Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cagney and Lace Ups

Film: Footlight Parade
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

After yesterday’s films, I thought it would be a good idea to watch something wholesome and normal. Since I’ve fairly obviously decided that this month is going to be all about foreign films and musicals, it was time for another musical. Unless I chose really, really badly, there was no way possible that I could find a musical as weird as yesterday’s films. I suppose Oh! Calcutta! or Cannibal: The Musical probably would qualify, but neither is on the list. Fortunately.

Instead, I went with Footlight Parade, a musical from 1933 with enough stars to choke a donkey. This is something I do find interesting about films from the early days of movies, especially of the Hollywood variety. These days, a typical film might have a couple of major stars in it. Back then, it was pack ‘em in sideways like sardines.

The film centers around the life of Chester Kent (James Cagney), a theatrical producer who finds himself out of work. Why? Talkies. Everyone’s gone to the movies (pardon the Steely Dan reference there), leaving the traditional theaters empty. His wife immediately divorces him, leaving him alone and without work until he hits on a fantastic idea. His backers, the theater owners (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl), run small production numbers before their films, but are getting ready to cut them. Kent offers to create these numbers for them, and so they can send their troupes out to other theaters in other cities. These “prologues” as they are called become an immediate hit.

And now we get to all of the personalities. First is Kent’s assistant Harry Thompson (Gordon Westcott), who is secretly selling Kent’s ideas to a competitor. Also in the mix is Kent’s secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who is not-so-secretly in love with Kent. An acquaintance of hers, Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd), is a not-so-subtle gold digger trying to get her hooks into Kent as well. Kent’s bosses are skimming all of the profit off the top. The dance director (Frank McHugh) is a whiney crybaby who complains constantly. The new juvenile (Dick Powell) and the dancer cum secretary cum dancer (Ruby Keeler) both hate and love each other, a situation exacerbated by the juvenile’s sugar momma (Ruth Donnelly), who also happens to be one of the producer’s wife. Oh, and there’s a censor (Hugh Herbert) who hates everything Kent creates.


The climax of the film comes long before the end. All of the various plots come to a head at the exact same moment, or at least within a few minutes of each other and everything gets resolved. The last half hour or so are three individual musical numbers, each one a show stopper.

Essentially, what happens is that Kent finds out his wife never really divorced him, and now that he’s rolling in cash and fame, she wants a cut. Our gold digger has exacted a promised marriage, and she refuses to back down, threatening to sue. And even though they’re stealing from him, the producers need Kent to come up with three fantastic prologues to wow a potential new client and prevent him from going to the competition. All of this and more winds up at the same time so we can get to the big finish, the second big finish, and then the grand finale on top of the big finish.

These numbers are interesting, and very much movie numbers. Allegedly, these are being performed on a stage, but not a one of them would work on an actual stage, since they involve switching scenery and locations at lightning speed. Additionally, the second number in particular only works in many places if viewed from above, since it’s a massive water ballet. An audience would first be shocked by seeing a gigantic swimming pool on a theater stage. Second, all they’d see is bobbing heads instead of the intricate patterns we are blessed thanks to a fortuitous camera angle.

It’s these numbers that are the selling point of the film, of course, but also for me the place where the film breaks too much with reality. The numbers flat out don’t work for a theater audience. When the third number ends with Cagney essentially showing a flip-book cartoon…no one in the audience would see it, and the whole damn number would fall flat because of it.

Regardless of this, it’s impossible not to love Cagney in this film. He plays his role with a manic energy, shows off his odd dancing style, and really hoofs the hell out of it in the Shanghai Nights number at the end. Joan Blondell is exactly the sort of girl every guy would want—competent, funny, and a smartass. Introducing her “friend” Vivian Rich, she calls her “Miss Bi…Rich” in one of the funniest moments of the film. Another is when she tells Vivian that as long as sidewalks exist, girls like her will have a job, and she kicks Vivian out the door with a boot to the posterior.

I realize times have changed. Everyone makes a big deal of how beautiful Ruby Keeler is when she takes off the glasses and puts on dancer’s togs. For my money, she looked better with the glasses.

As much as this film moves away from reality, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. It’s just too much fun.

Why to watch Footlight Parade: A cast of thousands, but especially Cagney, Keeler, and Blondell.
Why not to watch: Hollywood reality never comes close to reality reality.


  1. It is interesting. I just read your review of 42nd Street and now this one and it seems you are going through the same development as I have.
    I saw 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933 and Footlight parade in short order (they are really close in the book).
    42nd street is really a musical about making musicals (so are all three of them) and it annoyed me too and it was just one to get through. Golddiggers fared a little better, I was aacepting the premise, but with Footlight parade I was sold. I never thought it would happen as musicals have never been my thing (I totally hated Chicago!), but never have waiting time in an airport fet better than watching the Waterfall piece and Shanghai Night.
    In a way the concept of the three musicals is the same, but something really worked here. Succumbed by attrition or real quality, I don't know, but I actually like 30'es musicals now.

  2. Huh...I somehow missed this comment. Sorry about that.

    For me, this movie lives and dies on the cast. It's standard fare, but Cagney cures a lot of ills.

  3. I love this movie! (And 42nd Street too. (I've never seen gold Diggers of 1933.))

    How about that number where they dress up like cats and Frank McHugh is acting like a cat to show the dancers how to do it? Or how about Billy Barty in the Honeymoon Hotel? Or how about Cagney dancing in the Shanghai Lil bit?

    This may be heresy for all the Cagney fans, but this is my favorite Jimmy Cagney movie.

    1. I can't call it a bad choice. Then again, Cagney cures a lot of ills. There's a great deal to like in this film, and almost in spite of the odd plot and the things that don't make sense, I enjoyed the hell out of it.