The Jazz Singer (1927), Broadway Melody (of 1929) and 42nd Street (1933) are the three most important early musicals of the talkie era. The Jazz Singer opened the floodgates of sound and song. Broadway Melody seems to have set the template for later backstage musicals, won the award for Best Picture for MGM in 1929 and is considered one of the best movies from the movie musical bonanza that occurred in 1929. After audiences tired of musicals (they were static and stage-bound), 42nd Street came along to revive the movie musical and inject a strong dose of energy and relevance. It was particularly interesting to watch Broadway Melody and 42nd Street back to back.
I have to confess that Broadway Melody was hard to watch. Because it was one of MGM’s first all-talking picture and because producer Irving Thalberg considered it an experiment, it was made cheaply, quickly and with actors who are clearly not musical stars. Bessie Love and Anita Page (who both began in the silent era – Bessie Love in particular was a genuine silent star) play a sister act trying to break into Broadway, but both fall in love with the same man (Charles King).
I could never decide whether or not the audience is supposed to realize that their act is corny or if we are just supposed to overlook the fact that they really can’t sing or dance. Whatever the case, Anita Page’s character becomes a success (mostly because of how she looks), while Bessie Love ends up having to sacrifice everything so her sister can be happy with the man they both love. Fortunately, self-sacrifice is always the way to go as an actor and Love was nominated for Best Actress.
The songs were written by composer Nacio Herb Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed, who later was responsible for the famed “Freed Unit,” which produced Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ In the Rain and many other great musicals. Even several of the songs from Broadway Melody make it into Singin’ In the Rain: “Broadway Melody,” “You Were Meant for Me.” The songs are good, but the dancing is less so. Everyone looks either game or flaccid. Arms are flung out carelessly, people do lazy cartwheels, leg kicks look kind of random. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen better from high school students.
Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh. I’m usually better at trying to put myself in the shoes of the audiences of the time and trying to see what they saw. However, I frankly found The Jazz Singer more entertaining and expert. The dialogue is pretty stilted in Broadway Melody and for whatever reason, everyone sounds a bit trebly. The staging is pretty static and the dances look lethargic. It must have seemed like an extraordinary thing at the time, but there is a reason that movie musicals were regarded as somewhat defunct by 1933. A little goes a long way.
42nd Street, on the other hand, feels like a huge leap forward. The music, the stars, the editing, the dances, the wisecracks, the innuendos. It has so much more propulsion and zip, not to mention choreography by Busby Berkeley. And the music by Harry Warren and Al Dubin feels modern and exciting (and absolutely impossible to get out of one’s head). Both stories are backstage musicals, but 42nd Street is far less sentimental, with everyone pretty clear-eyed and pragmatic about work and love. It is also set firmly in the depression and has that freewheeling pre-code feel about it.
The film benefits from a good cast. The film launched Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as musical stars. Bebe Daniels (another silent star) can sing reasonably well and George Brent (a future Warner Bros. leading man) is suitably suitable. Warner Baxter is the larger-than-life director of the show and Una Merkel is on hand to exchange knowing wisecracks with Ginger Rogers in a pre-Fred Astaire role.
Watching 42nd Street after having been steeped in all the musicals that came later makes it feel a bit dated or cliched. However, watching it after seeing The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody, suddenly it looks fast, modern and vital. Movie musicals are finally starting to look like movie musicals as we know them.
42nd Street was followed by a veritable musical craze that never seemed to let up until the 1950s. Warner Bros. continued to make musicals in the mode of 42nd Street during the 1930s (such as Gold Diggers of 1933), though they never seemed to quite capture the magic in later decades. RKO would introduce an entirely different kind of musical in the 1930s with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: grace, elegance, sophistication. It makes a nice contrast with the scrappier, more ensemble focused Warner Bros. musicals. Universal Studios had Deanna Durbin in the 1930s – who often sang classical songs – while MGM had by far the most polished and expensive musicals with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald and Eleanor Powell. 20th Century Fox had Shirley Temple (and later Don Ameche and Alice Faye) while Paramount had Bing Crosby and Mae West. A little something for everyone in those depression years.