Number 10: Footlight Parade (U.S., Dir. Lloyd Bacon)
There is so much that’s wrong with Footlight Parade that I had a hard time understanding why I enjoyed it so much. Musicals have never been my favorite genre and I’m always a little tougher on them. So how could a story about a producer of musical prologues (numbers staged before a film in the Depression era), breaking his back and straining his creativity for a big contract while looking for love, hold my attention so completely? Whenever I think back to this movie’s fast-paced dialogue, glittering musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley, and cast of manic characters I come back to two things: James Cagney and Joan Blondell. They are perfectly matched with Blondell playing Nan, the long suffering lovelorn secretary to Cagney’s Chester Kent. They are both fantastic. Cagney, in a departure from his star making turn in The Public Enemy, easily slips into musical comedy and handles the scripts crackerjack dialogue with ease. After an assistant suggests a stale idea for a number, without missing a beat Cagney shoots back, “I almost fell out of my cradle when the Schubert Theater did that back in nineteen hundred and twelve.” And Blondell, secretly in love with her boss, is ever faithful both to him and to the show (but they really go hand in hand). Of course he can’t see her love for him and chases one wrong woman after another, with Nan there to pick up the pieces. Her big eyes moon over him every time they’re together. I love how she gets territorial when her phony roommate gets her hooks in Kent. She doesn’t come out and sabotage the relationship; she just bides her time, making sure to get in her wisecracks whenever she can (“As long as they have sidewalks, you’ll have a job.”). She knows it will fall apart and loyally waits for Kent to come around. (You always have to wonder why intelligent women would want a man who always picks awful women.)
I have some trouble with Ruby Keeler’s character who begins the picture as a competent, intelligent and efficient employee – symbolized by glasses, school marm-ish clothes, and excellent diction. When Dick Powell’s character, attracted to the possibility of the woman rather than the actual woman, chides her for not being ladylike enough for his taste (“You aren’t alive. You’re not a bit feminine!”), she suddenly discovers that she never really needed glasses, that makeup is sold in drug stores, and that she really knows how to dance. She becomes the star of the show alongside Powell and never shows another hint of intelligence. I like that Cagney’s Kent is ambivalent about Keeler going on the stage. He sadly shakes his head and bemoans her choice: “The one girl who showed any sense around here.” Too bad the picture didn’t give her the opportunity to have any more sense once she put on the tap shoes.
I know that the musical numbers were meant to be the main attraction of the picture, but they go on way too long and one of them planted the song “Shanghai Lil” in my head for a couple of days. Despite their length in relation to the rest of the picture, they are impressive. One thing I like about Busby Berkeley numbers in general and in Footlight Parade in particular is the way he broke free from the natural constraints of the stage and embraced cinematic technique. Nothing you see in this movie could have ever happened on any real stage. We see massive scenery changes, aquatic numbers, birds eye shots showing off kaleidoscope patterns, close ups, costume changes in a flash. But that is the joy of movies like this: they show us what is possible on the screen, not in reality. And Footlight Parade is definitely escapist fare with so much style, charm and wit that we can’t help but fall for it, flaws and all.