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The Legacy of “42nd Street”

“42nd Street” is a 1933 American pre-Code musical film directed by Lloyd Bacon. Based on the 1932 novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes, the film was a major success, playing a crucial role in the evolution of the musical genre and the broader landscape of Hollywood cinema.

Plot Summary

The story of “42nd Street” is a behind-the-scenes look at the mounting of a Broadway musical. The plot revolves around a Broadway director, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), who is determined to produce a successful show despite his failing health. The production faces numerous hurdles, including financial difficulties and temperamental stars. When the leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), breaks her ankle, a young and inexperienced chorus girl, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), is given the chance to step into the spotlight. The film culminates in the opening night of the show, where Peggy becomes a star.

Cast and Characters

  • Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh: The driven and somewhat tyrannical director.
  • Bebe Daniels as Dorothy Brock: The established star with a complicated personal life.
  • George Brent as Pat Denning: Dorothy’s secret lover.
  • Ruby Keeler as Peggy Sawyer: The na├»ve chorus girl who rises to stardom.
  • Dick Powell as Billy Lawler: The juvenile lead of the show and Peggy’s love interest.
  • Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie: A seasoned chorus girl with a wisecracking demeanor.

Musical Numbers

“42nd Street” is renowned for its spectacular musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Berkeley’s innovative and visually stunning choreography set a new standard for musical films. Notable songs from the film include:

  • “42nd Street”: The titular song that captures the vibrant and bustling energy of New York City’s famous street.
  • “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”: A whimsical number performed by Ruby Keeler and Clarence Nordstrom.
  • “Young and Healthy”: A lively duet featuring Dick Powell and Toby Wing.

Cultural Impact

“42nd Street” had a profound impact on the film industry. It revitalized the musical genre at a time when it was struggling to attract audiences. The film’s success demonstrated the viability of big-budget musical productions and showcased the potential of innovative choreography and camera work in enhancing musical numbers. Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic and geometric patterns became a hallmark of his style, influencing countless musicals that followed.

The film also popularized the trope of the “understudy-to-star” storyline, a narrative device that has been replicated in various forms across stage and screen productions.


“42nd Street” remains a beloved classic and is often cited as one of the greatest musical films of all time. In 1980, it was adapted into a highly successful Broadway musical, further cementing its status in popular culture. The stage adaptation, featuring a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, music by Harry Warren, and lyrics by Al Dubin, has enjoyed numerous revivals and international productions.

In 1998, “42nd Street” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”


“42nd Street” is more than just a film; it is a landmark in cinematic history. Its innovative approach to the musical genre, memorable performances, and enduring appeal make it a cornerstone of American film heritage. As long as audiences are captivated by the magic of the movies, “42nd Street” will continue to shine as brightly as the Great White Way itself.

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