One of my favorite things to do is watch old movies. On Friday evening, we watched a pre-code movie with James Cagney called Footlight Parade.
Just before watching this movie, I watched a documentary on pre-code movies and how Hollywood was working on banning movies with sexual innuendo, adultery, drugs or alcohol. It could be implied but it could not be shown on the film.
Well, with these changes looming and knowing that these movies actually sold tickets in the depression era, there were a lot of movies pushed through before they were banned.
Footlight Parade was no exception. This film was all about sexuality and women scantily dressed on screen. It actually was tame compared to what is on television now, but I can see where this film would be an eye raiser for some people. Especially the musical number that had the women swimming erotically in very lusty outfits.
This is a great post written by Wonders in The Dark about Footlight Parade:
I have this thing for backstage stories. There is something magical about what goes on before the curtain rises on opening night. The creative puzzle of putting a show together with just the right pieces, the excitement, the panic before facing the audience, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, the tears of joy, or sorrow, depending on the show’s success after the curtain comes down. “Footlight Parade” is all about what happens behind the scenes. It remains one of Warner Brothers great Depression era musicals, filled with Busby Berkeley’s overly impossible yet miraculous production numbers forcing you to sit there stunned and say simply, wow!
James Cagney is Chester Kent, a penniless producer, with Joan Blondell as Nan Prescott, his trusty secretary and dependable right hand. Kent comes up with what he believes is an extraordinary idea. Talkies are the new rage so why not produce an extravagant live production that precedes the movie. Sophisticated audiences will come in droves. Taking it a step further, he will mass produce these shows, called prologues, to movie palaces all over the country! It’s a business paradigm that cannot miss, at least in the movies.
“Footlight Parade” was the last of Warner’s big three classic depression musicals released in 1933. Unlike the glossy MGM fare, Warner’s musicals, though still escapist entertainment from life’s realities, did not ignore the hard times the world was facing. The three women in “Gold Diggers of 1933″ lost their jobs, as did Warner Baxter in “42nd Street.” In “Footlight Parade,” Cagney’s pugnacious Chester Kent worries not only about hard times but about rivals stealing his productions before they even open. Chester is also taking a beating from his producers (Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert)who are fudging the books so the profits, of which Chester is suppose to get a percentage, are never there for him to collect. Chester also has eyes for the ladies, unfortunately, they are for women who will only do him dirty. First, his wife starts divorce proceedings only to change her mind when she thinks he is back in the money. Nan’s money grubbing roommate make a play for Chester as he remains too blinded by her beauty to see her true gold digging colors. Always behind the scenes and protecting his back with love sick eyes is his ever faithful secretary, Nan.
The movie is divided into two halves, the first a backstage raucous comedy while the second half, really the final half hour, contains the three big musical highlights. This is when Busby Berkeley’s magic takes over from Lloyd Bacon’s sharp direction with three magical and exquisite productions numbers, “Honeymoon Hotel,” “By a Waterfall,” and Shanghai Lil,” one more extravagant and grand than the other. The first two numbers feature young ingénues Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. The final production, my own personal favorite, gives the audience the pleasure of seeing Cagney and Ruby Keeler as dance partners. It also reflects Warner Brothers support for F.D.R.s New Deal with it flag waving and tribute to the then President.
The Shanghai Lil’ number starts off with Chester Kent forced to substitute for his leading man who arrives for the performance drunk. The character is in Shanghai looking for his girl Lil’. He makes his way through a series of bars and cafes with all the clientele commenting on the beauty and charms of the girl known as Shanghai Lil’, with one sailor in particular commenting that Lil’ is every sailors pal and everybody’s gal! Abruptly, and inexplicitly, Chester is now dressed in a Navy uniform when suddenly from behind she appears, the notorious Shanghai Lil’ (Ruby Keeler), only looking more like a Shirley Temple cutie pie than a sultry Marlene Dietrich seductress, but never mind, it’s the dancing and the production that counts and the thrill of watching Cagney and Keeler dance.
Keeler, along with dancing partner Dick Powell appeared in all three of the classic 1933 Warner musicals (they also appeared together in “Dames” and “Flirtation Walk”) but Keeler’s career would shortly take dive by the late 1930’s and was essentially over while partner Dick Powell’s flourished eventually moving on to dramatic roles.
The cast also included Billy Barty, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee along with then unknown’s Ann Southern and Dorothy Lamour as chorus girls. An interesting side note is the legend about a very quick appearance in the film by a then unknown John Garfield. There is a quick shot of a sailor behind a table that has been credited as being Garfield’s first appearance on screen. However in the TCM documentary, “The John Garfield Story,” this is disputed when Garfield’s daughter states it is not her father in the film. Most likely, Garfield was still 3,000 miles away in New York working in the Group Theater.
The film was made during Hollywood’s pre-code period and there is quite a bit of dialogue and action in the film to substantiate that. Joan Blondell’s Nan remarks to her roommate, who has eyes for Cagney that, “as long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job.” Additionally, Dick Powell’s Scotty, in the beginning of the film, is a kept man and is forced on Chester to be in the show by sugar mama, Ruth Donnelly. Then there is a good portion of the “Honeymoon Hotel” number that contains men and women running in and out of hotel rooms.
The movie was photographed by George Barnes who not too long before filming began had married Cagney’s co-star Joan Blondell. The marriage lasted only about four years after which Blondell married her former co-star, Dick Powell.
If there is one person who gets the short straw when this film is discussed, it is director Lloyd Bacon. Credit is always given to Busby Berkeley for his brilliant musical numbers, and they are ever so brilliant however Bacon, who also directed “42nd Street,” the first of the Warner’s golden trio, had a graceful and elegant style which dramatized the backstage hustle and bustle matching well with Cagney’s quick speech pattern. Bacon vision of backstage life is one of little glamour and hard work both here and in “42nd Street
How Footlight Parade made the ‘Elite 70′:
Not being a big fan of James Cagney (only because I am not big into gangster movies), I was so surprised with his ability to dance and even sing in this film. I definitely recommend watching this film for those who never have. The sound track is great and the three musical acts they did to gain the contract were elaborate and very fun to watch. Amazing for the early 30’s.
Honeymoon Hotel was my favorite musical number.