Friday, September 24, 2010

Footlight Parade (1933): Jimmy Cagney, the Hoofer

With 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933), Warner Brothers studio had tapped into a treasure trove of entertainment for Depression weary audiences, longing for escapist fare of the highest caliber. With these fluffy film musicals, they had just that, lots of singing, lots of dancing and spectacular kaleidoscopic choreography by master showman Busby Berkley. Striking while the iron was red hot, Warners produced Footlight Parade, a cookie cutter copy of the previous shows, before the year was out. Although not exactly the same plot, the similarities were enough to continue the successful streak for Berkley and the studio.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the flailing career of New York stage director Chester Kent (movie tough guy James Cagney), who, in an attempt to save his struggling production company, develops “prologues”, live musical introductions to the newly popular talking pictures. As his financial woes mount, his shrewish, shallow wife demands a divorce, his competitor steals his ideas (with the help of an insider from his troupe), and his partners are swindling him of his share of the profits; add to this mix a gold-digging tootsie who latches on to his coattails when it appears he is on his way up again and you have a whirlwind of screen activity with Cagney chewing it up like it was a steak and baked potato. By his side the entire time and helping him at every turn, is his devoted and enamored secretary Nan (the incomparable Joan Blondell, at her cutest and wise-cracking snappiest).

Cagney had become a big star at Warners, along with Edward G. Robinson, as the resident grande gangster, after his breakthrough hit The Public Enemy two years earlier. But the actor had started out on the stage as a song and dance man and took this opportunity to flaunt his hoofing skills to great success. It is in this capacity and genre that he would win an Academy Award nine years later as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In Footlight Parade, Cagney is a firecracker of activity, shooting rapid fire dialogue as quickly as he does a machine gun in his gangster/hoodlum pictures.

Blondell, also a Warners staple, is a scene stealer as Nan. Standing by her man throughout the whole film (even when Cagney doesn’t realize he’s her man), she sticks up for the underdog/good guy (encouraging Chester to hire talented dancer/stenographer Ruby Keeler) and protects those she loves from harm (ie: pretty but conniving Claire Dodd from bossman Cagney). Along with the two leads, Footlight Parade features the fresh faces of crooner Dick Powell and the afore mentioned Keeler, who made a dynamic duo in the year’s previous two Berkley hits.

The film is pre-Code, the time before Hollywood censorship took a stronghold, and some of its racier dialogue was sliced and diced from re-release dates after the Code took effect. However, it was restored in 1970, so today, we can enjoy a classic Blondell sniping to her gold-digging rival for Cagney’s affections: “Out countess…as long as there are sidewalks, you’ll have a job.” Other elements that post-Code films wouldn’t have gotten away with were scantily clad chorines in a the bathing beauty extravaganza “By a Waterfall.” As a matter of fact, all the musical numbers in the film’s finale have daring themes to say the least. The charming “Honeymoon Hotel” routine shows a newlywed couple (Powell and Keeler) trying to enjoy their matrimonial amour without the constant interruptions that ensue, including an odd and ribald baby played by dwarf Billy Barty. In the final number, “Shanghai Lil”, Cagney is a sailor, looking for his lost love in the bordellos and opium dens of the Orient. It is a bizarre and surreal concept and even more unusual is the introduction of Keeler’s Lil. Unlike the debauchery and wanton behavior going on around her, Keeler, as Cagney’s Asian gal pal, is cute and perky. From the rest of the performers in the bit, one would expect Marlene Dietrich to show up as the infamous Lil. However, it is nonetheless a fabulous piece of film extravagance set to music.

Fast, furious and complete fun, Footlight Parade, like its toe tapping cousins, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers, was a success and continued the trend at Warners fondly known as the “backstage musical”. The string would continue the following year with another installment of the “Gold Diggers” films, Dames and Wonder Bar.

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Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Footlight Parade (1933) DVD
Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes ~ Matthew Kennedy

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fallen Angel (1945): Fox Film Noir

With Laura (1944), 20th-Century Fox had a certified hit, both commercially and critically. Stylish and sexy, it also certified full fledged stardom for it’s leading lady, Gene Tierney, and propelled the status of it’s director, Otto Preminger. As always in Hollywood, the studio was eager to build on and duplicate the success of a film by using similar elements to potentially create a new one. This was the case with Fallen Angel, produced the year after the Tierney success. Laura’s male star, Dana Andrews was cast in the lead and Preminger assigned as it’s director.

Unlike Laura, the characters in Fallen Angel aren’t glamorous and wealthy eastern urbanites with razor sharp wit. They are denizens of a small podunk hamlet on the California coast. Although the characters reside on both sides of the tracks, the main focus is on the seedier “wrong” side. Down on his luck drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) is kicked off a night bus bound for San Francisco, for lack of payment, landing in the burg of Walton, population 23 (an exaggeration, but it is a small, slow moving town). Drowning his sorrows in a cuppa joe at a late night diner, he happens upon Stella (luscious Linda Darnell); waitress, leggy lovely and local slut. As mercenary as she is beautiful, Stella, as Eric discovers within ten minutes of film footage, has a penchant for picking up admirers as quickly and handily as she does the day’s blue plate special.

Impetuous boy that Eric is, 24 hours later, he finds that he’s fallen head over heels with our girl Stella. She on the other hand has other plans. Being burned by Johnny-Come-Latelys before, she wants more than a chop suey dinner and a good time. Determined to give the sultry hash slinger the material possessions she craves, Eric sets his sights on local spinster June Mills (Alice Faye), attractive and financially well off. The plan: Marry June, grab her dough and take off with his viperous vixen. But when Stella is found murdered, Eric finds a target on his back.

Not only was Fallen Angel supposed to follow in the successful, noir-ish footsteps of Laura, but it was also supposed to be the dramatic debut of film songstress, Alice Faye. Longtime Fox musical star, Faye wanted to take her career in a different direction and was excited when her boss, head of Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, chose this for her dramatic break-out (Olivia de Havilland and new Fox lovely Jeanne Crain were also considered for the role. DeHavilland specifically might have done well in it, as she successfully played a similar role in Paramount’s Hold Back the Dawn, two years earlier). Although not a flop, the film didn’t come close to the box-office powerhouse, Laura had been, and Faye was very unhappy with the way the film had been edited. After visiting the screening room to see the final product, she reportedly left the studio and retired from films (she would return to both films and Fox in 1962 for a remake of State Fair, in a secondary mother role).

Dana Andrews was riding a career high, starring in the aforementioned Laura, the hugely popular ‘45 version of State Fair, and headlined the following year’s Oscar winning Best Picture, The Best Years of Our Lives. But the big winner in Fallen Angel was Linda Darnell. Based on her strong performance in Hangover Square, also released in 1945, she was cast yet again as a dark vamp and the persona suited her. Her early roles had consisted of very young and virginal ingenue parts, but as the middle of the decade approached, she began being cast as naughty girls and her dark good looks only enhanced her burgeoning sexpot image. Stella can actually be viewed as a precursor to her acclaimed role as beautiful gold-digger, Lora Mae Hollingsway in the highly successful A Letter to Three Wives (1949). According to Darnell biographer Ronald L. Davis, there was even talk about an Oscar nomination for her performance in Angel.

Famed playwright Tennessee Williams recommended the movie, albeit denouncing the “awful” title, but the overall impression was that it just didn’t live up to it’s expectations. The fast pace of the relationships were inane, with Andrew’s character falling madly in love with a loose woman, meeting and marrying an upstanding lady and attempting to bilk her of her fortune, all in a very small town, and all in less than a week. But the noir elements, overall good performances by not only the three principals but also fine character actors, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot and Percy Kilbride, and striking cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, make for a film from the golden age that can be enjoyed, if not wholly believed.
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