Sunday, August 28, 2011

Stubs - Footlight Parade

FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) Starring: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Music Numbers Choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Screenplay by James Seymour and Manuel Seff. Songs by Harry Warren (music); Al Dubin (lyrics); Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics). Produced by Robert Lord. Run Time 104 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Musical, comedy.

Made prior to the production code, FOOTLIGHT PARADE is one of the most enjoyable, yet most hard to believe musical comedies ever made in Hollywood. Telling the story of Chester Kent (James Cagney), a one-time Hollywood producer put out of business by the fad of motion pictures, who turns to making prologues, short musical numbers that are presented live in movie theaters prior to the feature. His business partners put pressure on him to create a large number of marketable prologues throughout the country.

Chester is too busy to notice that his secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell) has fallen in love with him and doing her best to run interference for him. Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler) is an employee who was once a dancer, but now a secretary that goes back to dancing to immediate success. Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) is a juvenile lead and former protégé of Harriet Bowers Gould (Ruth Donnelly) who still makes good.

James Cagney, best remembered for his roles as a gangster in such films as THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), WHITE HEAT (1949) actually began his career as a hoofer and a comedian in vaudeville. FOOTLIGHT PARADE is one of the first examples of him being to show off his musical talents on film. He would later exploit his singing and dancing talents in the biography of George M. Cohan YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942).

Co-starring with Cagney is Joan Blondell. One of the biggest stars and cutest actresses of the 1930’s Joan Blondell was best known as a sexy wisecracking blonde. She appeared in such depression era musicals as GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933) and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937 (1936). She and Cagney made seven films together: SINNERS' HOLIDAY (1930), THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), BLONDE CRAZY (1931), THE CROWD ROARS (1932) and FOOTLIGHT PARADE. Their first collaboration was however on Broadway in the play PENNY ARCADE that would serve as the source material for SINNERS' HOLIDAY. Blondell’s career would continue until her death in 1979, though she would transition into a character actor later in her career.

But despite the presence of Cagney and Blondell, the real star of the film are the musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. In the final part of the film, Kent’s business partners try to get the business of the Apolinaris theater circuit, by impressing Mr. Apolinaris with three musical prologues presented on the same night at three different movie theaters. Kent stages three, with each one being more spectacular than the one before: By a Waterfall, Honeymoon Hotel and Shanghai Lil. The latter features Cagney dancing with Keeler.

What makes each number so unbelievable is the sheer scope of each, supposedly presented on the stage in front of the movie screen. There is no way that this is possible, but when has a Busby Berkeley dance number stopped at believable. These are bigger-than-life musical numbers that transcend the real world. And aren’t musicals supposed to be unbelievable? No one seemed to understand that better that Busby Berkeley. FOOTLIGHT PARADE was Berkeley’s third Warner Bros’ film in 1933. He had already made 42ND STREET and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 that same year and still had ROMAN SCANDALS starring Eddie Cantor to go.

One of the staples of Berkeley’s 1933 musicals was dancer/singer Ruby Keeler. At the time married to Al Jolson, Keeler would appear in such musicals as 42ND STREET, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and DAMES (1934). 42nd STREET was in fact her big break in films. In seven of her films, Keeler was cast along with Dick Powell, a singer/dancer himself, who would see his career transition from the juvenile lead in many Warner Bros. musicals to more dramatic roles MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) and eventually to a successful career producing and acting on television THE DICK POWELL THEATRE (1961-63). In addition to the films already listed Keeler and Powell also teamed up in COLLEEN (1936), FLIRTATION WALK (1934) and SHIPMATES FOREVER (1935). Powell would also marry Blondell in 1936, a second marriage for both of them that would end in divorce in 1944.

With the talents of Cagney, Blondell, Keeler, Powell and Berkeley it is no wonder that FOOTLIGHT PARADE is a pleasure to watch and even though some of the musical numbers are over the top, that is what the depression-era audiences wanted. The bigger the distraction to the woes of the day, the better and on that account FOOTLIGHT PARADE delivers. In 1992, the film would be selected for preservation as part of the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

FOOTLIGHT PARADE is available in collections on the WB Shop: 

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