James Cagney in Footlight Parade.
Footlight Parade gave tough guy James Cagney an opportunity to show off his years of vaudeville training. In it he plays Chester Kent a musical theater producer. When his livelihood is threatened by the arrival of talking pictures he comes up with the idea of doing live musical prologues before each movie. All goes well enough at first, until his ideas start getting mysteriously ripped-off by the competition. In order to ensure secrecy on a make or break contract, he locks his entire cast and staff inside the rehearsal studio for seventy-two hours, while they feverishly work out three different and spectacular routines.
This movie plays at lightning speed. The scenes are short and peppy and full of snappy one-liners. Cagney and his wisecracking, love-starved secretary, played by Joan Blondell, have the best lines. Here's a typical exchange between them. "Listen, Nan, send a new boy and girl on right away, and make sure they're not in love with each other." "Right." "Uh, get a couple already married." Or, another time she tells her phony rival for Cagney's affections, "As long as there are sidewalks, you've got a job."
Hoofer Ruby Keeler and tenor Dick Powell round out the supporting cast musically, having already teamed successfully together in 42nd Street earlier that same year. She makes the magical, and seemingly effortless, transformation from a mousy, bespectacled stenographer to a dancing star, while he goes from being an overly eager kept-boy to a suave gentleman. Frank McHugh adds some laughs as the exasperated stage director. Every time Cagney interrupts his dance rehearsals with different instructions, he humorously replies, "It can't be done, I tell ya, it can't be done."
The great Busby Berkeley (before leaving Warner Bros. for the greener pastures of MGM) staged the three final musical numbers. They run consecutively and, together, comprise the last thirty minutes of the movie. The first one is the weakest and the most dated. Entitled 'The Honeymoon Hotel' it has a rather lame song between groom Powell and blushing bride Keeler on their wedding night in Jersey City. It does feature a very young Billy Barty in a funny bit, but pales in comparison to the other two numbers. The second one features scantily clad chorus girls comprising a human waterfall, followed by a geometric bathing beauties routine that predates Esther Williams by ten years. The sheer extravagance of this number has rarely been topped. The funniest thing about it is that there is no way a real audience seated in a theater could see the production from the breathtaking angles they are shot from. I guess no one was supposed to notice. The final and most memorable number features Cagney himself. He is forced to step in at the last second to replace a drunk cast member. The number is called 'Shanghai Lil' and he plays a sailor looking for his lost love just before he has to sail for America from the Orient. He sings passably but was far more successful as a hoofer, displaying a very unique style. He does an energetic tap routine on the top of the bar with Ruby Keeler as his Shanghai Lil.
The dynamic Cagney, talented costars, a deft script and over-the-top musical numbers add up to an enjoyable, if not quite great, motion picture.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1933)