Footlight Parade

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Details:
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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

 

 

Mildred Pierce

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Details:
Director: Michael Curtiz Producer: Jerry Wald
Writers: Ranald MacDougall from a novel by James M. Cain
Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett
Studio: Warner Bros. Year: 1945

Why I DVRed It: I’d love to say that I DVRed it because of a love of film noir—and yes, I, like pretty much everyone else, love film noir—or because of an interest in seeing a Michael Curtiz film other than Casablanca or White Christmas or because of an interest in James Cain adaptations or literally dozens of other reasons. But really, I just DVRed this for Joan Crawford. And specifically for my memory of Mommie Dearest, especially for the scene in which Joan receives the Oscar for Mildred Pierce while faking pneumonia. In Mommie Dearest, she puts on makeup and invites reporters to see her on her front steps, saying, “I would rather be here with you than anywhere else in the world. You, all of you here and everywhere, gave me this award tonight. And I accept it from you and only you. I love all of you. Now please forgive me, good night.” It is a high point of Faye Dunaway hamming up her Joan Crawford accent, though it is not the best part of the film (I like the sequence with the uneaten steak best).

Mommie Dearest is heavily fictionalized, of course. In reality, she accepted the award in bed (playing up the illness angle, after all) and opined, “Whether the Academy voters were giving the Oscar to me, sentimentally, for Mildred or for 200 years of effort, the hell with it — I deserved it.” Crazily, that’s not even the best Joan Crawford Academy Awards story (no, the best is the spillover from her feud with Bette Davis on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, itself a great film)! With that background, though, I was eager to see the real Joan doing what she did best—acting, not abusing her children.

Presentation on TCM: Mildred Pierce was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which airs film noir movies on Fridays throughout June and July. As Mildred Pierce was shown in the afternoon, there was no introduction from anyone at the network.

Synopsis: In true noir fashion, Mildred Pierce opens with a murder: Monte Beragon (Scott) is shot, crying “Mildred.” Mildred Pierce (Crawford) contemplates suicide by the docks then eventually is brought in for questioning about the death of Monte, her second (and current) husband. The rest of the story is told in flashback as she tells the police of her past. She was married to Bert Pierce (Bennett) but divorced him when he proved to not be successful enough to support Mildred and her two daughters, particularly the eldest, Veda (Blyth), who aspires to be wealthy. Mildred goes on her own and becomes wealthy by starting a restaurant chain, but it is still not enough for Veda, who runs away and becomes a singer in a sleazy club until Mildred marries Monte, of whom Veda is quite fond. But, of course, he ends up murdered… but by whom?!?

Veda and Monte. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Veda and Monte. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Mildred Pierce was the first hit Joan Crawford vehicle in years, and she had to fight to get the part. Warner Brothers executives liked the idea of her in the lead, but the film’s director, Michael Curtiz, had little desire of working with the notoriously difficult star. He considered her a has-been and insisted she screen test for the part, likely as a way of deterring her from taking the role. But she swallowed her pride, took the test, and won the part, which allowed her to show off some of the finest acting of her career.

The film is very much a product of its time, combining two staple box office formulas of the 1940s: the film noir and the domestic melodrama. The setup is pure noir: a murder at the beginning leads to a flashback and ultimately a confession. In the end, domesticity is restored, and the wrongdoers are punished. The film uses expressionistic lighting, cigarette smoke throughout (Mildred is even told by the detective that it is ok if she smokes through her narrative, as if it would not be okay in a noir…), subjective narration, the Anywhere, USA setting (although most of the action centers around Glendale, California and the area immediately surrounding Los Angeles, it could be anywhere—the interiors of Mildred’s restaurants even look a lot like the roadside diners in The Postman Always Rings Twice (also based on a work by James Cain) and The Killers), and all the classic clothing of the genre (floppy hats and low necklines for Mildred, baggy suits and fedoras for some of the men). Curtiz seems especially interested in using lighting to define the moral viewpoints of the film. Crawford is lit in shadow throughout her deposition to the police. However, once cleared of blame and suspicion, the police open the blinds in the detective’s office, lighting her brilliantly in white—her innocence, honor, and even beauty restored.

Mildred is questioned in shadow. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Mildred is questioned in shadow. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

But she is lit once she's cleared of suspicion. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
But she is lit once she’s cleared of suspicion. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Throughout the main story, too, Joan Crawford is generally seen in daylight (or, if it is night, she’s indoors and well lit in the classical style), though the movie opens on her at night, and it is night throughout her police interview.

Thus, the use of shadow indicates our own suspicions of her and her motives (she could be just as quick to love someone unconditionally or to kill). When she is trustworthy (as a loving mother or domestic worker), she is well lit, but when she is under suspicion, she is a creature of the night. This is, of course, the norm in noir, but the film is just as much a melodrama as it is a noir. Unlike in typical noir, Mildred Pierce exists largely in a sphere of heightened emotion and depthless characters. The characters (other than Mildred) are stock characters: the loving good husband, the horny chauvinist, the effete rich man, the old maid, and the disgraceful daughter. The audience is meant to feel bad for Mildred when her daughter, flush with cash after conning a wealthy youth that she was pregnant, decries Mildred’s efforts to give Veda the lifestyle she wants:

With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.

The audience feels pangs at every one of those words—poor Millie! But more, the film is melodramatic in its treatment of class and love. This is not a film about upward mobility and happiness; it is a film about being stuck where one is and the tragedy of being stuck. As Veda tells Mildred, she’ll always just be “a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.” And as Veda herself learns, men like Monte will never want to marry commoners like her, girls whose mothers and fathers labored to make the American Dream a reality. And isn’t that just awful? None of this is to say the film is a Douglas Sirk-style tearjerker, but neither is it a hardnosed detective feature. Rather, it’s just a film made in the classical style prevalent of 1945, only with some noir underpinnings.

But as much as the film was so very 1945, it was also somewhat forward thinking, showing an independent woman surviving in the harshness of a male world. Mildred asks for and is granted a divorce early in the picture and largely denies male subjection until she sees it as a tool for restoring domestic harmony with her class-obsessed daughter. Her divorce is predicated on two principles: 1) that she loves her children more than she loves Bert, and 2) that she wants a better consumerist life than Bert can provide. Such divorces were increasingly common prior to the 1930s, as historians such as Elaine Tyler May have pointed out. May writes, for instance, of an increase in the number of divorces that cited “neglect to provide” as the grounds for divorce. In these cases, it was not uncommon for the husband and wife to simply have disagreed about how much the man was supposed to “provide” for the wife, and that seems to be the case for Mildred and Bert. They had a nice life, even though Bert was out of work, but it wasn’t enough for Veda, which meant it was not enough for Mildred.

Divorce allows Mildred to navigate an independent sphere, but to do so, she has to avoid subjugation to the men around her. Before her divorce is even formalized, she denies a very strong sexual advance from her realtor friend Wally (Carson), and, after making a business plan with Wally and Monte, she dates Monte for a bit before leaving him due to his unwonted relationship with Veda. Mildred thus becomes mostly independent, though she is, of course, subservient always to the ambitions of Veda.

During the film, Mildred seems to navigate independence and even—by 1940s standards at least—maleness. It’s easy to argue that Mildred projects femininity and masculinity in different contexts, as several analyses have done, and certainly that reading holds up:

Mildred wears a mixture of masculine and feminine clothing while getting her restaurant ready. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Mildred wears a mixture of masculine and feminine clothing while getting her restaurant ready. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

We see Mildred wearing men’s clothes and her hair up when she is in business settings (notably the flannel shirt she wears before her restaurant opens) and looking feminine—either domesticated or sexualized, depending on the setting—when at home or on a date. But let us not say the movie is outright feminist. After all, the film is quick to make sure we realize Mildred and Veda are still women. Mildred is only really ever domestic. As she puts it at the beginning of the flashback, “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married.” She has multiple lives in the movie, but she’s never out of the kitchen in any of them. We first see her in the kitchen in her first life, with Bert. Then, in her second life, she takes a job baking pies and working as a waitress. In her third life, she is a restauranteur, as often in the kitchen as in the fur coats she can now afford. The movie seems to imply that the only acceptable paths for women are at least tangentially related to the domestic sphere. And, of course, the movie ends with domesticity firmly reinforced, as Mildred and Bert reunite, the evil between them (i.e. their own daughter, Veda) now destroyed.

The film ends with Mildred and Bert walking through an archway at dawn, as though they are remarried and starting anew, free of Veda and her evil. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
The film ends with Mildred and Bert walking through an archway at dawn, as though they are remarried and starting anew, free of Veda and her evil. © 1945 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

The alternative path for feminine independence is taken by Veda, who navigates independence by conning men sexually and then singing for them in sleazy nightclubs. And, of course, she acts like a typical hysterical girl when she murders Monte simply because he will never love her the way she loves him. This act is ultimately what restores Mildred to the domestic comfort of Bert, and the murder thus allows for Mildred to be the kind of women the 1940s male audience wants her to be, while also destroying the elitist sexual deviant (cheating on Mildred with her own daughter) and reinforcing the dream of a classless America. But I digress.

For other “feminist” characters, the movie provides the audience with Ida (Arden), Veda’s business associate. She is the stereotypical old maid, and she seems to exist mainly to say lines like “When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding wings.” Wally describes Ida as not a woman, and Ida says she’s seen more as the “big sister type.” As for men, Ida wishes she could “get along without them,” too. Obviously, Ida would be a lesbian in a different version of this film,  but, of course, in a 1945 picture, her sort of talk is meant for comic relief more than an actual path for feminine independence. The joke is that she needs men, but the film never really presents a decent male for anyone to want.

Mildred Pierce offers three male “types.” First is Bert. He is the requisite “good guy,” the loving husband, strong provider, and caring father, except that he never proves to be strong or particularly caring. We see him mourn for the death of one daughter (Kay) and help Mildred find and prevent the death of the other (Veda), but he seems unable to “be a man” and take care of his business—he needs Mildred to wear the pants, even though in the household they set up in the beginning, Mildred is very much reduced to domestic servitude. Mildred says she made a mistake in leaving Bert, and the audience would agree but only because he is the least bad option presented. The second male “type” shown is Wally, a chauvinistic sack of shit who talks about Mildred’s “gams” and makes an immediate move on her after finding out she’s single. He is loud and brash but ultimately supportive of Mildred. Of course, he also helps Veda in her con of that poor nice young rich boy. Wally is the heteronormative alpha male, but the film makes it clear he is not the type of man Mildred needs, nor does it imply that anyone should be like Wally. (As an aside, I love the acting done by Jack Carson in the role—he hams up all the chauvinistic behavior but plays subtle in scenes of drama with Mildred.) And the third man offered is Monte, who is basically a fancily dressed, manicured, accented, elitist prick. He seems okay at times, but of course he turns out to be a mega pervert, preying on both Mildred and Veda, and he ultimately costs Mildred her namesake restaurants and her wealth. I love the presentation of him—he looks and acts like Clark Gable if he were asked to portray Tennessee Williams—but everyone knows he’s trouble. In having Mildred return to the least bad kind of male, the film seems to suggest not that Mildred was better off going on her own but that everything would’ve been fine if she’d just stuck by the nice guy. But alas!

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, despite my criticisms of the film’s handling of gender, I thoroughly enjoyed Mildred Pierce (and, to be fair, the movie is pretty progressive in terms of gender for 1945, and it could be argued that Mildred and Bert will return home but with Mildred now in a position of power…). The acting is superb, and the story provides such a weird mix of banal and bizarre that it keeps a first-time viewer fully surprised. I love the amalgamation of melodrama and noir the film makes. I am tempted to make fun of any melodrama, typically, but damn if Curtiz didn’t pull it off.

As an aside, a friend of mine remarked recently that spending a lot of time in Glendale, California makes Veda seem less insane. Something to consider.