42nd Street (1933)
This essential Busby Berkeley-choreographed extravaganza was filmed the same year as Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. Ruby Keeler is the ingénue who becomes a star overnight, despite the fact that she can’t stop anxiously eyeing her clomping feet (though she looks awfully cute doing it). The rest of the cast is a top-shelf roster of 1930s talent including: Dick Powell, Bebe Daniels, Warner Baxter, Guy Kibbee and wisecracking Ginger Rogers in a small early role.
Wonder Bar (1934)
Sex, adultery, sadism, murder, suicide and whooo, that’s just a short list of the insanity in this dark version of the Grand Hotel-type ensemble movie set in a busy nightclub. Busby Berkeley does the choreography again, and his productions have a mesmerizingly beautiful flair. Unfortunately, the final number, Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule is so drenched in racial stereotypes that even classic movie fans accustomed to weathering the odd cringe-worthy moment might find it hard to stomach, but the rest of this racy musical is great entertainment.
Murder at the Vanities (1934)
I hope to find that I am wrong, but I believe this is the only pre-code musical murder mystery. Detectives clamber around backstage trying to find out who is stabbing people with hatpins, while onstage, chorines cover their bare breasts and pose as cactus blossoms while Gertrude Michael sings a love song to marijuana (see the clip above). Offbeat characters, a handful of charming songs, and a hint of sleaze: this is the kind of movie that makes you wonder how far Hollywood would have gone if the production code were never enforced.