This amazing Busby Berkeley extravaganza is the best choice to impress newbies to pre-Code musical madness: it is absolutely irresistible. James Cagney’s nervy, terminally excitable stage producer makes the tale of Chester Kent accessible to viewers otherwise allergic to musicals — he’s as electric here as he is in his gangster movies. Remastered in HD, the fantastic, kaleidoscopic visuals will wow anybody — we really expect Porky Pig to pop up and stutter, “N-n-n-o CGI, Folks!”
Warner Archive Collection
1933 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 104 min. / Street Date July 16, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert.
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Directors: Anton Grot, Jack Okey Film Editor: George Amy
Original Music: Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal Harry Warren, Al Dubin
Written by Manuel Seff, James Seymour
Produced by Robert Lord
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Our favorite associate professor back at UCLA, Bob Epstein, would spring a perfect 35mm nitrate print of this gem on us, for the first day of his basic ‘intro to film history’ class. His mission was to prove that, even with 1971’s relaxed censorship, movies of the pre-Code era were more creative with adult content. He told us sheltered college kids that if we thought our generation had invented sex, drugs and psychedelic visuals, we had something to learn!
Footlight Parade is the third of Warner Bros’ Great Depression musical extravaganzas, the ones that thrived with Busby Berkeley’s overblown, phantasmagorical choreographic set pieces. Berkeley’s shows became a highlight of 1930s culture, a bridge between musicals transposed directly from the stage, and the later star-centered musical formulas developed by RKO and MGM. Berkeley had contributed to Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor pictures but it was Warners that gave him the anything-goes creative go-ahead. The home of Rin-Tin-Tin got more than it bargained for, because Berkeley combined clever stagecraft, camera tricks and his own visual ideas to create musical numbers that were wholly cinematic: they could only exist on a screen. Nobody anywhere had ever filmed visuals like this — while the craze lasted, those moguls must have thought Berkeley was some kind of crazy genius.
42nd Street may have been the first of the Berkeley pictures, and Gold Diggers of 1933 the most socially-oriented, but Footlight Parade is the most grandiose. And of course there’s the incredibly talented James Cagney, who just plain didn’t dance enough in his movies.
The story unspools at a breakneck pace. With sound pictures making stage musicals obsolete (!), director-impresario Chester Kent (James Cagney) talks crooked producers Si Gould and Al Frazer (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl) into backing his idea to produce theatrical road companies on an assembly-line, to provide live movie prologues for hungry exhibitors. While his partners hide the profits, Chester must contend with chiselers, ‘protégés,’ and a censor advisor (Hugh Herbert) appointed by Si Gould’s annoying wife Harriet (Ruth Donnelly). The faster Chester comes up with clever prologue subjects, the faster someone steals them to give to the rival Gladstone Company. The future of Chester Kent Prologues depends on signing the crucial Apollo theater circuit, and George Appolinaris (Paul Porcasi) wants to first see three killer examples of Chester’s work. Fearful of leaks, Chester seals the studio doors to produce three prologues in three days. Assisting Chester are his faithful secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), tenor-turned-manager Scotty Blair (Dick Powell), office girl-turned-hoofer Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler) and a harried dance coach, Francis (Frank McHugh). Nan is the perfect girl for Chester, but he’s blindsided by a conniving floozy with matrimonial plans, Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd).
Footlight Parade is the most fast-paced and densely-packed picture in the Berkeley bunch. It’s not recommended if one has a headache — the machine-gun tempo of the wisecracking dialogue may have helped inspire Billy Wilder to make his James Cagney movie, One, Two, Three. With Cagney in the mix the picture’s surface crackles with energy and razor-sharp dialogue. He’s all-electric, whether demonstrating a dance step in his unique tap style, going sappy for the wrong girl, or throwing tantrums at his double-crossing partners.
The emphasis this time around is on the enterprising, dance-’til-you-drop work ethic that would dig America out of its Depression doldrums. Stage producer Chester Kent invents a better mousetrap with his traveling prologue units and assembles a small army of gorgeous troupers in a giant rehearsal studio. The regimented life is a little bit like a German work camp, but a liberating, democratic spirit of anarchy prevails, with Chester fighting rampant nepotism, industrial spies, a wailing dance master (“It’s impossible Mr. Kent!”) and the laws of physics. To have a chance at success, the studio must be put under Martial Law. But success, true love and a better split of the profits are just one more prologue away.
The ‘Gold Diggers’ gang returns, re-invented in new roles. Kept man Dick Powell asserts his independence and succeeds in the Chester Kent organization, while office drudge Ruby Keeler doffs her glasses and blossoms into a dazzling dancer. Keeler still needs a new pair of horseshoes, but by this third picture we accept her off-rhythm stomping at face value. Cagney stares at her in approval, so who are we to gripe? (actually, Keeler was judged to be tops in her specialty style). Joan Blondell takes time off from Gold Digger duty to be the deserving (but smart-mouthed) executive assistant who gets the choice pleasure of literally kicking bitch-witch Claire Dodd off the premises:
“Don’t worry sister, as long they’ve got sidewalks, you’ll have a job!”
In 1971, we self-satisfied baby boomer punks had no idea that our grandparents were capable of such saucy insolence. A rehearsal number called Sittin’ on A Backyard Fence is basically a frisky pettin’ reprise from the previous Gold Diggers film, only with cats:
“Come out, come out, come out and get your lovin’!”
With a minimum of imagination, that lyric translates to a simple, “Let’s ****.” In fact, most of the numbers carry the exact same message.
Can you imagine a 1933 farm boy returning home after a day in the city with the treat of a Mooving Pitcher Show, being asked by Ma what he saw? It looked like heaven but Ma would likely consider it a vision of Hell.
These pictures were naughty stuff, no doubt, but they reflected the times. The majority of so-called young folks in the Depression lived in extended families, and enjoyed much less privacy than their postwar counterparts. As shown in Preston Sturges’ Christmas In July, survival jobs kept a lot of ‘kids’ from getting married and establishing their own households. That was Dick Powell, too, but with fewer goofy smiles than he sports in this show. In 1933 the big daydream for many was to find a way to get ALONE with your significant squeeze, for a chance to play Birds and Bees.
But Footlight Parade’s circus of music and fun makes sexual freedom seem easily attainable, the Next Big Thing. A cop who helps Chester Kent get his show back on the rails, says he wants to be an ‘Idea Man.’ When he sees Kent’s battalion of unclothed beauties, his response is,
“These girls give me LOTS of ideas!”
The three big finale numbers hit us one after another, a triple whammy with the same effect as the overextended false climaxes in modern action films. After it’s all over we walk out exhilarated and exhausted. Honeymoon Hotel picks up where 42nd Street’s number Shuffle Off to Buffalo left off. Keeler and Powell check into the bridal suite, motivating no end of eyebrow-wagging. It turns out they’re booked into an entire bridal floor populated (or copulated?) by a phalanx of grooms with bedroom eyes and brides in why-bother-to-wear-it nightgowns. It makes one wonder just how many thousands of 1933 moviegoers left Footlight Parade and immediately got into, uh, the Family Way.
Cagney rightly prefaces By a Waterfall with the words “If this doesn’t get ’em, nothing will.” Considered the height of Berkeley kitsch overkill, a tiny stage scene on a grassy knoll opens up to encompass a gigantic pool and waterfall set that could have wandered in from Die Niebelungen. Dozens of smiling, soaked aqua-babes loll and frolic on the insanely grandiose set. The setup looks dangerous as Hell; one slip and it’s broken limbs for everybody. When they drained the thing at the end of the day, we frankly wonder if they found any drowned women. Esther Williams’ MGM musical numbers (often directed by Berkeley) added Technicolor, but even her biggest can’t touch the lyrical insanity of this piece, from the dippy ‘love call’ lyric to the underwater, bottom-lit patterns that make Berkeley’s corps of soggy chorines look like molecules reforming into crystalline structures. A down angle on a pyramid of legs and waterspouts (top image) is a vision of abstracted garishness that’s never been matched. David Cronenberg would surely be impressed by this aggregate tower of flesh, which can only be described as 101 gorgeous girls combined into a new, composite creature. If the whole thing is meant to be Dick Powell’s daydream idyll, he must be on LSD.
The final number Shanghai Lil assures Cagney his place in the pre-Code cinema firmament. A slick — and fast — back-story is another technical feat, a fast fly-by of a dozen barflies and lost souls, each singing a fragment of a lyric line. Lil is described as an exotic Chinese vamp, making us think she will be revealed as a killer femme fatale, like Marlene Dietrich in the previous year’s Shanghai Express. Instead, Ruby Keeler pops out of a box to dance with Cagney on a bar-top. Keeler follows Cagney beautifully all the way through, and imitates his style as well. It’s a great routine, as opposed to Keeler’s hold-your-skirt-and-hang-on exhibition atop a taxicap in 42nd Street. The Shanghai Lil number strikes patriotic notes while riffing stereotypes about sailors with a girl in every port; in 1933 there were indeed plenty of China sailors overseas. Keeler looks surprisingly cute in her China doll get-up and side-bun hairstyle, a yellow-face Princess Leia.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Footlight Parade presents this dazzler in a condition that rivals those film-school screenings, although nothing can best an image twenty feet tall, shining down in silver-screen nitrate splendor. The sound is unusually clear, too. We frankly wish that the WAC could take in more ’30s classics like this … but we’re biased.
Hey Bill Shaffer, would a 1933 Kansas theater manager be able to post a one sheet with the original poster art used for the disc cover? Weak facsimiles of the stars are pasted onto elongated bodies, and in the case of Keeler and Blondell, elongated nude bodies. Only Keeler’s even resembles her. Perhaps this is original foreign poster art.
The extras are repurposed from the older DVD, with a featurette, two vintage musical shorts, and four cartoons themed by songs from Footlight Parade:gotta popularize that music catalog! The menu has a welcome ‘go straight to the musical number’ option.
Never seen a Busby Berkeley extravaganza? This one knocks ’em dead. My only worry is that our present-day cultural PC blowback effect will see movies like Footlight Parade censored or banned for offensive content. Chester Kent gets his idea for his ‘fountain of flesh waterfall’ by watching some black kids play in the spray from a fire hydrant:
“That’s it! Gallons of water showering down on glistening white bodies!”
Are you aware that silent actress Lilian Gish has had her name removed from a College building because of her role in The Birth of a Nation? What a misuse of Black Lives Matter’s influence that is.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Music for the Decades featurette; vintage short subjects Rambling Round Radio Row #8, Vaudeville Reel #1; cartoons Honeymoon Hotel, Young and Healthy, One Step Ahead of My Shadow and Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Michael Schlesinger on Footlight Parade –