Off to a late start on my Busby Berkeley week, but we’re moving along with the film: Footlight Parade. This is my first Berkeley film, and his trademarks are on full display. The dancing sequences, complete with the Berkeley Box, are fantastic and make up for the rather mundane story about a group of hoofers putting on a show. The cast, composed of big names like James Cagney and Joan Blondell, alongside younger stars Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, are also well done. I wouldn’t consider this the best Berkeley movie, but that waits to be seen.
Chester Kent (Cagney) is a producer of musical comedies who finds his job at risk once the talkies take over. With the help of constant Girl Friday, Nan (Blondell), the two come up with the best movie musical ever assembled.
The overall feeling I got while watching Footlight Parade was underwhelming. That could be attributed to the vaunted position Busby Berkeley holds in musicals, but everything felt “less.” It was “less” funny than I expected; the story and its elements were “less” cohesive than I’d anticipated. It’s not to say that the movie itself is bad, I just had high expectations that weren’t completely met. The problem is that Singin’ in the Rain exists, and if you’ve watched that then you’ve seen Footlight Parade done better and grander. Footlight Parade opens with the arrival of the talkies and Cagney as the smooth-talking producer who believes they’re a fad doomed to go out of fashion. With that set-up – and there is very little set-up to the tumultuous plot that unfolds – we enter the production house; a whirling dervish with countless shows in various stages of production, music and dance in abundance. Once the studio is in danger of being shut down, the classic standby of “let’s put on a show” goes into effect and Cagney is on a maddening quest to get the best show up and ready in a timely fashion.
I mentioned there’s a light set-up and really Footlight Parade is like a pizza covered in pretty much every topping imaginable. Cagney and Blondell are the cheese, so to speak, as they hold everything together and set-up the plot; Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are the newcomers who don’t let stardom go to their head (the pepperoni?); and a whole mess of other plots are stuck in, including a philandering fiancée to Kent, who happens to be Nan’s sister (played the cold Claire Dodd), as well as a scheme involving leaking information to competitors. It makes for a weighted movie, and at times the script clips the fat quickly, such as Kent’s shrewish wife who’s quick to jump ship when she believes talkies will force Kent out of work; Kent finds no love lost in letting her go.
For any problems within the narrative, the script by Manuel Seff and James Seymour is brazen with its pre-Code jokes and pokes at the studio system. Several times throughout the movie I had to do a double take and say, “Did they just say that?” As the smartass, Blondell gets the bulk of the quippy double entendres, especially in response to her snotty sister. Case in point, when she tells sister Vivian “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!” Nothing says sisterly affection like calling your sibling a hooker! The cherry on the cake is when Nan wallops Viv in the backside as a final send-off. The “Shanghai Lil” number at the end, while presenting a mildly offensive take on Asian women, also isn’t coy about acknowledging sex and prostitution, and the “Honeymoon Hotel” interlude is a flat-out ode to marital sex. The script also takes time to be snarky to the Production Code itself (another two years before the Code took full effect). During Kent’s show about cats, there’s a hilarious discussion as to whether the cats have been married before producing kittens. It’s an effective exchange showing how inane censorship is, right down to controlling whether animals have to be depicted as utterly in love.
Cagney and Blondell have a brisk chemistry with each other that I wouldn’t have expected. Blondell is the perfect depiction of femininity – “you can buy beautiful girls a dime a dozen” – and yet Cagney’s Kent is completely dense; Nan’s sardonic asides act as an inner monologue externalized for only the audience to hear. Her Girl Friday is secretary, assistant, mother, and wife to Kent, always available with a clean shirt and sharp one-liner. If anything, this is a great movie to spotlight the talent of Joan Blondell! Cagney is a bit of everything as well: hoofer, showman, dancer, and actor. His dancing is amazing, possessing a natural grace with a touch of masculinity. In the final number, he’s allowed to enter into the show and put his dance moves out there. It’s always jarring to see him dance, especially if you’re only aware of his dramatic work. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are okay, although they came off as rambunctious kids who you knew would get together by the end. I’ve never liked Powell’s arrogance, at least it’s arrogance to me, and his Scotty is kind of a jerk; he tells Keeler’s character, Bea, that she’s not “feminine” enough because she’s all business. However, Bea has reason to be distant because she understands that Scotty has utilized his connections to get into the show. The big reveal of Bea as an actress is laughable because all you need to be sexy is ditch the glasses (she’s the female Clark Kent). Both actors are cute, but that’s all that’s involved in their performance.
The songs are good, although I didn’t find any particularly memorable (although the “By the Waterfall” has been utilized in countless movies since). There are several Berkeley trademarks within this film such as the appearance of Billy Barty, here playing a mouse in the “kittens” production as well as a child in the “Honeymoon Hotel” sequence; there’s also the famed Berkeley Box, involving the camera shooting a box-like structure to allow the audience to see various goings-on happening within the honeymoon hotel. The synchronized swimming and waterfall sequence is lovely; it’s amazing that human bodies can be used to decorative effect.
Overall, Footlight Parade is a good first foray into Busby Berkeley’s films. Joan Blondell and James Cagney are amazing, as are the musical numbers in the final production. The narrative is pretty stuffed with plot points that are either quickly cast aside or wrapped up by the end. It’s good, but I’m expecting to see better.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.