PLAYBILL PICKS: The Five Greatest Movies About the Theatre

By Robert Simonson
02 Aug 2012

Ginger Rogers in "42nd Street."
© 1933 - Warner Bros.

42nd STREET: The ultimate backstage drama, and mother of a hundred similar valentines to the hectic creativity and crazy behavior that leads up to an opening night. Made in 1932, and based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, "42nd Street," from Warner Bros., established a host of theatre cliches that endure to this day. Among them: The driven, abusive, but possibly genius director pulling his hair out; the hard-bitten, cigar-chomping producer sourly worrying in the rear orchestra seats; the fretful, aging leading lady jealously guarding her status; the sarcastic, knowing, gum-snapping chorine of questionable morals (played by Ginger Rogers); and — the most deathless cliche of all — the naive "youngster" (doe-eyed Ruby Keeler) who comes out of nowhere and goes on to save the show and become an overnight star. (Followers of the television series "Smash" will have noticed several "42nd Street" motifs running through the plot.) Broadway paid the ultimate homage to this ode to the boards by transforming it into a megahit stage musical — with songs from other Warner Bros. musicals added into the score — in 1980.

"There's nothing like a vintage Warner Bros. production, and this is one of them," said Robert Cashill, an associate editor of Cineaste magazine, a Drama Desk nominator, and a longtime chronicler of both theatre and film. "Rawboned, sharp and funny, and gleefully minting cliches that would never be served up as succulently…. The film fuses theatre and movie love into a giddy, breathless hybrid." "If you forget the airbrushed and candy-coated stage adaptation and watch the flick with fresh eyes," said David Cote, Time Out New York's longtime drama critic, "you may be surprised by its shrewd mix of sweet and sour. Busby Berkeley's vertiginous girlie-prisms are balanced by a sense of genuine desperation to get the show up and make some money. Don't forget: This is a Depression-era tale of making a quick buck. And I love how in every scene, it looks like Warner Baxter's Julian Marsh looks like he's about to stroke out in the rehearsal room." Broadway playwright-librettist Douglas Carter Beane added, "All the lines they say about the chorus girls, today we say about the chorus boys."

Ruby Keeler and cast in "42nd Street."
© 1933 - Warner Bros.