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Footlight Parade

Footlight Parade(1933)

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Footlight Parade is a musical with a swagger. This backstage tale is full of song and dance, but it's also a Warner Bros. early-1930s picture, which means it has an earthiness you don't usually find in the musical genre. Star James Cagney, who plays Chester Kent, a producer of musical "prologues" staged in movie theaters between showings of features, embodies its scrappiness.

The movie opens with Kent's real business, Broadway musicals, taking a hit with the arrival of talking pictures. The movie uses that late-1920s hit as a symbolic equivalent of the 1929 hit everyone took, the great depression, and gives the movie a familiar Warner ripped-from-the-headlines context. Kent's ability to roll with the punches and, through hard work and ingenuity, find another outlet for his skills was no doubt intended as a morale-booster for the public.

Even more appealing than the populist connection with the audience here is the general ethos exuded by Footlight Parade. Cagney's Kent is no desk jockey. He's a hard-working expert in his field who, when he wants to show his worry-wart dance director (comic relief Frank McHugh) a move, simply demonstrates it himself. He's not the sort of bean counter who might be in charge of, say, a studio today. In fact, any whiff of pretentiousness or self-importance is roundly mocked here, whether it's in a woman whose singing audition seems more suited for the opera (Cagney's and McHugh's characters trade snickers and eyerolls) or a golddigger who tries to pass herself off as "cultured" (Claire Dodd). Adding to the no-nonsense Warner feel is the presence of the irrepressible Joan Blondell as Kent's trusty, smitten and taken-for-granted secretary.

The plot of Footlight Parade has Kent working himself to the point of exhaustion to come up with ideas for prologues to keep his companies of singer and dancers on the road, and to beat a competing prologue agency that's been stealing his ideas. A big contract to provide prologues for a theater chain is up for grabs, and Kent and his crew (including Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as his onstage stars) hurry to get three prologues ready to preview for the chain owner (Paul Porcasi) at three of his Manhattan theaters on the same Saturday night.

In a sense, the plot is just an excuse to get us to the performance of the three prologues. But the characters, performances and attitude are all so strong that the story never comes off as half-assed. When it comes time for those prologues, though, it's as if you've entered a different movie. Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street) gets credited as director for the movie with "Numbers Created and Directed by Busby Berkeley" (the DVD is available individually or as part of The Busby Berkeley Collection). The escapism and extravagance of Berkeley's production numbers are in full bloom in Footlight Parade. This flight of fantasy should have been detrimental to the hard-edged credibility of the first 75 minutes of the movie, since not only are the prologues more expansive than anything that could be staged in an old movie palace, but the changing visual perspectives of these sequences don't even try to make them seem like something being presented on proscenium stages (two even have brief moments of animation).

The prologues are so blatantly unconcerned with trying to fit in with the rest of the movie that to resist them for that reason seems silly. You just have to take them for what they are, and they're certainly more interesting as Berkeley showpieces than as continuations of the previous action. The first is "Honeymoon Hotel," which manages to be both risqué and cloyingly cute as Powell and Keeler play newlyweds checking into a hotel catering to sex-hungry couples. Next up is the most outrageous, "By a Waterfall," which gleefully indulges in Berkeley's knack for formations of lovely ladies and for imaginative camera placement. The last, "Shanghai Lil," has its own outrageousness as it segues from Far East romance to patriotic salute (complete with a mural of then-new president Franklin D. Roosevelt), and like me you may cringe at Keeler's pidgin English as the title character, but this one also gives us Cagney, the old hoofer, singing and dancing after Kent is pressed into service.

Despite its schizo nature, Footlight Parade is certainly a satisfying whole, and its jittery energy still comes across nearly 75 years after it was made. The new DVD includes a solid 15-minute featurette Footlight Parade: Music for the Decades that concentrates mainly on the efforts of Berkeley and of the men who wrote the songs for most of his musicals, Al Dubin and Harry Warren. There are also two 1930s WB cartoons built around songs from the movie and a couple of musical one-reelers. I can't imagine watching any of these extras more than once, through one of the one-reelers includes a song by Baby Rose Marie, 30 years before, as a grown-up, she was a regular on TV's The Dick Van Dyke Show.

For more information about Footlight Parade, visit Warner Video. To order Footlight Parade, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman