It's a gentle, romantic, funny musical in the slightly meandering, charming, boy-meets-girl-falls-out-with-girl-gets-back-together-with-girl way of the times, although there's barely even that for Dick Powell here. It doesn't have the real, effortless genius of the best Fred Astaire movies, but it does have one of the greatest pieces of dance theatre Busby Berkeley (or anyone else) ever put on the screen - in the shape of the 'Lullaby of Broadway' production number, which comes out of this very slight film like a colossus. Once seen it's never forgotten.
It's a long dream sequence (or is it?) built around the song we all know (at least to hum!). It's about a woman, a 'Broadway Baby', as the song of course says, working all night, sleeping all day, etc., living life at the edge. But as the dream/show-stopper progresses it becomes more nightmarish, opening up a kind of sinister emptiness at the heart of what she, and everyone else, is doing, that probably doesn't have much to do with the film it's in. But like all great musical numbers it carries far more weight than anyone ever really intended. It is of its time and about its time. And it carries the atmosphere of its time. It's not just about people on the edge, or a city on the edge; there are the clear echoes of a world already on the edge, and that's what makes it so powerful.
It's what was often called 'cheap music' at the time (though 'cheap' was as daft a word then as it sounds to us now), but as Noel Cowerd wrote in 'Private Lives': 'Extraordinary how potent cheap music is'. That 'cheap' music is only 'popular' music by another name, and it's the music that's in our hearts, of course, and in the depths of our memories; the music of our lives.
But 'Lullaby of Broadway' is even stronger stuff than that, especially when the massed tapdancers, dressed in black, beat out an ever louder, ever more sinister rhythm, advancing menacingly across the screen. They may be wearing tap shoes, but with the dark costumes and the straight, 'marching' lines of dancers, and the expressionist deep-shadow lighting, the jackboots are surely not far away. It could be a musical number by Leni Riefenstahl! It may be a bit of Busby Berkley's most impressive glitz, about a screwed up Broadway Baby burning the candle at both ends and paying the price, but the whole screwed up world of the late 30s is being stamped out in that relentless rhythm, make no mistake!
But whatever it is, it's a joy to watch.
Watch it here... it is one helluva of song and dance routine!
And when you've watched it, visit New York four years later, by reading 'The City of Strangers', and you'll find... Amercian fascists and anti-fascists are fighting in the streets - well, in fact they're fighting on Broadway, where else? And a woman... on the edge.
Or in any bookshop now.