Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- It’s a musical! There’s singing, dancing, and legs, legs, LEGS!
- Joan Blondell to a romantic rival: “I know Miss Bit– I mean, Miss Rich.”
- The film has Hugh Herbert as the theatrical production company’s censor, and the movie takes great glee in mocking his inanity. During a rather cutesy number about cats dancing and singing under the moon, he protests the subsequent arrival of their offspring: “We can’t have kittens in 39 cities!” He also turns out to be a mewling idiot who’s also a hypocrite: “I’m showing Miss Rich what you can’t do in Kalamazoo!”
- On a director learning how to mimic a cat’s movements: “I’ve done everything but sleep with him!” Cagney’s response: “Then sleep with him!”
- Blondell accidentally puts her stockings on the wrong legs at one point. It’s… pretty great, really.
- James Cagney, quickly switching topics from the theater to women: “Never mind the outline… I think I got a new one!”
- A police officer, popping in on a rehearsal: “Seeing all these girls gives me a lot of ideas.”
- One of the film’s gold diggers (unfortunately, she missed being in that film by a few months) is almost caught by her fiance reading from a magazine called “Naughty Stories”.
- On losing a pair of performers in a traveling show. “Send a new boy and girl out right away and make sure they aren’t in love with each other. Send a married couple!”
- There’s a musical number called “Honeymoon Hotel”. There’s more eyebrow waggling here than in many later Groucho Marx movies. A choice line: “Bridal suites are never very idle!”
- Another number is “By A Waterfall”, which involves Ruby Keeler dancing through Dick Powell’s dreams, with an implication of being naked. Also, more water nymphs than you can shake a water nymph at.
- The film’s final musical is “Shanghai Lil”, which has, oh, prostitution, yellow face, and a bevy of beautiful white women reclining in an opium den on satin sheets.
- That last number, since this is 1933 and patriotism is running high, we’re treated to the American flag, Franklyn Roosevelt, and the National Recovery Act (NRA) logo. USA! USA! USA!
- Dick Powell to his new darling Keeler on their upcoming tour, “We’ll make love in 40 cities!”
- And Blondell’s ultimate kiss-off line to a romantic rival: “As long as they have sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”
The Insanity Goes Marching In
“Aw, talking pictures. It’s just a fad.”
Footlight Parade is a gem of a film, containing slapdash and dizzying bursts of comedy and music. It has some of the most deliriously dazzling choreography and feats of visual bravado you may ever see in a motion picture, with enough moments of over-the-top excess that you can sometimes hardly believe you’re seeing it.
But, of course, they save that until the last thirty minutes of the picture. Up until then, we have the story of a man; luckily it’s James Cagney so we know we’re in for a treat. He’s playing Chester Kent, a theatrical producer who’s looking at his job drying up as talking pictures storm their way into the American conscious.
Seeing an opportunity insomuch that live action staged prologues are still going strong, Kent dreams up the idea of creating a large rotating troupe of performers who travel to different cities to dance before showings, replacing each other week after week. It’s a job that demands constant creativity and an absolutely maddening workload for Kent, much to the delight of his embezzling bosses (who include Guy Kibbee, shaking like a bowlful of maniacal glee).
Kent’s only relief is his secretary, Nan (Joan Blondell). She’s more than happy to burn the midnight oil with him (and is probably willing to do a lot more than that for him), but she has an unfortunate house guest, Vivian (Claire Dodd), whose cheeky pretensions get Kent in the gut (and other notable organs).
And that’s just the main plotline. In the background, young crooner Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) is trying to romance Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler), but Bea is convinced that Scotty is the gigolo of Harriet (Ruth Donnelly), one of the backers who are benefiting from all of Kent’s hard work. Also among the ranks of the exploiters is her brother Charlie (Hugh Herbert), the namby pamby who lists off all the censorship rules that Kent is violating with his show, and among the allies is Francis (Frank McHugh), a whiny but inventive stage director.
It climaxes when Kent has to put on three of the most spectacular prologues put to film in order to impress a major buyer, and we’re treated to three exquisite song and dance numbers to cap off the film. Even for being a bit bottom heavy, Footlight Parade has great use of background music; you hear every melody a dozen times trumpeting in the background, tying the picture together subtly.
But, first, a note on this cast: Jesus Christ. For 1933, this is start studded as all get out. Warner Brothers has two of the best stars of the Pre-Code Era front and center, some of the best supporting actors around filling every little spot. On top of that, Busby Berkeley is undoubtedly one of the greatest choreographers who’s played with a camera, and the rest of the directing by Lloyd Bacon is top notch.
Footlight Parade is, to get this flattering appraisal out of the way, one of the greats of the Pre-Code era, and an essential work for anyone who loves cinema. That being said…
Thank You for the Music(al)
“I played a pair of deuces like four aces.”
There are a lot of words that can describe Footlight Parade, but I’ll go ahead and name the most important one: grandiose. This is a movie that was made with with the full backing of the studio, sparing absolutely no expense on it, which makes it a wonder to behold.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without going into its three climactic musical numbers, each spectacular in their own way. Since I have nothing but time, and, dammit, these things are worth talking about, let’s talk about them!
The first (and my favorite of the three) musical numbers is a risque, upbeat piece of music about a couple who are desperately trying to fornicate. They make an appointment to wed at the Honeymoon Hotel, a location filled with giggling phone operators and dumb hotel detectives, as well as a bevy of young brides enshrined in lingerie.
This is the least subtle of the three pieces, with double entendres and eyebrow raising blanketing the screen. Like a lot of the other numbers in the film, it’s heightened reality– whenever Berkeley pulls back enough for us to see the actual stage space, it’s of impossible proportions, where, from a member of the film’s audience, it would be completely uninteresting.
But since Bacon and Berkeley are making a film instead, we’re put in the middle of the action. I do find thins interesting; there’s the character of a theater owner who is watching all of these numbers, and after the first two both times comments that they were ‘okay.’ As a member of the film audience, it’s a gag. From the film’s perspective, since these numbers are so grand they lose any sense of intimacy, he may be right!
The music in and of itself for this number can be grating– take a shot every time they say “Honeymoon Hotel”!– but it’s so upbeat it’s hard to fault. Keeler and Powell run into a fair share of troubles as they try to conjugate, from parents arriving to a misunderstanding that nearly sinks the whole thing, but it tellingly ends with the two spooning in bed and the camera panning over to a magazine that flips open to a picture of a giggling toddler.
Also notable about this number is a young Billy Barty showing up as one of Keeler’s younger brothers. Barty was nine years old when this was filmed, but plays a child who acts a bit younger, as he eagerly ditches his family and joins with all of the other John Smiths at the hotel in their pursuit of lingerie clad women. Barty would later pop up in Gold Diggers of 1933 playing a similarly horny tyke, a kid who represents an unyielding sense of an impish id.
“By a Waterfall”
Luckily, this one is on Youtube for me to prove I’m not making any of this up. Sorry for the low quality (the DVD is infinitely better), but clicking here will give you an idea what I mean when I say ‘absolutely insane’.
Of the three numbers, “By a Waterfall” is easily the craziest. The entire number gives of a heavy “Garden of Eden” vibe, with Dick Powell sits by a brook and daydreams of his sweetheart, Ruby Keeler. Unfortunately for him, he nods off, and his imagination takes over. What was at first a rather ornate garden becomes a waterfall and lagoon, filled to the brim with cooing women in their most come-hither manner.
The waterfall becomes more and more elaborate, becoming an art deco swimming pool and eventually a spiral fountain of women as pictured at the top of this article. At this climax, Powell reawakens to find Keeler’s beautiful smile and they canoodle.
For anyone attempting to open a window into why Berkeley’s choreography is oftentimes considered so profound and over-the-top, this number can work as an instructional guide. The nymphs of this piece, often inserting themselves into various formations that seem more and more dirty the more you think about it.
One of his pet shots– the parade of smiling women– crops up here. Berkeley uses this shot to confront the audience with an abundance of feminine glee. They’re rarely smiles of any type but those of joy, love, and, occasionally, seduction.
The women’s voices throughout the entire number function in the same manner, soft and comely. It’s obvious that this number is meant to titillate but is just elaborate enough to make that seem almost subtle in comparison to its surroundings. That spiral fountain at the end, though, may cross the line; the women on their knees at the base of it is a nice but overt touch to suggesting worship of the male member.
Still, innocent of what it’s most certainly getting at, it’s still an impressive number.
The third and last number finally sees James Cagney getting to try out his dancing chops. You can see half this number in depressingly bad quality over on YouTube.
So if the first number is about two people going along with society’s desire for marriage to get laid, and the second about the male libido unleashed, “Shanghai Lil” is a little more conventional than either: a sailor becomes a man because his love for a prostitute makes her respectable.
Mind you, the man’s ability to tame the legendary Shanghai Lil certainly helps him regain his own masculinity. The idea of a man’s own sense of himself being determined by the woman he’s with is a theme that plays a lot into romantic comedies, and mirrors the real relationship between Kent/Nan that drives most of the plot.
But of course, Shanghai Lil is a different beast than Nan. For all you need to know about her, Marlene Dietrich played her in a film called Shanghai Express, noting, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Here, we have a bar full of patrons either despising or desiring her, with men of all races and creeds (including a Jewish colonialist (see the comments below)) drooling for the woman.
Cagney’s sailor through the piece starts off in a suit and finally earns back his navy blues after he discovers Lil and convinces her to be his one and only. They dance to this news (like they’d do anything else) when roll is called for the naval ships preparing to leave Shanghai. They don sailor clothes and go through a patriotic dance number which involves a contingent of men forming the American flag and Franklyn Roosevelt’s face.
This is not quite propaganda, but an exclamation of faith. Roosevelt’s election was seen as a godsend after Herbert Hoover’s vaulted plan of economic recovery of “I’m sure things will work themselves out” failed to inspire anyone. Roosevelt captured the imagination, and this film is all-too-happy to exploit that for its final uplifting song and dance number, which, subtly, is about a man with problems out of a job, who regains it once he proves his worth.
The number ends with Cagney and Keeler getting ready to board an American warship, and Cagney using an animated flipbook (again, probably not very helpful if this were the audience at a play). His transformation is complete: he’s a real man again.
The Moral of the Story
This is the third big number backed by Berkeley’s choreography in a number of years, with the other two being 42nd Street and The Gold Diggers of 1933. All three films are filled with lovely ladies, good music, amazing numbers and, most importantly, social commentary.
Okay, maybe not ‘most importantly’. Regardless, each is a fantastic snapshot into the ideas that drove the early 30’s. The villains of Footlight Parade in particular are easy marks for the common criminal of the 30’s: cheating business men getting rich off the hard tireless work of one man. Even more to the point, Kent never investigates the fraud though it seems obvious to him, as he’d rather go about his hectic daily life than confront them.
The other issues that his bosses represent– ineffectiveness at confronting the rival studios and freeloading relatives– are also common tropes from the early 30’s. Big business is ugly, and the person with the work ethic and spirit is being taken advantage of. I guess the nice thing about the way the film plays this is that it isn’t even Kent who comes out and confronts them with their fraud, as Nan beats him to it.
This enrages him until he finally realizes why she did what she had to do, and realizes that he loves his work too much to cede it to a crew of incompetents. He fights for his job, secure in the knowledge that he’ll be now the one making the decisions and the money which he can use to expand and grow rather than line his own pockets.
This touches on the other underlying theme, which is underlined by the film’s huge cast and large scale. The whole thrust of the film, with all of the dancers, directors and musicians working together to create this elaborate set pieces is very telling of the spirit the country was heading toward. “We’re in this mess together,” the film says. “And together we’ll get out of it.”
So the film’s humor is blue, its themes are red, and its color palette is half white. Coincidence? Yeah, probably, but the bones that hold together Footlight Parade are incontrovertibly those of the 30’s ideal America, which make it just as interesting to analyze as enjoy.
Trivia & Links
- The review at the New York Times by Andre Sennwald is listed as having singled this one out as a Critic’s Pick, but the review itself is less than flattering. Admonishing it for being “turgid and slow”, he adds that “the book is an awkward rewrite of the backstage romances of three years ago, and the gags, when they are not dipping hopefully into vulgarity, wheeze with the discomforts of age.” I did like this sentence, which is the case of a writer being guilty of the same thing he’s accusing the picture of:
Its manufacturers, by crowding the screen with these musical comedy extravagances, might have achieved liveliness and an illusion of speed and thus keep the minds of its auditors off the film’s basic aridity.
- This is an interesting (if incredibly dense– paragraph breaks, people, they exist for a reason!) reading of the film from a site called A Film Canon. It presupposes that the entire film is a test of strength for Cagney’s masculinity, with the dizzying musical numbers being equal parts sexual fantasies of his creation before he finally gets to engage with it in the last number, climaxing in a series where he’s rewarded with the singular love of a woman who’s had plenty of other sexual experiences and given his ability to rejoin with the American military, proving himself to be an incontestable barrel of machismo. At least that’s what I think it’s saying.
- John Wayne, who’s come up a couple of times around here, appears briefly in this film, vis a vis appearing in the talkie that Cagney catches in the first act.
- This is an excellent piece from MovieDiva about the creative forces behind the film, delving into the lives of the actors and directors of the film. Ruby Keeler was married to Al Jolson? I had no idea!
- Also, this is apparently one of two musicals James Cagney ever starred in, the other being the fantastic Yankee Doodle Dandy. I still find that number staggering; Cagney has a natural charisma about him and is so light on his feet, it’s a shame he didn’t get any other opportunities to stretch his legs. He definitely makes Footlight Parade a treat for the ages.