Footlight Parade the last Busby Berkeley musical film we’re reviewing this month. It’s probably his best and stars James Cagney (singing and dancing), Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and features Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert and Ruth Donnelly. This film ends with three incredible Busby Berkeley numbers back-to-back: “By a Waterfall“, “Honeymoon Hotel“, and “Shanghai Lil,” proving that he was the genius we say he is!
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Footlight Parade was written by Manuel Seff and James Seymour from a story by Robert Lord and Peter Milne, and directed by Lloyd Bacon. Once again, we see Berkeley directing and creating only musical numbers, but they are probably the best part of the film, as far as I’m concerned. The film’s songs were written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics) and Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics).
Footlight Parade was shot at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, and cost an estimated $703,000 to make (or approximately $13 million in 2012 dollars). It premiered on September 30, 1933, and was released generally on October 21.
This film demonstrated Berkeley‘s increased confidence in detaching the numbers from their realistic narrative context. Also, the scale of the last two musical numbers is more consistently extravagant than ever before in Berkeley’s film work. Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle by Martin Rubin
James Cagney, a former song-and-dance man himself, actively campaigned the executives at Warner Bros. for the lead in Footlight Parade, which became his first on-screen appearance as a dancer. Cagney had only fallen into his gangster persona when he and Edward Woods switched roles three days into the shooting of 1931’s The Public Enemy. That role catapultedCagney into stardom and a series of gangster films, which throughout his career, Cagney found to be as much a straitjacket as a benefit.
Cagney‘s character, Chester Kent, was modeled after Chester Hale, a well-known impresario at the time, and the offices he worked in were based on the Sunset Boulevard offices of the prologue production company “Fanchon and Marco” in Los Angeles.
Although early casting reports had Stanley Smith playing the juvenile lead eventually played by Dick Powell, the film became the third pairing of Powell and Ruby Keeler after 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933, the first two Warner Bros. Busby Berkeley musicals. Remarkably, considering the success of those two films, Berkeley was not the original choice to choreograph – Larry Ceballos was signed to direct the dance numbers, and sued Berkeley and the studio for $100,000 for breach of contract when he was not allowed to do so. Ceballos also claimed to have created a number later used in the Warner Bros. film Wonder Bar, which was credited to Berkeley.
Chester Kent (James Cagney) replaces his failing career as a director of Broadway musicals with a new one as the creator of musical numbers called “prologues”, short live stage productions presented in movie theaters before the main feature is shown. He faces pressure from his business partners to constantly create a large number of marketable prologues to service theaters throughout the country, but his job is made harder by a rival who is stealing his ideas, probably with assistance from someone working inside his company. Kent is so overwhelmed with work that he doesn’t realize that his secretary, Nan (Joan Blondell), has fallen in love with him, and is doing her best to protect him.
Kent’s business partners announce that they have a big deal pending with the Apolinaris theater circuit, but getting the contract depends on Kent impressing Mr. Apolinaris with three spectacular prologues, presented on the same night, one after another at three different theaters. Kent locks himself and his staff in the offices to prevent espionage leaks while they choreograph and rehearse the three production numbers. Kent then stages “Honeymoon Hotel“, “By a Waterfall“, featuring the famous ‘Human Waterfall‘, and “Shanghai Lil“, featuring Cagney and Ruby Keeler dancing together.
“My Shadow” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
“Ah, the Moon Is Here” – Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
“Honeymoon Hotel” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
“Shanghai Lil” –by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
Footlight Parade (1933) Trailer
By a Waterfall 1933
Honeymoon Hotel (only audio)
Nobody watches a Berkeley film from this period for the story. It’s depression era feel good entertainment and he delivers some of his best directing here. Arguably, Footlight Parade is one of Berkeley‘s best directions. Certainly, it ranks high with his other early pre-code films, and, in my opinoin, well worth a look! For me, “By a Waterfall” is the most ambitiously spectacular number attempted by Berkeley up to this point. The climactic series of overhead patterns achieve an intensity of abstration that was mimicked in later years again and again by other dance directors.
Another number in the film is “Shanghai Lil” which demonstrates what a showman James Cagney was as he sings and dances on the bar with Ruby Keeler. This was the first time he was ever seen dancing in a film and it is well worth it.
It’s been great fun re-looking at all of his films this month for Julie and me. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these great films as much as we have!
Some photos courtesy of “DoctorMacro”
Sources: Wikipedia.com and Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle by Martin Rubin