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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.