has consistently done for over a century now and provided us with escapism and something to look forward to. I completely agree that this is a four-star film. The songs are wonderful, the cast is spot on and there are plenty of pre-code zingers to delight most any viewer.

42nd Street Busby Berkeley Dick Powell pre-code precode musical 1933 Lloyd Bacon Warner Baxter cinevent
Dick Powell delivers a toast to the classics.

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