#600) Footlight Parade (1933)

#600) Footlight Parade (1933)

OR “A Number of Issues”

Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Musical numbers by Busby Berkeley.

Written by Manuel Seff and James Seymour. Songs by Harry Warren & Al Dubin and Sammy Fain & Irving Kahal.

Class of 1992

The Plot: With the advent of talking pictures, Broadway musical director Chester Kent (James Cagney) fears his career is over. After being persuaded to see one of these “talkies”, he witnesses a prologue, a dance number performed live on stage before the movie, and decides to pivot his career to directing these mini-musicals. With support from his devoted, wise-cracking secretary Nan (Joan Blondell), Chester assembles his dancers into “units” for various prologues to be performed across the country. Among his dancers is juvenile lead Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) who may be falling for secretary turned dancer Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler). When Chester learns that his prologues might get a deal with a major theater chain, he has to stage three lavish prologues, performed at three different theaters on the same night! There’s a lot of plot before you get to the exciting Busby Berkeley numbers these films are known for.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the best of the Warner Brothers showbiz musicals”, praising Cagney’s “dynamite” performance and Busby Berkeley’s numbers. A loving essay by early film expert Randy Skretvedt calls the film “pure enjoyable escapism” compared to the darker tones of fellow NFR entries “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933“.

But Does It Really?: “Footlight Parade” is the third of the ’30s Busby Berkeley backstage musicals on this list, and I’m tempted to rank it as third best. Collectively, these three represent a genre synonymous with Depression-era escapism, but individually none of them hold up as an undisputed classic. “Footlight” in particular suffers from too much backstage/not enough musical, and is bogged down by some very dated concepts. I get why “Footlight Parade” is on the list, but perhaps the NFR should have just selected the “That’s Entertainment!” film series, preserving the Busby Berkeley numbers from these three films and trimming the fat.

Wow, That’s Dated: Oh man, we have a lot to cover this time. First of all, prologues, but I’ll get to those a little later. There are the usual Depression-era sensibilities and obscure references (Lydia Pinkham, anyone?), but mainly we have to acknowledge the massive racial insensitivity throughout, particularly the copious Yellowface in the “Shanghai Lil” finale. Oh, and in one rehearsal scene, there’s a guy sitting in the background wearing Blackface AND THEY NEVER ACKNOWLEDGE HIM!

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nominations for “Footlight Parade”, the only one of Warner Bros.’ three backstage musicals of the year to not be recognized by the Academy.

Other notes

  • A quick word about prologues. Turns out they were real, and more or less how they are depicted here: specialty acts and dance numbers that preceded your feature presentation, typically themed around the movie. The brother-sister team of Fanchon & Marco Wolff were the top prologue producers of the day, and their studio in Hollywood served as the basis for Kent’s studio in this film. While prologues were popular in their ’30s heyday, they were slowly phased out over the decade in favor of cheaper B-pictures and shorts. New York’s Radio City Music Hall was the last of the classic movie houses to feature prologues, ending the tradition in 1979 when it stopped showing movies altogether.
  • 1933 was the year of the backstage musical. “42nd Street” was released in March and was an instant hit. “Gold Diggers of 1933” was already in production, but more numbers were added following the success of “42nd Street”, and the film hit theaters in May. “Footlight Parade” was filmed in the summer of ’33 and released that October, which explains why “Footlight” has more in common with “42nd Street” than “Gold Diggers” does.
  • James Cagney got his start in show business as a hoofer before pivoting to acting. Even in his early film roles he was already pigeonholed as a gangster (“The Public Enemy” came out in 1931), and Cagney lobbied for the role of Chester Kent to avoid typecasting. Cagney’s performance is one of the things keeping this movie afloat; he plays his role with such conviction it really does hold together some of the more disjointed parts of the film.
  • I’m appreciating all the scene wipes this movie has. “Footlight Parade” may rival the entire “Star Wars” franchise for sheer quantity of wipes.
  • This movie gets my standard note of confusion: “What is happening?” Part of that is everyone’s talking at breakneck speed, and part of that is the long-forgotten world of prologues, which a modern audience may have difficulty understanding (I sure did, and I actually study this stuff!).
  • Among the plethora of Warner Bros. character actors in the film is Hugh Herbert as a censor (a not-so-subtle dig at the burgeoning Production Code). Side note: Herbert is one of many ’30s actors caricatured in the Disney cartoon “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood” (his joviality lends itself well to Old King Cole). Also making an appearance is Frank McHugh as the exasperated choreographer. If he keeps stressing out and chomping on those cigars he’s gonna pull a Joe Gideon.
  • Yes, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler play the same juvenile romantic leads they played in “42nd Street”, but this was long before you could watch these movies on a loop in your own home, so reprising these character types in film after film was the next best thing.
  • “Footlight Parade” was one of the last major movies to be released before the Production Code went into full force in 1934. Joan Blondell in particular gets the bulk of the risqué dialogue, most of it directed at her on-screen rival Vivian Rich. Highlights include Nan introducing her as “Miss Bi- uh, Rich”, and her later remark that “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job.” Whoa.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: tap dancing in heels is one of the most impressive things I’ll ever witness. Get it, Ruby Keeler!
  • It takes 41 minutes before we finally get our first big production number: “Sitting on a Backyard Fence”, performed by the entire ensemble dressed as cats. It’s…very unsettling, not unlike another attempt to put dancing cats on the big screen.
  • Once again, these backstage movies have way too much plot for something that should just be an escapist spectacle. I only have enough bandwidth to follow one of these plot lines, I don’t need eight of them vying for my limited attention.
  • This movie gives us three different finale musical numbers: It’s like an all-dancing version of “Clue”! Finale #1, “Honeymoon Hotel”, is easily the weakest. It’s the only one not directed by Busby Berkeley (He was called back to his home studio of MGM), and with all due respect to dance director Larry Ceballos, it’s pretty obvious this one is missing Berkeley’s genius. In addition to its static staging, it relies on old tropes like adulterous couples registering as “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”, and the ever-watchful hotel detectives. Bonus weirdness: there’s eight-year-old Billy Barty running around, with a joke implying that he slept with one of the adult brides. What is happening?
  • “By a Waterfall” (Finale #2) is the best one. There are plenty of aquatic configurations as Busby’s overhead camera captures beautiful women in stunning formations. Sure, none of this would actually fit onto a stage, but who cares, it looks great. “By a Waterfall” is definitely the reason this movie is on the NFR, it’s just a shame you have to sit through the rest of this movie to get to it.
  • And then we arrive at “Shanghai Lil” (Finale #3). Yes, it’s the number where we finally see Cagney strut his stuff (more than holding his own against Ruby Keeler), but this is also the number that features Ruby Keeler in Yellowface, spouting broken English and exhibiting other harmful Asian stereotypes. Again, it’s a technically impressive number (complete with patriotic card stunt), but the racial insensitivity is too much to stomach. One of my notes simply read “Oh no oh no oh no”. 

Legacy

  • Like its predecessors, “Footlight Parade” was a hit upon release, and Warner Bros. kept cranking out backstage musicals for the rest of the ’30s. Busby Berkeley continued directing and choreographing for the movies for the next two decades (though his early work with MGM and Warner Bros. was his creative peak). 
  • As reiterated in the Skretvedt essay, “Footlight Parade” showed off Cagney’s dance moves for the first time on the screen, paving the way for his Oscar-winning turn in “Yankee Doodle Dandy“. Similarly, Esther Williams owes her career to Berkeley’s swimming number here. 
  • Footage from “Footlight Parade” shows up in another NFR entry from 1933: William Wellman’s vastly underrated “Wild Boys of the Road“.
  • But of course, if you’re a theme park nerd like me, you know what this film’s main legacy is. The opening sequence of Disney MGM Studios’ “The Great Movie Ride” was a recreation of this movie’s “By the Waterfall” sequence, complete with rotating platforms of (animatronic) women and active water jets! Maintenance, however, was always a problem as the platforms would constantly break down and the water jets would occasionally flood the track. For most of this ride’s 28-year existence, the big opening number sat motionless behind a scrim.

Wow, 600 movies, which means I am almost 75% of the way through this list! My sincerest gratitude to all of you who keep checking in and supporting my never-ending film festival. As always, check out the Patreon, and stay tuned for more posts.

Happy viewing,

Tony

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