Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)
Iiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s Footlight Parade! Released in 1933? Check! Choreography by Busby Berkeley? Affirmative! Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell? Yup! An hour of showbiz drama and then 30 minutes of mind-blowingly good musical sequences? Right again! So what’s to set it apart from 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933? Let’s find out!
Of the three Busby Berkeleys I’ve seen this year (so far), I found the backstage shenanigans in this one the most interesting. For starters, this flick has the balls to address that nobody goes to see stage musicals any more because musical films have become so damn popular. Yeah, that’s right, it’s lamenting a cultural shift that it’s actively contributing to.
Like Singin’ in the Rain, but made around
when Singin’ in the Rain was set.
Solving this pesky picture problem is Chester Kent (James Cagney), who starts choreographing “prologues,” live dance numbers performed in movie theaters before the films start. He figures out that he can save money by using the same sets and outfits and props in theaters all across the country. But suddenly… SCANDAL!
A scandalous scandal!
Ya see, somebody is stealing Kent’s ideas for musical numbers! Who could it be?? Okay, honestly, it’s kind of obvious, but still, I like a good scandal. It’s more than just the stock “Will they fall in love?” plot that a lot of these films have.
Like, say, this.
Oh, wait, it still has one of those, too. But even that’s interesting because whoops, Chester’s still legally married! Scandal, I say! All in all, I was fairly hooked, even while itching to see some crazy musical sequences.
This is my first ever James Cagney movie, truth be told, but holy hell, he’s amazing in this. Showman Chester Kent is a fast-talkin’, hard-workin’, deal-makin’ son of a bitch and his voice is a goddamn hoot, like somebody pumped that classic ’30s “yeah, see?” gangster accent full of cocaine. He is utterly marvelous.
He talks so fast you might need subtitles.
Also great is Frank McHugh as Chester’s constantly worried dance director Francis, who isn’t billed nearly high enough for his hilarious performance. Francis is frowny and whiny and I know that sounds like some irritating comic relief, but he’s sort of a fun cartoon character and he and James Cagney play off of each other wonderfully.
HA, he’s a literal cat wrangler.
Joan Blondell is a sweetie as Nan Prescott, Chester’s secretary who pulls things together behind the scenes and may or may not also wanna get with him. She goes from swooning at Chester to cringing at him an awful lot.
Notice me, senpai!
And at this point, I think it goes without saying that Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler play performers in love and are damn adorable.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
I only counted five songs in Footlight Parade, and they’re all big, lavish productions except for the first, which is a rehearsal of “Ah, the Moon is Here.” It’s a sweet and wonderful duet between Francis and Dick Powell’s character to show the ladies what they’re looking for. Yep, it’s supposed to be a big laugh that two men are nuzzling and singing about love, and they keep cutting to James Cagney chuckling to make sure you know that. But goddammit, it’s lovely.
Francis doesn’t even put his cigar out. That’s legitimately funny.
Hey, you know that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about cats featuring people dressed like cats based on poems about cats? I forget what it’s called, but Footlight Parade did it first. “Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence” is a furry’s wet dream, featuring beautiful dames in kitty costumes and a hunky tomcat as well. It’s a nice tune with plenty of “meows” in the lyrics.
I think Garfield’s up next.
The last three numbers make up the finale. They’re all gigantic and intricate and could never ever ever be performed on a stage, but forget all of that and enjoy. The first is the winkingly risqué “Honeymoon Hotel,” which takes us from room to room in a hotel where I’m pretty sure some fuckin’ is goin’ on. We meet all the staff and learn how they help keep the fucking going smoothly. We see a cross section of several suites where couples are preparing to fuck. And there’s even a group of women in their underthings marching down the hall to teach a new bride what fucking is all about. It’s very fucking sexy and very fucking catchy and very fucking lovely.
And then the real showstopper is “By a Waterfall.” I cannot possibly do this number justice; it really pulls out all the stops. It’s got dancing and synchronized swimming and takes place on waterslides and in pools and on fountains. They do some really amazing tricks with lighting and underwater cameras and overhead shots and it is just the most gorgeous thing you will ever see. I could fill the whole article with pictures of this sequence, but I’ll just pick three.
Unfortunately, everything fizzles in the last sequence. For starters, it’s a military-themed number called “Shanghai Lil,” and just about every other line ends on the phrase “Shanghai Lil,” so it’s repetitive and annoying. Second, it’s about a Chinese woman… played by Ruby Keeler, so, you know, start uncomfortably adjusting your necktie. Third, the choreography doesn’t get interesting until the end, and even then, it’s mostly rifle spinning, which is certainly entertaining and well done, but, you know, we’ve all seen that kind of thing before.
Though I’ll admit I’ve never see rifles turn into FDR’s face.
- I’m winding down to tell you that this is one hell of an enjoyable film, but you should know that there’s some terrible racism in here. I already told you about “Shanghai Lil,” but another number Chester Kent pitches (that we thankfully never see) is a blackface routine called “Slaves of Old Africa.” Also, there’s a truly shocking scene in which Kent sees some black children playing in an open fire hydrant and he gets the idea for a routine featuring “a mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies.” So, you know, watch with caution.
This line of course came right after I thought,
“Oh, good, there are some black people in this movie.”
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
While I usually go for silly rhymes and nonsense syllables when I pick the worst lyric, sorry, this stereotypical Asian speak from “Shanghai Lil” is just fucking awful…
“I miss you velly much a long time,
I think that you no love me still…”
It’s front-heavy and definitely contains some offensive ideas of its time, but as Busby Berkeley films go, it has some amazing musical numbers, fun performances, and a showbiz story that isn’t half bad. Check it out!
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)