Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Footlight Parade (Warner Bros., 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Footlight Parade is one of the most exciting Berkeley films, mainly due to a surprisingly out-front Hollywood-glasnost script (by Manuel Seff and James Seymour) and an energetic star performance by James Cagney in the lead as a Broadway musical director who, put out of business by the twin blows of talking pictures and the Depression, makes a comeback by staging live-action prologues before feature films and sending his prologue companies on tour throughout the country. Between them, Cagney with his energy and Seff and Seymour with his script light a fire under the usually phlegmatic director, Lloyd Bacon (who also helmed 42nd Street), with the result that Footlight Parade is a genuinely entertaining film even when Berkeley’s extravagant (in all senses of the word) visions are not filling the screen. What’s nice about Footlight Parade is not only the extraordinary energy level Cagney brings to the film (ably seconded by Joan Blondell, playing the same role she portrayed in Stand-In three years later — the unglamorous but pretty and sensible factotum who finally gets her love for her boss requited in the last reel) but also the fact that the people in it behave surprisingly like real people: they have affairs, build up “protégés” (the wife of Cagney’s business partner inflicts various young singers on him, some of them genuinely talented — Dick Powell — and some of them not), and cheat on each other both sexually (Hugh Herbert’s obsessively “moral” censor turns out, predictably, to have the hots for Cagney’s unscrupulous girlfriend, Claire Dodd, whom he dumps for Blondell at the end) and financially (Cagney’s partners in the prologue business, Guy Kibbee — again! — and Arthur Hohl, are systematically skimming the profits).

And this movie has got some of Berkeley’s most amazing inspirations: his water ballet, “By a Waterfall”; his charming little sexual tale, “Honeymoon Hotel” (which later became the basis for an entire film in the 1960’s!); and his dramatic number, “Shanghai Lil,” in which Cagney makes his film debut as a song-and-dance man, reveals a surprisingly strong baritone voice and a pair of tap legs that makes him the best dancer in this film — and in which Berkeley’s love of military formations makes itself felt as virtually nowhere else in his work. While some of Berkeley’s movies are pretty slow going between the big numbers, Footlight Parade is a delight all the way through. (Renée Whitney, who ended up playing Cagney’s ex-wife, was originally set to partner him in “Shanghai Lil” but was replaced by Ruby Keeler, who added that number to all the other work she had to do in the film.)—8/31/98


The film was Footlight Parade, one of the sequence of elaborate musicals Warner Bros. produced in the early 1930’s, kicked off by the success of 42nd Street (filmed in 1932 but released in 1933) and reuniting most of the creative team from that film: stars Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, director Lloyd Bacon, dance director Busby Berkeley, songwriters Harry Warren and Al Dubin. But the main attraction in Footlight Parade is James Cagney, basically taking over Warner Baxter’s 42nd Street role as an irascible dance director who as the film opens finds himself unable to land a Broadway job due to the Depression and the success of talking pictures. His former producers Frazer (Arthur Hohl) and Gould (Guy Kibbee) have got out of the live-theatre business and bought four movie houses. Chester Kent (Cagney) visits one of them and sees a tacky Middle East-style prologue being performed by a chorus line of inept would-be belly dancers in advance of the movie (which, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, is the John Wayne “B” Western The Telegraph Trail). He buys a package of aspirin at a chain drug store and asks the druggist how he can sell the pack for 18¢ when the independent stores have to charge 25¢. He’s told that they can get a better price from the drug companies because they buy in bulk, and Kent hits on the idea of producing prologues and offering them to theatres along the same chain-store idea. Frazer and Gould agree to back him, and Chester Kent Prologues is in business. Of course, these “prologues” are full-tilt Busby Berkeley musical extravaganzae that could no more be staged in a real movie house (even the big, expansive ones of the 1930’s) than the numbers in his other movies could possibly have taken place on a Broadway theatre stage — but so what?

Largely due to Cagney’s presence, Footlight Parade has a lot more appeal between the big numbers than most of Berkeley’s movies of the period; writers Robert Lord, Peter Milne (story), Manuel Seff and James Seymour (script) came up with a livelier tale than usual and an excellent showcase for Cagney — who said in his autobiography that he always considered himself a song-and-dance man at heart and his one career regret was that he made so few musicals. (The Cagney autobiography contains a quite long section on one of his least known films: Something to Sing About, made for the independent Grand National company in 1937 and the only musical Cagney made between Footlight Parade and his Oscar-winning turn as George M. Cohan in the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy.) He’s beset by a wife (Renée Whitney) who walked out on him and demanded a divorce when he was scuffling, only to reappear still married to him after the success of the prologues puts him (supposedly) in the money (really his partners are ripping him off and claiming there are no profits when they’re paying themselves dividends out of a second set of books — much the way Hollywood studios treat so-called “profit participants” now!); he’s also dating vampy Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd) whom he’s made the head of his “Styles and Ideas” department, while his long-suffering secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell) burns with unrequited love for him (much the way she would for Leslie Howard in Stand-In three years later). Blondell’s presence is ironic given that two of her husbands are involved in this movie: husband number one (the one she was married to at the time), George Barnes, is the cinematographer for this movie, while husband number two, Dick Powell, is in it as Scotty Blair, crooner who’s a protégé of Gould’s wife (Ruth Donnelly).

At first Chester Kent is reluctant to take on a singer whose main qualification for the job is sleeping with the boss’s wife (and as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, the script is quite frank about the real nature of their relationship!), but though Powell’s singing here is weaker than usual (he’d actually had a throat problem and was originally going to be replaced by Stanley Smith, but Powell recovered in time to take back the role that was written for him) it’s impressive enough to get into two of the final three “prologue” numbers as co-star with Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler), who starts out as part of the office staff but does a “take off your glasses … why, you’re beautiful!” scene and ends up first in the chorus and then in the lead of all three of the final numbers. (It’s been established that she was a vaudevillian before she was a secretary, so it’s no surprise that she can dance.) As if all that weren’t enough plot for you, Chester Kent Prologues has a hated rival, Gladstone Prologues, whose boss (whom we never meet) is stealing all Kent’s ideas and beating him in getting them out, and Kent fires Thompson (Gordon Wescott), the man who’s been leaking his ideas to Gladstone, only the leaks continue and are eventually traced to a chorine who’s been dating Thompson after Gladstone officially employed him, and who on the night Chester Kent is supposed to present his big three prologues to Appolinaris (Paul Porcasi), this woman gets dancer Joe Barrington (Philip Faversham) drunk, he and Kent scuffle — and Kent himself has to perform the lead in the biggest and splashiest of the prologues, “Shanghai Lil.”

Add to this another in-law (Hugh Herbert) who’s given the task of censoring Kent’s prologues (and who ends up with vamp Claire Dodd after she realizes Kent is broke and throws him over) and whiny dance director (Frank McHugh) and a preliminary number called “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence” in which the dramatis personae are all cats — one wants to yell at everyone in the movie who snickers at this number, “Don’t laugh! Sixty years from now this is going to be the most popular Broadway musical of all time!” Of course the real reason anybody would sit through Footlight Parade is the big numbers at the end — as good as the rest of it is, and as utterly convincing it is in presenting Chester Kent’s monomania: the scene towards the end in which Kent locks the door to his rehearsal studio, insists that nobody will be let in or out, and cots will be brought in so the chorines can sleep and sandwiches so they can eat but otherwise they’ll be imprisoned there for three days until the big prologues are ready to be presented, is all too close to what we know of the real Busby Berkeley’s rehearsal methods. One, “Honeymoon Hotel,” has a cheeky role for little-person Billy Barty (who also plays a mouse in “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence”) but is otherwise an O.K. rehashing of ideas Berkeley had done better in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from 42nd Street and “Pettin’ in the Park” from Gold Diggers of 1933 (with its delicious pre-Code moment with Barty, confronted with women literally wearing armor to protect their virtue against predatory men, shows up with a can opener). 

The other two are utterly dazzling: “By a Waterfall” — which starts out as a water-nymph number Kent can’t stand until he sees a bunch of Black kids splashing around in front of an opened fire hydrant (which, for some reason, gives Kent the idea to fill the stage with half-naked white bodies: “The racial slight was lost among most filmgoers on 1933,” says James Robert Parish in his book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams, though I daresay it wasn’t lost among Black filmgoers in 1933!). It ends up as one of the most blatantly psychedelic of the Berkeley numbers, complete with chorines swimming in a huge pool and forming kaleidoscope patterns with their legs, then putting their arms out as they wade in the shallow end and eventually forming images of snakes, while angelic voices on the soundtrack sing the song we’d previously heard Dick Powell drive home in what jazz critic Michael Brooks called his dentist’s-drill style. The it-was-all-a-dream ending is a bit disappointing (Keeler and Powell have been spooning by the side of a pond in a park, Powell has fallen asleep and Keeler is splashing water on his face to wake him up) but for the most part this is one of Berkeley’s most dazzling inventions, the sort of thing that got him rediscovered in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a precursor of psychedelica — only he did it on a grand scale and created his patterns out of actual human beings! It’s nice to know that Berkeley lived until 1976 and therefore was aware that his great extravaganzae were being rediscovered —though it ticked him off whenever anyone said he had shot his numbers with multiple cameras: though a lot of them look like he must have had multiple cameras, in fact it had always been a point of professional pride with him never to use more than one camera.

“Shanghai Lil” is the big one, though; not only does it showcase Cagney’s awesome dancing talent (in her book on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Arlene Croce ridiculed Jack Warner for turning down the movie rights to Astaire’s Gay Divorce by saying, “Who am I going to put in it, Cagney?,” but as great a movie as the Astaire-Rogers Gay Divorcée is, it’s interesting to imagine what Cagney might have done with the role) and his surprisingly good baritone singing voice, it’s Berkeley at his atmospheric best, with chiaroscuro setups that seem to have wandered in from a Josef von Sternberg movie (and make one wonder what Berkeley might have been able to do with Dietrich!) and a marvelous buildup of suspense as both men and women, white and Asian (or at least not too convincingly made up to look Asian), sing the praises or damnations of Shanghai Lil before Ruby Keeler pops up out of a trunk to impersonate her. She’s a bit disappointing — Ruby Keeler is not exactly convincing as a man-wrecker of uncertain (if any) morals and she dances exactly the same as she did in her Anglo roles — but the number is electrifying when she and Cagney are dancing together and he’s not only keeping up with but actually surpassing her. Then the bugle blows and Cagney, who up until now has seemed like a civilian sailor but is really a Navy man, is summoned back to his ship and bids a tearful and reluctant farewell to Shanghai Lil — only in a stunning finale that could only have been pulled off in the “pre-Code” era, she disguises herself in a sailor’s suit and goes off with him as a little flip-book cartoon of a ship setting off signals the end of the number.

When Footlight Parade came out Time magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote, “Most of the mass maneuvers in Footlight Parade only remotely resemble dances, but they are sufficiently bizarre — in many cases, pretty — to be worth watching. They also provide suspense for Warner Brothers’ next cinemusicomedy because it is hard to imagine what director Busby Berkeley can do with his performers next, unless he chops them into pieces.” (Actually Berkeley was a good enough editor to make it look like he’d chopped them into pieces even though he hadn’t!) The AFI Catalog claims that Larry Ceballos sued Warners because they had allegedly promised him the job of dance director on Footlight Parade and then given it to Berkeley instead, but whatever it cost Warners to settle Ceballos’ suit, it was worth it; through much of “Shanghai Lil” the male choristers (including a young John Garfield in his first film!) do close-order drills before we see them assemble a jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a U.S. flag and a picture of Franklin Roosevelt, then form an image of an American eagle, and we’re reminded of the origins of the Busby Berkeley musical number in the first place. Apparently young William Enos — he invented the name “Busby Berkeley” when he started to work as a choreographer on Broadway because he thought it would look better on a program — had got drafted in World War I but had arrived in France too late to see action … but not so late that he couldn’t become a non-com and get to lead his platoon in drills. And drills. And drills. So when the Time magazine critic referred to Berkeley’s numbers as “mass maneuvers” he wasn’t kidding — military-style drill had indeed been his first inspiration for them! — 8/15/12