Skip to main content

The Pre-Code Blogathon: "Footlight Parade" (1933)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Busby Berkeley, Footlight Parade (1933) follows Chester Kent (James Cagney), a fast-talking, fast-moving Broadway director who finds himself out of a job with the advent of sound pictures. In his search for new ideas, Kent comes up with the novel notion of creating and producing "prologues", short live musical numbers performed in movie houses before the main feature. 

He finds instant success, but his job is made harder when he learns not only that a rival company has been stealing his best ideas, most likely with the help of someone inside his own company. Kent is so overwhelmed by all the chaos that he doesn't even realize that his loyal secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell) is madly in love with him. Instead, to her disgust, he has fallen for her gold-digging roommate appropriately called Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd). 

When an important theater chain owner agrees to sign an exclusive contract with Kent if he can come up with three new shows to be presented on the same night at three different theaters, he frantically sets himself to work. He puts his entire staff which includes dancer-turned-secretary-turned-dancer Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler), young tenor Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) and anxious dance director Francis (Frank McHugh) on house arrest to prevent leaks and stages three spectacular numbers that ultimately get him his much desired contract.

Chester Kent: Aw, talking pictures. It's just a fad.

When Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer in 1927, almost everyone in Hollywood thought exactly the same as Chester Kent, that sound pictures where just another fad. The truth is that Al Jolson's little musical melodrama created an overwhelming popular demand for "talkies" and by 1929 every major had come out with its own lavish musical feature. However, in the early 1930s, screen musicals turned into bizarre and overexposed spectacles, with uninteresting plots and poor character development. Soon, the public became disenchanted with musicals and began to turn their attention to other genres, such as gangsters films, comedies and westerns.

Behind the scenes of Footlight Parade
Fortunately, Warner Bros. was able to revive the musical genre when they hired a highly imaginative musical director by the name of Busby Berkeley. When 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 were released, the public was stunned with Berkeley's extravagant and voyeuristic musical numbers, full of chorus girls arranged in beautiful geometric patterns, dancing in lavish Art Deco sets and forming attractive kaleidoscopic effects. All of a sudden, musicals were exciting again.

As soon as James Cagney heard that Warner Bros. was working on a follow-up to Gold Diggers, he actively campaigned for the role of Chester Kent. Cagney rose to fame with The Public Enemy (1931) but he hated being typecast as a gangster, and even fought the studio on several occasions to the change the direction of his career. Footlight Parade was the studio's first big concession to his discontent and for the first time, the audience got the chance to see Cagney as he saw himself: a song-and-dance man.

For Footlight Parade, Berkeley brought in much of the same team that worked with him on either of his two previous pictures, including director Lloyd Bacon and cast member Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell, who had the chance to work with Cagney for the sixth of seven times. The two had started together at Warners with Sinners' Holiday (1930), which they had also done on Broadway. 

James Cagney and Joan Blondell

Footlight Parade's familiar backstage plot is really just an excuse to show off Berkeley's elaborate and extravagant musical numbers, all of which appear within the last thirty minutes of the film.

First up is "Honeymoon Hotel", a racy little number with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler star as newlyweds in a rather tribulated honeymoon, which includes such highlights as a newspaper photo of a bellhop dissolving into a real-life actor, hotel postcards forming an animated vision of the justice of the peace and the couple, a lecherous little person running around the hallways and Powell and Keeler sharing the same bed.

Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in "Honeymoon Hotel"

Next came the iconic 11-minute sequence "By a Waterfall", with music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Irving Kahal. The scene plays out like a dream and begins with several water nymphs graciously slidding down a 20,000-gallon-per-minute waterfall. From there, we move to a huge Art Deco pool to see a spectacular show of synchronized swimming, with countless girls forming elaborate geometric patterns and beautiful kaleidoscopic effects. The 80-by-40-foot swimming pool took up an entire soundstage and was lined with glass walls and a glass floor to allow Berkeley to film the swimmers from every possible angle. He also designed the sets, the backdrop and the foliage.

"By a Waterfall"
"By a Waterfall" finished with what is perhaps Footlight Parade's most memorable image: a huge rotating fountain stacked with water nymphs, which then cuts to a top shot showing the girls kicking and spreading their legs in a dazzling effect that was so characteristic of Berkeley's choreographies. The results of this particular scene were so spectacular that the audience at the New York premiere gave it a standing ovation and threw their programms in the air upon its conclusion. I'm not usually a fan of this big and elaborate musical sequences, but I have to admit that this one is pretty sensational. You can see the number in its entirety by clicking here

Chester Kent: [about "By a Waterfall"] Well, if this doesn't get him, nothing will. 

  
For the finale, Berkeley created "Shangain Lil", with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin. The sequence takes place in a Chinese saloon and opium den, full of prostitutes and their varied Navy clientele, and has Cagney play Bill, a drunken sailor on a quest to find the love of his life, the mystifying Shangai Lil, played by Ruby Keeler. After Bill punches a ruffian for insulting Lil, a brawl ensues but he stands clear of the fighting. As the melee comes to end and the bar empties, Bill miraculously reappears from behind the counter in full Navy uniform and finally founds his Shangai Lil, who emerges from inside a trunk. Bill then sings of his love for her and the two start dancing together across the bar.

The scene concludes with an elaborate military parade, in which a group of sailors holding placards form an overhead picture of the American flag and Franklin D. Roosevelt, before being arranged in the shape of the National Recovery Administration's New Deal eagle. The final seconds show Bill and Lil, now disguised as a sailor, ready to sail towards the horizon.

James Cagney and Ruby Keeler in "Shangai Lil"

This is the only number in the film in which James Cagney performs and he completely steals the show. His light-footed approach to the coreography and his delicate, gracious moves stand in vivid contrast to Keeler's forceful and heavy taps. Let's face it, Ruby Keeler was a terrible dancer. She was competent enough with her legs and feet; it's her arms that bother me. They seem detached from her body somehow, hanging ungraciously in the air and moving at a totally different tempo. While Cagney makes it look completely effortless, Keeler overthinks it too much. It's a shame he didn't have many oportunities to show his dance skills on screen.

Contrary to popular belief, John Garfield does NOT appear in this scene.

NOT John Garfield

Produced before the enforcement of the Hays Production Code, Footlight Parade is notable for its suggestive imagery and risqué humor. In addition to hundreds of scantily clad women and three very racy musical sequences, the film has all sorts of Pre-Code sauciness:
  • Scotty Blair is being "kept" by Mrs. Gould (at one point, Bea even calls him "Mrs. Gould's little boy").
  • When Chester introduces Vivian Rich to Nan, she almost lets the word 'bitch' slip out, saying "I know Miss Bi... Rich."
  • Vivian Rich is briefly seen reading a book entitled Naughty Stories.
  • Nan remarks how "vaguely familiar" Vivian's behind looks. 
  • After being unable to mimic a cat's movements, Francis says "I've done everything but sleep with him", to what Kent replies, "Well then sleep with him."
  • And my personal favorite:


Nan Prescott: [to Vivian Rich] Outside, Countess. As long as they've got sidewalks, you've got a job!

The greatest thing about Footlight Parade is that it acknowledges the Code and makes fun of it. Charlie Bowers (Hugh Herbert), the theatrical company's censor, is worried about leaving "kittens" in 39 cities and putting brassieres on dolls, but in the end he's the one who gets in a censorable position when he tries to show Miss Bitch, I mean Miss Rich, what not to do in a Kalamazoo.


This is my contribution The Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin and Pre-Code.com. To view all entries, click the links below:

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4



______________________________
SOURCES:
Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak (2011) | Cagney by John McCabe (1997) | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) | James Cagney Films of the 1930s by James L. Neibar (2015) | Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy (2007) | The Encyclopedia of Hollywood, Second Edition by Scott Siegel and Barbara Siegel (2004)

Comments

  1. Of all the musicals Busby Berkeley was involved with at Warners during this time, this is my favorite, precisely because of what Cagney and Joan Blondell bring to it, and also because of those numbers. Nice write-up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Truth be told, the only reason why I watched "Footlight Parade" in the first place was because of James Cagney and Joan Blondell.
      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  2. This sounds like a real treat – can't believe I haven't seen it. Thanks for prompting me to watch it ASAP. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You must definitely watch "Footlight Parade" ASAP. It's a brilliant film.

      Delete
  3. I really enjoyed your post -- I've only seen this film once, but now I want to see it again. I especially enjoyed your examples of pre-Code sauciness, and your assessment of Ruby Keeler (I thought I was the only one who felt that way!) Thanks so much for this most awesome contribution to the blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw, thank you so much. I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it. :)

      Delete
  4. One more thing I meant to mention -- that poster for the film at the start of your post is SCANDALOUS! I love it!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I absolutely love this movie - it's my favorite of the pre-code musicals for the way it pokes fun at the industry and the code, as you mentioned. Blondell and Cagney were such a great pre-code team, and between the two of them I think they have some of the greatest lines in the film (especially that sidewalk one - priceless). It's also really funny to picture gangster Cagney CAMPAIGNING for a musical - I didn't know he actually campaigned for it. I'd love to see him do that dressed as Little Caesar or something!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. James Cagney actually started out as a song-and-dance man on Broadway and only fell into gangster films when he was asked to replace the original star of "The Public Enemy". His gangster films are some of the best films of all time, granted, but I don't think he ever felt comfortable playing those kinds of roles, at least not entirely. And if you think about it, the only Oscar he ever won was for a musical.

      Delete
  6. Definitely a treat, and I really enjoyed your write-up. Thanks for joining in!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for having me. :)

      Delete

Post a comment

Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

 It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Vidor was impressed by Patricia's looks and asked her if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist and the studio was considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.   Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about the young actress, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, "What's that!?" He tried to convince Vidor to

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

   In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the John O'Hara novel about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day, the show brought Gene is best reviews to date. John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: "A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique." One of his performances was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after which Gene took Judy for a walk through Central Park, talking about the future possibi

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Moody New Star: A Portrait of James Dean by Dennis Stock

  Dennis Stock was a young photographer working for the Magnum agency when he met James Dean in the winter of 1954, at a party hosted by director Nicholas Ray at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. As Stock observed a moody Jimmy slouched on a chair, he wondered what Ray had seen in him to give him the lead role in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After exchanging a few polite words, Stock learned they had someone in common: Gjon Mili, the renowned LIFE magazine photographer at whose New York studio Elia Kazan had shot Jimmy's screen test for East of Eden (1955). Stock had worked as Mili's apprentice for four years upon his discharge from military service and was also his good friend . James Dean and Dennis Stock in 1955 Becau se Stock was unfamiliar with Dean's work, he accepted Jimmy's invitation to attend a preview of  East of Eden  later in the week at a Santa Monica theatre. When Dennis saw the film, he was mesmerized by Jimmy's heartfelt performance an

Golden Couples: Clark Gable & Jean Harlow

  At the 3rd Academy Awards ceremony, MGM's hugely successful prison drama The Big House (1930) earned writer Frances Marion an Oscar for Best Writing. Hoping that she would be inspired to repeat that accomplishment, Irving Thalberg, head of production at Metro, sent Marion to Chicago, Illinois to research story ideas. While flicking through the pages of The Saturday Evening Post , she found an article revealing that, in a city where people distrusted the police, a small group of leading citizens met in secret to arrange their own justice for criminals. Marion took inspiration from that story and wrote The Secret Six (1931), in which Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone, stars of The Big House , play two mobsters prosecuted by a half a dozen vigilantes. Thalberg was pleased with the leading roles Marion wrote for Beery and Stone, but asked if she could also fill out one of the minor leads for Clark Gable , a tall, dark and handsome 30-year-old actor whom Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had recen

My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)

Theatrical release poster Dire cted by B lake Edwards, Breakfast at Tiffany's (196 1 )  tells the story of Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), a naïve and carefree New York party girl who lives with a nameless cat and earns her money by visiting mobster Sally Tomato (Alan Reed) in prison every week. Tomato's la wyer pays her $100 a we ek to receive "the weather rep ort." One day, Holly meets Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a str ug gling writer who has just moved into her building . Pau l, whom Holly calls "Fred" due to his rese mblance to her brother, is "kept" by a wealthy older woman, Emily Eustace Failens on (Pa tricia Ne al), nic knamed "2E." At a party at Holly 's apartment, Paul meets her Hollywood agent, O. J. Berman (Martin Balsam), who desc ribes her trans f ormation from country girl into Manhattan socialite. In the da ys that follo w, Paul and Holly become closer , but their relationship gets strange whe

Film Friday: "Splendor in the Grass" (1961)

To celebrate Natalie Wood's birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I'm bringing you one of my favorite films of hers, which also happens to be the first film I ever saw with her. Original release poster by Bill Gold Directed by Elia Kazan, Splendor in the Grass (1961) tells the story of Wilma "Deanie" Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), two young lovers living in a small Kansas town in the late 1920s. Deanie's mother (Audrey Christie) is a domineering woman who boasts of her aversion to men and warns her daughter that nice girls do not have sexual feelings. Bud's father, Ace (Pat Hingle), an arrogant self-made millionaire, has "all his hopes pinned" on his son and tells him to forget marriage until he graduates from Yale. Unable to consummate their love, the confused and frustrated youngsters end their relationship. After Bud becomes sexually involved with Juanita Howard (Jan Norris), the most permissive girl in

Golden Couples: Tyrone Power & Loretta Young

« Sweethearts of the Silver Screen » In 1936, after appearing in a Broadway play called St. Joan , a 22-year-old Tyrone Power was approached by 20th Century Fox and offered a screen test. His first film at the studio was Girls' Dormitory (1936), starring Herbert Marshall and Ruth Chatterton. Although his appearance in the film was very brief, he was a sensation and Fox was invaded by hundreds of fan letters. Legend goes that columnist Hedda Hopper even stayed for a second showing of the film to find out who that handsome young man was. In Ladies In Love After Girls' Dormitory , Ty was given a bigger chance to shine in the romantic comedy Ladies in Love (1936) , starring Janet Gaynor, Constance Bennett and 23-year-old beauty Loretta Young. In the film, Loretta plays a young peasant called Susie, who falls madly in love with Tyrone's character, Count Karl Lanyi. They were such a success that Daryl F. Zanuck wasted no time in pairing them again. Their ne

Film Friday: «Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison » (1957)

In honor of Deborah Kerr's 95th birthday, which is today, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you what is perhaps one of her best remembered pictures. This is one of my personal favorites of hers and also the film that made me a Robert Mitchum fan. Theatrical release poster Directed by John Huston, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) begins when U nited S tates Marine Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) finds himself stranded on a deserted South Pacific island in 1944. He finds an abandoned settlement and a chapel with one occupant, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), an Irish Catholic novice nun who has not yet taken her final vows. She herself has only landed there a few days before with Father Philips, who has since died. Despite their extreme differences in backgrounds and outlooks, their are respectful of each other's vocation and soon form a close bond. For a while, Allison and Sister Angela have the bountiful island completely to themselves, but t hen a detachment of Japanes

The 2nd Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon | Grace & Rainier: A Royal Romance

  By early 1955, Grace Kelly was at the peak of her Hollywood career. Born into a wealthy and influential family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Grace became interested in acting at a very young age, appearing in a local play when she was 10 years old. After her education in elite private schools, she moved to New York and got accepted into the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts, whose famous alumni included Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Rosalind Russell. In November 1949, Grace made her Broadway debut opposite Raymond Massey in a revival of August Strindberg's play The Father . The following year, director Delbert Mann cast Grace as the title character in a television adaptation of the novel Bethel Merriday by Sinclair Lewis, which led to further work on the small screen. Grace's success on television soon brought her her first two motion picture assignments: Henry H athway's Fourteen Hours (1951) and Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952). Grace Ke