August 26, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell.
Footlight Parade was 1933’s third Busby Berkeley extravaganza released by Warner Bros. in a seven-month period, but this one had a surprise. Of all people, given his screen-gangster resumé, here was James Cagney headlining a cast of Berkeley musical regulars — and not faking it.
Cagney actually had a chorus-boy background, but it’s doubtful that many moviegoers knew this. Nor is that exactly common knowledge today, given the unexpected delight his appearance here still holds for some viewers — something it might do to even a larger degree were it not for the following decade’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, where his footwork is all over the place. As one of the interviewees says on a Blu-ray supplemental featurette carried over from the old Footlight DVD, it’s likely that the George M. Cohan biopic wouldn’t even have gone to Cagney had it not been for the earlier picture’s success (apparently, Fred Astaire was initially No. 1 on the studio YDD wish list).
The Footlight story hook deals with “prologues” — or those short live stage productions that once preceded movie presentations but only in the largest cities (I doubt that any character in God’s Little Acre ever saw one). They were before my time, but I assume they were precursors to the Rocketettes et. al. at Radio City. In any event, Cagney plays a director of Broadway musicals who’s struggling his way toward unemployment because the public is no longer buying Broadway musicals — a drought/reality that also took down the movie musical for a while early in the Depression until Berkeley’s 42nd Street revitalized them (1933 was also the year of Astaire’s first screen appearance with Ginger Rogers).
Of course, this being Berkeley, the net result — in a bang-bang-bang finale of three consecutive classic numbers — couldn’t possibly be presented on stage because the theater audiences watching them wouldn’t benefit from or even be privy to the quick cutting, panning shots and the overhead photography synonymous with the famed dance director’s name. I can also just see sweaty crew members (and, by the way, who could pay that many bodies, stagehand labor union demands or not?), hauling the water tank in “By a Waterfall” from theater to theater on a tight time deadline. They’d have filed a grievance the very first day, Depression or not.
Other than as an amusing footnote, none of this matters in the least because we’re hardly dealing in reality here (Warner saved that in ’33 for Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road). Nor would anyone wish this of a musical, especially one with a predominantly Al Dubin-Harry Warren score. Still, there’s an undercurrent of financial Bad Times that pervades the Berkeley/Warners cycle — though less here because the emphasis is on other things. Among them: Cagney’s relationship with his shady producers (somehow, you now that Guy Kibbee is going to be one of them); a romantic tug-o-war involving him, a faithful assistant (Joan Blondell) and sexy snake (Claire Dodd); some pre-Code risqueness involving a dopey house censor (Hugh Herbert); and a typically antiseptic romance between Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (though there’s indication that Powell’s character has been a kept man in his previous life). Naturally, Keeler wears glasses in the early scenes so that we can later have the obligatory scene where she removes them to instantly up her cutie quotient.
Lloyd Bacon was an even more anonymous director than Mervyn LeRoy, who at least did several good-or-better pictures before his quality output went to hell after World War II through his career swan-song in 1966. (That was with Moment by Moment, and I remember Ed Sullivan touting it on his show by asking LeRoy to stand up in the audience, whereupon Ed told the nation the movie was “just great”). He did the first two (Golddiggers of 1933 was the other one) and Bacon did Parade of the ’33 “Berkeley’s” — which is how everybody terms them.
This is because the trio’s non-musical portions are high-end water-treading that live or die on pacing and energy, which admittedly all three pictures do get — though the casts (all the way down to the smaller roles) have a lot to with this. But it’s kind of like the night I saw the Flying Karamazov Brothers open for Frank Sinatra: You’re kind of waiting for the Main Event, no matter how impressive it is to see guys juggling flaming sticks.
The three-number finale here almost looks as if it sets out to have one number top the last, and maybe this was even true. As director John Landis says in the featurette, the table-setting “Honeymoon Hotel” number is “playful” as opposed to salacious, though I personally wouldn’t care to know what Billy Barty (who shows up out of left field in the number wearing a mischievous grin and not a whole lot else) is actually doing in such a no-tell establishment. Playful or not, I wonder if the number would have gotten by even a year later after the Production Code got its teeth just a year later. After that, Andy Hardy couldn’t even find a gas station restroom in which to buy a damned condom so he could have sex in his Honeymoon Jalopy.
“By a Waterfall” is one visual marvel after another, including the overhead shot that turns chorines into an undulating snake (the bit kind of creeps me out, to tell you the truth). I don’t know if the studio had to build a tank or if there was one left over from the studio’s 1930 Moby Dick or something, but the number looks as if it cost a fortune whose green-lit expenditure must have gotten by the Brothers/bean counters thanks to the box office success of Footlight’s two predecessors. Then comes climactic “Shanghai Lil,” which is the film’s (and Cagney’s) big finale — though I like how Bacon and Berkeley initially keep us in suspense so that we’re not quite certain at first who will spearhead the number. This is after the sap hired to do so tries warming up his cold feet backstage with too much booze.
The opening panning shot down what must be one of the world’s longest saloon bars features a variety of ethnicities, though it should be said that these are not exactly Nobel Laureates. Keeler, in all three numbers, is decked out in Chinese makeup as Lil, and you just have to go with the flow. Beyond not inconsiderable camp considerations, hers is a stardom I never really understood, though you can’t say she wasn’t a trooper. In keeping with her casting here, which is no longer politically correct, the disc’s bonus section provides context by including an array of early Warner Bros. cartoons from the era that no longer appeal to anyone but those with wickedly freewheeling senses of humor (though there are still a few million of those).
The Blu-ray is so sharp that I eyeballed its later scenes thinking that both Powell and Keeler must have been to some Southern California beach shortly before Bacon rolled the camera unless Jack Warner’s shallow pockets (water ballets apparently aside) found a way to spring for a sunlamp. One of the continuing movie marvels for me is how Powell evolved from being a sappy tenor to one of my favorite actors of all time — after, that is, he toughened up to became a film noir titan beginning with his gutsy casting as Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, where he had to concern himself with being bench-pressed by Mike Mazurki. I think it was the greatest comeback or image switcheroo in Hollywood history, more impressive even than Sinatra’s. But whenever his singing mouth opens here, I just can’t suppress a giggle — though it’s a testimony to the charm of these films that it’s an affectionate one.