Dazzlers

There is a moment in “42nd Street” when any first-time viewer’s eyes will open wide with disbelief. We watch Ruby Keeler singing and dancing to the title song and suddenly the theater stage on which she performing is transformed into film, with effects that no stage could ever hope to reproduce. Milling crowds, fleets of cabs, an attempted rape, an off-screen shooting an on-screen knifing and a blasé Dick Powell standing at an upstairs window sipping a still-illegal cocktail as he warbles about the endless panorama below–all of it supposedly being presented on a Broadway stage! Of course choreographer Busby Berkeley was always known for his innovative dance numbers, but this goes a bit beyond–merging stage drama and filmed drama into a seamless whole. In successive Warner Brothers musicals he reached for ever more startling effects. “42nd Street” appeared in 1932, by 1934’s “Footlight Parade” he is really forcing audiences to suspend their disbelief as James Cagney’s and Ruby Keeler’s “Shanghai Lil” number becomes a mini-film embedded in a film–and a mini-film that is supposedly a stage play. No theater in the world would be able to play host to Berkeley’s effects–the “By a Waterfall” number alone would have flooded out the house–but then again, no movie-goer in the world would possibly have cared. Were they getting their twenty-five cent’s worth? And how!

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