Friday, February 22, 2008

Tonight's Movie: Footlight Parade (1933)

FOOTLIGHT PARADE is perhaps my favorite example of the Warner Bros. Depression-era musical. The movie is lightning-paced, wickedly funny, politically incorrect, and completely, wonderfully unbelievable, whether it's asking us to believe that James Cagney and company stage and build sets for three gargantuan production numbers for three different theaters in just three days, or to believe that the numbers themselves actually fit on a theater stage!

Cagney plays a producer of "prologues" -- live stage musical numbers which precede "talking pictures" -- and he dominates every scene he's in. No one else was ever quite like Cagney, whose energy almost bursts off the screen.

Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are his stars and Joan Blondell is his loyal secretary. Frank McHugh is the perenially stressed dance director. The cast also includes Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, and Claire Dodd. John Garfield can be spotted briefly peeking over a barrel in the "Shanghai Lil" number near the end of the film. Ann Sothern, Dorothy Lamour, and Jean Rogers are supposed to be chorus girls, although I didn't spot them.

The musical numbers are all choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley. The film ends with three rock 'em, sock 'em numbers back to back: "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil." Although the melody is memorable, "Honeymoon Hotel" is my least favorite, partially because of the strange presence of Billy Barty.

The next number, "By a Waterfall," is a work of genius -- completely creative and just a touch bizarre. It amazes me to realize that sound movies had existed just a handful of years when they were able to put together such a huge number. The kaleidoscopic effects created by the swimmers, the underwater photography, the slides...it's all simply amazing.

For me, though, the musical reaches the height of musical joy in a relatively simply moment, when James Cagney, dressed in a sailor suit, joins Ruby Keeler dancing on top of a bar in "Shanghai Lil." It's one of those classic movie moments that will always stay with you.

I first saw this film as a teenager, at the now-gone Plitt Theaters in Century City. If I remember correctly, it was screened as a part of a Filmex musical marathon.

Although I have seen it on TV in the years since my first viewing, it was particularly interesting to see it now, in the context of the pre-Code movies I've seen recently. This film definitely has its surprising moments which would not have made it onto the screen if the film had been released the following year, once enforcement of the Production Code began.

The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon, with "dialogue direction" by William Keighley. It runs 104 minutes.

FOOTLIGHT PARADE is available on DVD as part of the Busby Berkeley Collection, which also includes 42ND STREET, DAMES, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935. The FOOTLIGHT PARADE disc has an excellent 15-minute featurette on the film.

It's also available on videotape or on cable on Turner Classic Movies.

The trailer can be seen here.

June 2016 Update: I had the chance to see FOOTLIGHT PARADE at UCLA with Joan Blondell and Dick Powell's son, Norman Powell, in the audience.

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