Sunday, August 04, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Footlight Parade (1933) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), one of the greatest Warner Bros. musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley, was just released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

As I have mentioned multiple times here over the years, FOOTLIGHT PARADE is my favorite of the amazing trio of Berkeley-choreographed films released in 1933, the others being GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933) and 42ND STREET (1933). I  rewatch all three films regularly, but FOOTLIGHT PARADE holds an extra-special place in my heart.

I was first introduced to this film as a teenager, with a big-screen showing at a long-gone Century City theater. I've seen it again numerous times, including viewings I wrote about here in 2008 and 2016.

FOOTLIGHT PARADE really has it all: A terrific cast led by James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, along with many recognizable character actors; catchy tunes with music by Harry Warren and Sammy Fain which stays in your head long after "The End"; great, funny dialogue; and three stunning back-to-back-to-back musical numbers to conclude the film.

Cagney plays Chester Kent, a producer of "prologues," live musical numbers which precede movies at theaters all over the country. Chester keeps up the work pace nonstop despite being cheated out of profits by his partners (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl) with the old "the money all went back into the company" bookkeeping ploy.

More threatening to the business, Kent's former assistant (Gordon Westcott) goes to work for another company and has a spy tip him off to plans for Kent's future numbers, preventing the Kent routines from being fresh and original.

To stay afloat Chester needs to land a contract with a new producer, and he comes up with a plan which will also prevent leaks to the competition: He locks up all his employees for 72 hours while they devise three all-new prologues, start to finish, then perform them at three different theaters in a single night.

This part, of course, is completely unbelievable, with songs written, choreography invented and learned, and huge sets all built in three days. But really, who cares? That's part of the fun! Especially as some of the numbers are way too big for any normal theatrical stage.

These three big sequences are the stuff of legend: "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil." While "Honeymoon Hotel" is good, it also remains my least favorite -- the bits with Billy Barty are just strange! -- but the next two are unforgettable stunners. Watching "By a Waterfall" a viewer can't help wondering, who thinks up this kind of thing?!  Busby Berkeley, that's who! Underwater photography, slides, and kaleidoscopes mix with a touch of pre-Code naughtiness for an amazing  number which can be watched over and over -- I certainly have, and the Blu-ray disc's song selection menu makes it easy to rewatch these scenes.

As far as "Shanghai Lil," I don't think I can say it better than I wrote back in 2008: "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."

And watch for a very young John Garfield peeking over a barrel in this number! It's his first screen credit, half a decade before his next film appearance starring in FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938). (Update: One of my readers suggested IMDb is incorrect and it's not Garfield so I took a second look. It looks like him as the shot goes by quickly, but on freeze frame I'm much less certain. If anyone has additional knowledge as to whether or not his IMDb credit is correct I would welcome it!) (Update No. 2: I haven't had time to watch it yet myself but am told that Garfield's daughter Julie says it's not him in the 2003 documentary THE JOHN GARFIELD STORY. Interesting it was something the documentary addressed! Thanks to reader Tom Moran for the info.)

The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon, with dialogue direction by William Keighley. It was filmed in black and white by George Barnes. The running time is 104 minutes.

The supporting cast includes Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Hubert, George Chandler, Hobart Cavanaugh, and Renee Whitney.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray looks lovely. Extras on the Warner Archive Blu-ray include the trailer, a featurette on the music, a pair of shorts, four cartoons, and the previously mentioned song selection menu. Most of these extras were also on the 2006 DVD release, but the addition of two cartoons (the DVD only had two) and the song selection menu are an upgrade.

The Warner Archive FOOTLIGHT PARADE Blu-ray is not only highly recommended, I class it as a "must buy."

March 2020 Update: The Warner Archive Collection will reissue this film on DVD in April 2020.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.

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