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.

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

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  1. Really entertaining article about a film genre that has a special place in my movie-loving heart! I could quote 42nd Street line by line, and the Golddigger movies are to die for. Footlight Parade and 42nd Street tie for the top in my thinking. Cagney was just great, and Joan Blondell never gave a bad performance in her life!

    I too was interested to see the restored version, having grown up watching the clipped versions on TV. Pretty racy! So THAT's why ministers and such thought movies were sinful. I never understood that at all until seeing the pre-codes in their original states.

    I enjoyed this article tremendously, Rupert. And WHERE did you get that marvelous poster?!!!

    CLASSICBECKY (I forget my Google password, so I had to post anonymous!)

  2. I have seen Footlight Parade and it was a pleasant surprise. I loved Cagney's dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy and had read that he was a former stage star and dancer. His skills in the last number was classic (as was the build-up to it!)

    Always enjoy your reviews and insights.

  3. As a big fan of Cagney, I love this movie, and really enjoyed reading your review! I think '42nd Street' may be my favourite out of the Busby Berkeley musicals from this great year, but all of them are excellent. Great stuff.

  4. I haven't seen this one but it sounds worth watching. I couldn't help but notice the movie poster and wondering if that wasn't considered quite risque for 1933...?

  5. worth to watch. . sounds interesting! I can't wait to watch it with my mum of course she can guide me lol

  6. Not spending superfluous words.

  7. Fantastic post. It was exactly what I was looking for. Nice and concise.

  8. Hey

    That's a great article. I've recently watched '42nd Street' and 'Golddiggers of 1933'and I must say I absolutely love those pre-code Warner Bros. musicals. Next on my list 'Footlight Parade'!

  9. Hi Rupert! Just popping in to say hello. I already commented on your article. I still have access to internet and my email and can get on at my sister's house or my son's, or the library. I just did a post for the Cafe to be put on this week. I hope all is well with you. If you ever feel like saying hi, just send it to Take care.



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