Thursday July 02, 2020
Movie Review: Footlight Parade (1933)
Has anyone in the movies ever talked as fast as James Cagney talks in “Footlight Parade”? Cagney’s patter is always rat-a-tat-tat, but here it’s so zippy it makes Cary Grant’s dialogue in “His Girl Friday” seem positively pensive. His mouth moves faster than our minds.
Cagney’s character, Chester Kent, talks fast in part because he’s scrambling. And he’s scrambling because new technology (talking pictures) has made his talents outmoded (kinda sorta), so he’s struggling to keep up. Also because he trusts the wrong people. Also because he might not be that smart.
He says the following halfway through:
Between Gladstone stealing all our stuff and you saying there are no profits, I’m getting pretty well fed up.
Turns out Gladstone is stealing all their stuff because Kent’s trusted assistant, Thompson (Gordon Wescott), is a spy. And there are profits, but Kent’s partners, the production team of Si Gould and Al Frazier (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl), are cheating him.
Who figures all this out? Kent’s secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who’s not so secretly in love with him. How does he reward her? By dating her friend, Vivian Rich (thin-eyebrowed Claire Dodd, forever playing the other woman). And this after separating from a woman so rotten she deserves the grapefruit in the face Cagney delivered to Mae Clark in “Public Enemy.”
So is our hero, this great musical idea man, not the brightest bulb? You know those scenes in movies where they make the protagonist seem sharp by making them right on an historical moment—like Michael Corleone anticipating the Cuban Revolution in “The Godfather Part II”? They do the opposite with Kent.
A fad like mah-jongg
“Footlight” begins with a news ticker informing Kent and Thompson (and us) what I assume everyone in 1933 knew—SILENT PICTURES ARE FINISHED—but Kent’s not convinced. He says talking pictures are a fad—like mah-jongg. Thompson doesn’t think so: “Looks like I’m assistant to a guy out of a job,” he says. But is this too smart? Kent directs stage musicals. Why would talking pictures end stage musicals?
That’s the movie’s conceit, though. Kent and Thompson drop by the producers’ office and discover it’s all over.
Si: Talking pictures—that’s what they want. … Flesh is a dead issue.* We’re in the picture business. Exhibitors.
Al: Yeah, we just bought four houses.
Si: [gesturing to a film cannister] They deliver the show in tin cans and we got nothing to worry about.
(*Ironic given all the flesh in this movie.)
Then they take him to a B-movie starring John Wayne so he can see for himself. Except after the picture is over a mini-musical stage number begins, set in a harem (with, BTW, a superhot uncredited dance lead). I never knew about “prologues” before this movie but here’s a primer. Basically it was a bit of vaudeville between movies in the early days of talkies. The Rockettes got their start with prologues, while one of the impresarios was a guy named Chester Hale, upon whom Cagney’s character is based.
Kent sees the harem number and says, “Hey, why don’t I do that for you?” but Frazier and Gould tell him they’re already phasing out prologues. Too expensive. Then the idea. After Kent’s wife serves him divorce papers—“I’m used to good clothes and everything that goes with it!” is one of the more endearing things she says—Kent goes to a drug store to buy some aspirin and wonders off-handedly why it costs only 18 cents when next door it’s 25. “We got 100 stores,” he’s told. “We buy in big lots.” Kent snaps his fingers. “The chain-store idea solves everything!”* Returning to Frazier & Gould, he sells them on producing prologues that play around the country, not just in one theater, thus diminishing their cost.
(*For the curious: “Chain stores” were, if not a new phenomenon, somewhat new nomenclature in 1933. The first reference in the New York Times came in Nov. 1917 regarding the purchase of a lot by the W.T. Grant Co., which owned a chain of Twenty-Five Cent Stores around the country. At one point, there were 1,200 W.T. Grant Co. stores. It went bankrupt in 1976.)
All of this sets up the rest of the movie. And guess how long all of the above took? Seven minutes. With opening credits. Boom boom. Told you about fast talking.
Cats! The prologue
Now we’re into the scrambling portion of the film. Kent works day and night trying to think up themes for his prologues before Gladstone steals them. At one point we see this list in his office:
I would’ve killed to see the Russian Revolution one.
The first idea we actually hear from him is a doozy. Nan finds him asleep in his office chair, with a cat nuzzled by his side, and when she wakes him up, he looks around, remembers, and shouts, “Cats!” The night before, he’d seen an alley cat, liked its grace, decided it would make a great idea for a prologue. So Cagney, or writers Manuel Seff or James Seymour, or directors Lloyd Bacon or Busby Berkeley, came up with the idea for a “Cats!” musical about half a century before Andrew Lloyd Weber. The bit also allows comic-relief choreographer Francis (Frank McHugh), forever whining through a stogie, to parade around for a time with a long black tail affixed to his hindside.
Other ideas Kent imagines are alternatively racy or racist—sometimes both. Some black kids are cooling themselves off at a fire hydrant “That’s what that wood nymph prologue needs!” Kent cries. “A mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies!” OK then. In Nan’s apartment, he spies a book, Slaves of Old Africa, and cries: “I can see it now! Pretty girls in blackface, slaves of old Africa, white men capture them!” Ouch. Thankfully they didn’t film that one.
For the first hour, the movie is mostly drama and comedy, with only a smattering of musical numbers. There’s good back-and-forth between Nan and the gold-digging Vivian. “Miss B,“ Nan begins before correcting herself: ”Miss Rich.“ Then the farewell: “As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job,” she says, before literally kicking Viv out of her apartment. The main subplot is a romance between Scotty Blair and Bea Thorn (America’s then-sweethearts Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler). He’s the college-boy singer who gets a job through Gould’s relative; she’s the sharp, glasses-wearing secretary who rebuffs his charms. Until she doesn’t. Why does she change her mind? Who knows? But there’s a kind of “Gift of the Maji” bit where, as he leaves the stage for an office job, she leaves the office job for the stage. She also loses the glasses. It’s that Hollywood trope—“Oh, she’s pretty after all”—when she was way cuter with the glasses and the gruff putdowns. Losing both, she gushes.
It’s in the last 30-40 minutes where we get the musical—three Busby Berkeley numbers in a row, back to back to back. They’re the proverbial prologues that can save the studio, and they’re each gloriously absurd and surreal. The first is comic, “Honeymoon Hotel,” led by Scott and Bea, a couple trying to enjoy their legit honeymoon in a hotel overrun by the less legit kind (“We’re the house detectives but we’re puzzled with/ The fact that no one stops here unless their name is Smith”). It’s also overrun by “blonde gazelles” in negligees, and a kid, played by Billy Barty, who eyebrow-wags his way through several rooms. Then there's “By a Waterfall,” also with Scotty and Bea. They sing by a waterfall, he falls asleep, and we get that “mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies” that Kent envisioned. We also get Berkeley’s overhead shots and insane Spirographic concoctions of half-naked women. Part of the absurdity, or the humor, is that all of this is supposedly taking place on a stage. And on a budget.
The final number, “Shanghai Lil,” is the first big musical number that Jimmy Cagney got to perform on screen. He’d done a few quick dance steps in “Other Men’s Women,” and he’d always moved with grace, but here, on a bartop, with Ruby Keeler in Yellowface, he goes all out. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s so good one wishes there’d been more of it.
FDR and NRA
Why is he in the musical number at all? Another classic trope. The lead gets drunk and says he can’t go on. He and Kent tussle, and one of them—we don’t see which—falls down the steps and onto the stage, where the number begins. Of course it’s Kent. He plays a sailor in a Shanghai bar in love with and searching for the title character, a Chinese prostitute, who is called, at various points, a “fascinating heathen” and a “Chinee devil,” and who, when she first makes her appearance, tells Kent, “I miss you very much a long time.” Yeah, it’s a little racist. At the same time, there’s a moment where the camera pans down a long bar and an international central-casting group—Brit, Frenchie, Israeli—sing different lines. One of those is a handsome African with a white woman hanging on his arm. Plus some of the Chinese are actually played by Chinese. Progress.
Then there’s a call to arms, the soldiers and sailors march in Busby-esque formations, and it looks like Lil is going to be left behind. She isn’t. Her gets her a uniform and off she goes with him. To war. We get overhead shots with placards that form the American flag and then the recently elected president: FDR; then the boys, with “Yankee Doodle” piped in, form the National Recovery Administration eagle. Not bad for a bunch of Republican like Jack Warner.
That’s pretty much it. The show is saved, Nan gets her man, and a hundred scantily glad girls move onto the next scene. “Footlight” is one of three big Berkeley musicals that Warners released in 1933. A year later, the Production Code grew teeth and the girls covered up. The racism stayed.
A snapshot of the ”Shanghai Lil" number.