Footlight Parade


Director: Lloyd Bacon (Busby Berkeley directed the song and dance numbers)
Producer: Robert Lord (uncredited)
Writers: Manuel Seff and James Seymour
Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Renee Whitney
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 1933

Why I DVRed This: My wife is not nearly as interested in classic films as I am (not to say that she doesn’t like them—she’s just more choosy than I am), but she loves Disney World. Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park has a ride (or “attraction” in Disney terms) called the Great Movie Ride (which is now sponsored by TCM actually). It’s a typical Disney attraction—you ride on a car and drive by animatronic scenes while a “cast member” reads some inane script full of terrible puns and trivia. The animatronic exhibits include recreations of scenes from classic films, and there are a number of scenes from movies that my wife has not seen (and some I haven’t seen too). Because of that, several years ago, she made a goal of watching all the movies featured on the ride. Anyway, one of the movies neither of us had seen was Footlight Parade, which Disney uses as an example of the big Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. We actually had this sitting on the DVR for almost two years, because neither of us was evidently that excited about watching it. But we kept on it for the Disney goal, and I’m glad we didn’t delete it when our DVR was at 100% full.

Presentation on TCM: There wasn’t any at all. The movie just started playing. I have no idea why it was on, either, because I DVRed it A) a million years ago and B) before I paid attention to such things (as my DVRing of movies on TCM long preceded my writing about the DVRing of movies).

Chester Kent, framed heroically here, will save the theater and his struggling business. © 1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: Broadway director Chester Kent (Cagney) realizes talkies will make Broadway shows obsolete, so he starts producing “prologues,” short live musical numbers that movie theaters show before the feature presentation. But a rival is stealing Kent’s amazing ideas, likely with help from someone in his own outfit! And his business partners are putting pressure on him to make increasingly more prologues at increasingly more movie theaters at increasingly more spectacular levels! Kent is so overworked he doesn’t even realize his secretary, Nan (Blondell), is in love with him. And he has to handle getting a divorce from Cynthia Kent, his wife, and Nan has to win him over from Vivian Rich, her gold-digging friend!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Boy does this movie move fast. Elements of it are slow (as are all movies in the classical style)—long scenes, long takes, long musical numbers—but in terms of the plot, everything is so quick and abrupt. In a matter of minutes, we see Kent realize he’s out of work, get dumped by his wife, and come up with his new big plan (when he realizes an economics lesson that I thought everyone knew: that a company can make more by charging less when purchases are made in bulk). Nan falls in love with him seemingly instantly too, success comes rapidly, then conflict is set up and resolved equally rapidly (there’s a short scene in which Kent finds out his plans are being copied; then, immediately comes up with the solution of locking in his dancers and singers while they produce their three big numbers for the grand finale). All of this speed serves to getting the audience caught up on the why before it is shown the big reveal: three spectacular show-ending numbers.

The creative process is a grueling one, as the film makes clear in short scenes that always resolve themselves with lightbulb moments. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

For a movie that’s at least partially about creating, we see very little creating, too. Obviously, no one wants to watch hours of James Cagney sitting at a piano trying to write songs, but there’s an odd amount of such footage in the movie. There are a number of short scenes in which Kent is hunched over a piano in despair, as the pressure becomes too much, but he always comes up with some ingenious solution. It’s as if the filmmakers want the audience to know that the creative process is hard but not so hard that the audience should feel guilty for watching the film. Likewise, for a movie in which one of the principal sets is a rehearsal studio, there is very little rehearsing. The film instead makes such work appear very casual and fun. Sure, Kent is stressed about writing , but then—lightbulb—“This just might work!” And, because the rehearsals are never shown, there are no spoilers for the lush and lavish musical numbers at the end.


The musical numbers, such as “By a Waterfall,” all involve lavish stages, multiple cameras, and expansive casts and settings. They are dazzling in their unreality, and Berkeley makes full use of filmic elements to bring them to life. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, those musical numbers are impressive, and they are largely the reason Footlight Parade has been preserved by the National Film Registry and endures as a classic today (the Disney ride display captures this too, as it shows the waterfall of women). The three at the end are incredible and largely suggest one of the larger points of the movie—movies are better than Broadway. The montages could not possibly work in a theater, and Busby Berkeley’s direction requires multiple cameras and extraordinarily large staging. The waterfall sequence, for instance, takes place in a waterfall but contains giant fountains and cavalcades of synchronized swimmers. His camera pushes the audience into the waterfall and even in to the pool, as the world of the stage expands limitlessly. In his essay, “Genre: The Conventions of Connection” from The World in a Frame,  Leo Braudy describes this expansion as an affirmation of the “the capacity of the world of style” and a mocking of “the narrowness of the ‘real’ world outside the theater walls, populated by bland tenors, greedy producers, and harried directors.” Indeed, the genre of musical is already a heightened, stylized form of reality (in real life, for instance, the only people who bust into song are former members of Ivy League glee clubs and the deranged), and Berkeley pushes those conventions to extremes. But his decision certainly is in the best interest of the audience who is better served by getting, for instance, an aerial view of the synchronized swim sequence, and a moving camera walking everyone into the Honeymoon Hotel, or what I took to calling the Sex Hotel.

Nope, nothing racist about this. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

That reminds me—this movie is weirdly risqué. Two of the three big numbers are rather adult in theme. The one alluded to here is the “Honeymoon Hotel” number, about a hotel that is used for affairs and one-night stands. But the final one is even less family friendly—“Shanghai Lil,” about a beautiful Asian prostitute who services servicemen and sailors. The film also makes allusions to prostitution in the “real world too” in the form of Nan’s roommate and to Scotty (Powell) being a “kept” boy for Mrs. Gould, the producer’s wife. Footlight Parade was pre-code, so all of this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but, not knowing it was pre-code when I started watching it, I was shocked by some of the humor. I expected a musical for the whole family!

James Cagney knew the film would be good—he begged Warner Bros. for the lead role so he could show off his song-and-dance chops after years of playing tough guys—and he was right. The production comes off as a clear classic, and it no doubt left 1933 audiences with great cheer. The waterfall number ends with unmitigated support for the New Deal and the dream of a brighter tomorrow. While Hollywood movies would later show the negative side of the transition from silent films to talkies (see Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, etc.), in Footlight Parade, a transition is merely a new opportunity to excel in America. Chester Kent should be out of a job, but a little ingenuity saves him, just as the New Deal will save us all.

“By a Waterfall” includes this heroic imagery of America’s newly elected savior. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, the correlation between this film and the New Deal cannot be overlooked. The film opens on dark economic times and a theater that is chaotic and poorly run and ends by showing the limitless possibilities of the creative world. Gerald Perry, at Jump Cut in 1974, suggested that Chester Kent is essentially a fill-in for FDR, and while this reading might be a bit strained, the film very clearly shows a love for all things Roosevelt. And, Chester Kent’s decision to spend a lot of money to make a lot of money certainly sounds like Keynesian Economics to me… It’s been well established that movie musicals (still a brand-new genre in 1933) offered escape for Americans suffering in the Great Depression, but this musical goes a little farther, offering not just escape, but wholehearted liberal propaganda.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, absolutely. I loved watching this. It’s so fucking charming. The casting is perfect, the musical numbers (although sometimes quite racist) are catchy and visually enthralling, and even the set design is fantastic. I loved all the art deco flourishes both in the “real” world and in the musical world. Overall, I’m glad my wife insisted on watching the Great Movie Ride’s movies, because I would never have chosen to watch this on my own. But I would certainly would choose to watch it again.



Waterloo Bridge


Director: James Whale
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Writer: Tom Reed
Cast: Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery, Doris Lloyd, Frederick Kerr, Enid Bennett
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 1931

Why I DVRed This: True confession: I started watching this live when it was on and then DVRed it. Then, I never actually watched it on DVR. Instead, I watched it live and deleted the DVR. I have made this website a house of lies, and I apologize for anyone who is personally offended by my actions.

Presentation on TCM: …But to be fair, I got very excited to be at home at the exact time a movie started and that had a TCM host introducing it. I was getting ready to pack for a trip to Wisconsin to go to a friend’s wedding, and the film was the perfect length of time (less than an hour and a half) for me to procrastinate but not procrastinate so much that I either A) had to stop watching the movie or B) would be unable to pack.

Anyway, Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. That night’s programming highlighted the work of Mae Clarke, an actress I have to admit I had never heard of before. He said she was most famous for her role in Frankenstein, which was also directed by James Whale. In fact, as Mankiewicz recounted, Universal was so impressed with Whale’s work on Waterloo Bridge (because he had come in severely under budget) that the studio let him choose any project he wanted next. He chose Frankenstein and brought Clarke with him. (Prior to Waterloo, she had been famous for getting a grapefruit smashed into her forehead by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.) Obviously Frankenstein was a huge hit, and the rest is history. But it was all news to me. The things you learn on TCM sometimes!

Much of the film concerns a girl who is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world and her situation. Here, Myra looks sad and overwhelmed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Much of the film concerns a chorus girl who is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world and her situation. Here, Myra looks sad… and overwhelmed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: In World War I London, an American chorus girl, Myra Deauville (Clarke), supports herself through prostitution on Waterloo Bridge. During an air raid, she meets fellow American, Roy Cronin (Montgomery), and they fall in love. But her self-hatred prevents their relationship from blossoming, despite his devotion.

Analysis (contains spoilers): So this movie is a weird one. It’s “precode,” meaning it could get away with a lot that a code era movie could not. For example, the protagonist is a self-loathing prostitute. That is not something you tend to see in movies enforced by the Hays Code. Those movies instead tended to be saccharine and show nothing controversial. “White slavery” and prostitution were outright banned as subjects. Thus, Waterloo Bridge as a whole could not exist.

Because of that, in fact, the film would be remade twice. First, it was remade in 1940, with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in the leads. Then, in 1956, it was remade as Gaby with Leslie Caron and John Kerr. In the Vivien Leigh remake, there is no prostitution; in Gaby, the main character only turns to prostitution after her doughboy lover is rumored to be dead at D-Day (Gaby also takes place in World War II, not World War I). But in the original film (based on a less-than-successful play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood), Myra simply chooses to prostitute herself so she can pay her rent and even returns to prostitution voluntarily after meeting Roy (who is apparently an idiot who cannot figure out what she does for a living despite obvious hints—it would be a different movie if he understood what she did and was accepting of it, but that type of movie absolutely could not be made in 1931).

Note the rather phallic divide between them on the bed. Still, for 1931, it's a bit of a surprise to even see two unmarried lovers near a bed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Note the rather phallic divide between them on the bed. Still, for 1931, it’s a bit of a surprise to even see two unmarried lovers near a bed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This plot actually still seems kind of shocking to me, especially the ending—after reuniting with Roy and presumably giving up her career, Myra should have a happy ending. But walking across the very location she prostituted herself, Myra is struck by a bomb (remember, the war is going on!) and killed. It’s an abrupt and strange ending that reminds me of the advice on endings offered in National Lampoon’sHow to Write Good” article (for a story set in England, try this ending— “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a lorry. –The End—”), but to be fair, the ending is alright diegetically. The film makes clear that there are air raids during the war (that’s how Myra and Roy meet actually) early on, and so there’s a Chekhov’s gun element to the ending. More though, there seems to be a moralistic tone to the ending. Myra cannot have a happy ending after the choices she’s made (not just the prostitution but her dishonesty and maltreatment of Roy, who she runs off on), so she must die for her sins. This ending is actually very much in line with the Hay’s Code, which necessitated that criminals be punished by film’s end.

The titular bridge/prostitution hot spot, during an air raid. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The titular bridge/prostitution hot spot, during an air raid. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Incidentally, Waterloo Bridge was made while the Hay’s Code was in effect; it just was made before the Hay’s Office was being run by Joseph I. Breen, who more actively enforced the code. That’s what historians mean by “precode” in this case (though it’s obviously a misnomer). (For a decent history of the Code, see this New York Times book review or this NPR article.) Because Universal did not want to offend people (though the film would still be protested and banned in certain cities), the film is not, as such, as immoral as it seems. There is no sex, for instance, nor any overt hints at sex (and yes, I recognize the oxymoron of overt hints); indeed, the scene in which Myra is shown to solicit a gentleman only implies that he is getting a carriage for the two of them to go out together. Of course, the audience knows what’s going on, but, it could be argued, that the audience’s assumption of sex is its own problem, not that of the filmmakers. Still, the writing makes it clear what she is doing is “wrong,” because she’s ashamed of it, and it makes it clear that she and people like her cannot ever be happy. What the film seems to imply, however, is that it is a sad world we live in because Myra deserves to be happy, even while society precludes that possibility. That is, in a different movie, Myra would find success as a singer and find and keep true love. Instead, the war, poverty, the harsh reality of show business, and the general miasma of the period force her onto a path she cannot exit with happiness. So, like so many other pieces of art from the 1920s and 1930s, World War I is shown to be a breaking point for humanity, and now people like Myra are denied happy endings because of the horrors of mechanized war, human progress, etc. But that’s probably giving the film too much credit. It’s not really art, just a movie that’s kind of ok and has some decent acting (from Mae Clarke) and some really not decent acting (from Douglass Montgomery).

A young Bette Davis also appears in the film, as Roy's sister. She doesn't do much in the movie—really, only Mae Clarke is impressive in this film at all. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
A young Bette Davis also appears in the film, as Roy’s sister. She doesn’t do much in the movie—really, only Mae Clarke is impressive in this film at all. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

As such, this movie is interesting to watch more as a relic of a different filmmaking era. The acting (overall) is fine, the script is fine, the directing is fine. In general, the film is fine, if a little stagebound. It feels a little rushed and would not generally be placed in the canon of classic films. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching it. It feels like the kind of movie that today would be remade as a prestige picture released around December—the kind of movie you might see once and say was pretty good but that doesn’t leave any kind of lasting impression on you (it would probably star Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Winslet and receive a few Oscar nominations but not any wins). Waterloo Bridge is from an era in Hollywood when there was no such thing as an auteur (I mean, of course there was—there was Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin—but the idea did not yet exist) and so directors were just assigned projects until they got power to pick their own pre-approved projects. The reward for making a fine movie that made a profit was that you could then make a bigger budget picture like Frankenstein. It seems like a nice world to have been in, I guess.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: So this was an example of a movie that I definitely would not have DVRed simply because I had no idea it existed. I had never heard of it nor of anyone in it (excepting Bette Davis, but she’s barely in it, so that hardly counts) nor of anyone associated with it. However, I’m very glad I watched it. I can’t say I’d necessarily watch it again, but I enjoyed it enough. Plus, I was able to make fun of the melodramatic ending for a few days (even though no one understood the reference).