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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

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