The List features three Busby Berkely musicals back to back in 1933. As several reviewers before me has noticed this seems like a massive overkill as the three musicals are very similar in setting as well as format. They are musicals about making musicals and feature a storyline ending with three back to back staged songs. While I am not at all sure of the historic order of the three musicals (“42’nd Street”, “Golddiggers of 1933” and “Footlight Parade”) I would say that the two first are practice runs and the last, “Footlight Parade”, is the grand finale where everything comes together. Thus the two first mainly have interest as the story leading up to the real masterpiece and really could have been skipped. Every year the editors have to make room for around 10 new entries. These two are obvious candidates, but have not yet been touched.
In any case, Footlight Parade is a masterpiece, there can be no two ways about that. The storyline works surprisingly well as a story worth delving into, the cast can really act with James Cagney in his best role I have yet seen him in and, not least, the three songs (and especially the two last ones) are simply gorgeous.
Today I revisited “Footlight Parade” as a nice Saturday afternoon treat and while I feared that my sweet memories of my first viewing might set my expectation to high I really had nothing to fear. My wife liked it as well, which rarely happens with these old movies I watch and my son waking up for the songs were captivated by them and when we were done we went back and took the last two songs again. The verdict was unanimous.
Thinking back a year when I went through these movies the first time, I believe it was “Footlight Parade” that changed my attitude towards musicals from mildly overbearing to fondness. This was truly a milestone. I was waiting for a plane in Beijing and to my surprise having a blast watching this on my laptop. Now I see all these musicals in a much more positive light.
As I already mentioned “Footlight Parade” is about setting up a show, but in this iteration the story is far more complex than that. Chester Kent (James Cagney) stage musicals, but with the advent of talking motion pictures he sees himself out of business. Instead he starts making prologues. So, what is a prologue, you might ask. Apparently prologues were used as eye-candy before or between movies to make the audience choose a particular theater to watch their movies. Frankly I never heard of that concept before so if it really existed I believe it must have been only for a short time. In any case Kent gets the idea of making a whole bunch of traveling prologue troupes making tons of shows all over the country. He has to come up with new ideas all the time and he seems to have a finger in everything going on. In fact his business suffers from the typical ailment of companies grown big without simultaneous development in the management structure. In short Kent is over-worked and only the fire that drives him and his jewel of a secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell) keeps the boat afloat. There is a multitude of things happening at the same time:
1. New ideas for prologues have to be developed non-stop. We particularly follow the cat idea to the chagrin of his dance instructor (It can’t be done!).
2. The competing company Gladstone has a mole in Kent organization and keeps stealing their ideas.
3. Kent’s partners and financial backers are deliberately cheating him of the profits, claiming all gains go back in the business while they both cash in hefty sums.
4. An obnoxious relative of Gould, one of the partners, keeps forcing Kent to accept her protégés for the shows. Scotty (Dick Powell) turns out to be a gem, Barrington however is a disaster.
5. Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler) transforms herself from uptight secretary to musical lead and she and Scotty embark on a bumpy love affair.
6. Vivian Rich, a gold digger and acquaintance of Nan, shows up, endears herself to Kent and only Nan’s (jealous) intervention and circumstances involving Kent’s former wife makes him realize what a fake she is and saves him from marrying her.
7. And finally Kent can get the ultimate prize to win the concession for the Apollo circuit if he can dazzle Mr. Apolinaris by setting up 3 over the top prologues, as if he was not busy already.
This could easily get really messy. There are simply too many subplots for any ordinary film, but this is no ordinary film and the subplots mainly work to portray the Kent and Nan as the eye of the hurricane around them. While we occasionally follow the other characters they mainly serve as sidekicks and it is Cagney’s and Blondell’s brilliant acting that carries this story until the big show. And then comes the big surprise: Cagney, the actor typecast as a hardboiled gangster, is actually a brilliant singer and dancer! Truly this must be his best performance ever.
When the curtain goes for the three musical acts the character of the film changes entirely. Gone is the realism and forgotten all the tension and intrigues. Now it is all about dazzling the viewer. And we are dazzled.
Honeymoon Hotel featuring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell (the “stars” of one of the subplots) is a catchy song with a lot of risqué references to what goes on on a honeymoon.
Secondly we have By the Waterfall, again with Keeler and Powell, but also with scores of bathing nymphs. This is a truly gorgeous song with and even more over the top display of bathing nymphs in formation swimming. The human waterfall is eye-candy that I just cannot believe is from 1933. Even today it would be difficult to get away with this stunt.
Finally we get Shanghai Lil, where Cagney has to stand in for the no-good Barrington and do the song with Ruby Keeler. This song is even more catchy than the two other and I am still humming it “I’ve been searching high, I’ve been searching low, looking for my Shanghai Lil”. It also involves a stupendous amount of extras, this time soldiers doing formations, but it is the bar part that really takes the price here and we even get a bit of tap dancing and a bar brawl.
I recently declared “Footlight Parade” one of the 10 best movies of the thirties and I stand by that statement. If you are going to see just one musical of the thirties, make it this one.