Monday, November 1, 2021

Footlight Parade


Choreographer Busby Berkeley

Berkeley on the set

Ruby Keeler



FOOTLIGHT PARADE        A-                                                                                                      USA  (104 mi)  1933  d: Lloyd Bacon    choreography: Busby Berkeley

The third of a popular series of Depression-era Busby Berkeley musicals released that same year, produced by what was the most pro-New Deal studio, Warner Brothers, using their contract director Lloyd Bacon, who learned how to keep the action moving in the mid-1920’s by making silent comedies for Mack Sennett, coming after 42nd STREET and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, both released earlier in 1933, films that are surprisingly similar in musical plots, while using almost identical casts, yet this is the only one that is pure exhilarating fun from start to finish, starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell, two flat-out scene stealers who started at Warners together in SINNER’S HOLIDAY (1930), which they had also done on Broadway, with this being their sixth film together.  Accentuating the fast-paced 30’s screwball comedy to demonstrate their caustic wit and racy pre-Code humor, while also featuring that rare inventiveness and signature style of Busby Berkely, having spent years on Broadway, Berkeley conceived and choreographed the extravagantly cinematic musical numbers, many evolving into visually ornate geometric patterns, like viewing scenes through a constantly turning kaleidoscope, seeking pure escapism to distract audiences from the troubles of the Great Depression.  In fact, while all three films feature Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, extremely popular at the time, viewed as America’s sweethearts, it was Berkeley’s lavish dance spectacles that brought each of the three films to a spectacular finale, becoming the distinguishing ingredient and most satisfying element in all three landmark films released in 1933, like time capsules of a forgotten era, where the Astaire-Rogers musicals would soon alter the landscape, changing the collective motion in musicals into a more individually-driven artform.  Until the rousing finish of the last half-hour, the entire film is largely a peek behind-the-scenes into theatrical productions still in progress, offering an intimate glimpse into the frenetic world of show business, all work and no glamor, navigating romance and professional rivalries, even a spy in their ranks stealing ideas before the shows can open, revealing the relentless strain of endless rehearsals, with bodies constantly in motion, where you have to make something spectacular happen with very little time, and then do it all over again forced to find compelling new themes.  Obsessed with providing a radically different view from a movie-filmed musical over a staged show, Berkeley was able to get away with plenty in Pre-Code Hollywood, using an entire cast of scantily clad women, expressing a penchant for overlapping female bodies, creating abstract conceptual designs with the female form, like a parade of smiling faces, with the camera zooming in on various female body parts, like legs, facial features, and, of course, bosoms.  Drilling holes in the studio roof for that overhead shot, bodies are then re-assembled into erotic Garden of Eden motifs with flowers or waterfalls, using stairs and platforms to alter the spatial composition, literally exaggerating the sexual objectification of female bodies through a dream fantasy in order to create a luridly erotic voyeurism specifically designed for male audiences, where Berkeley’s dazzling choreography and insanely elaborate set design is creating optical art in human form, where his camera was regularly mounted on a crane swooping from high above, revealing an excess of bodily flesh, where the intricately assembled water choreography in this film resembles Olympic synchronized swimming routines, with women placed side-by-side in carefully devised positions, adding a choreography of synchronized diving into the mix, including an enormously constructed 5-story water slide resembling a pagan phallic symbol that female water nymphs worship at the feet of, like a subversively tongue-in-cheek swipe at the censors in this gaudy and superlatively extravagant 11-minute sequence that sets the stage for the water-themed MGM Esther Williams “aquamusicals” of the 40’s and 50’s.  This is what live special effects looked like before they had computerized special effects, with the film evolving into military formations, as Berkeley’s background training was with military drill teams, designing parade drills for both the French and U.S. armies during WWI.    

Featuring a great script by Manuel Seff and James Seymour, using pre-Code humor that was quite risqué, with multiple references to promiscuity, prostitution, and suggestions of profanity largely unseen again in studio films until the 1960’s, Cagney’s character, Chester Kent, was modeled after Chester Hale, a contemporary of Busby Berkely, a choreographer of Broadway stage, screen, and ice shows.  Already in his 14th film, Cagney had been typecast as a tough guy, but the public had little knowledge of his vaudeville background as a dancer, so they were astonished to see how graceful he was doing various dance routines throughout this film, including the rousing finale, a forerunner to his iconic Oscar-winning best actor role in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), yet the frenetically paced humor and easy rapport between Cagney and Joan Blondell as Nan, his no-nonsense wisecracking secretary, really stand out.  Set during the Depression when work is scarce, Kent is your consummate workaholic whose professional life is in constant turmoil, writing and producing musical stage shows non-stop.  When movies make the transition from Silent to all-talkies, it nearly puts him out of business, as movies have replaced vaudeville and musical theater, so Kent has to convince uneasy backers that his idea for live musical shows playing in front of talkies can actually work, allowing him only a brief window to put on live music and dance shows in movie houses during an era when they still had stages, creating prologues in front of the main feature, miniature musical numbers running about fifteen minutes, featuring elaborate costumes and scenery and usually tied in some way to the theme of the feature film.  As you might surmise, the prologue era was short-lived, dumped altogether when cheaper B-movies were adopted and became the second featured film attraction, though The Rockettes are a modern-day remnant of this kind of production.  The Warners stock company are on full display here, with Guy Kibbee as Silas Gould, a swindling producer who underhandedly cooks the books by stealing Kent’s profits, Ruth Donnelly as Harriet, his domineering wife who stocks the payroll with family members, including Hugh Herbert is Charlie, Mrs. Gould’s brother, an annoying censor griping about the sizzle that really sells the show, and the admirable Frank McHugh as Francis, a lovable yet chronically complaining and heavily overworked dance director with a high-pitched voice like actor Andy Devine.  Ruby Keeler as Bea transforms from a frumpy secretary to a lead dancer overnight, actually beginning her career working in prologues as a dancer, though she’s not much of a singer, while All-American boy Dick Powell is Scotty, Mrs. Gould’s vocalist protégé who exudes arrogance and unlikely male charm, yet still ends up the lead singer.  But this picture is all about Cagney who dominates the screen, whether it’s delivering his lines with timely aplomb or breaking into spontaneous dance routines, everything that happens revolves around him, providing the heft of the personality of the picture, onscreen nearly the entire time except the musical numbers that exclude him.  Blondell is clearly enamored with him from the beginning, encouraging him every step of the way, a love interest acting as his alter-ego and creative sidekick, but may as well be invisible to him except when he needs her to handle some troublesome business, like kicking out a gold digger after his money, Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd), offering a swift kick to her behind while slamming the door as she quips, “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job.”  She is an absolute hoot, rarely ever a lead, always a secondary character, an unsung Hollywood legend that never gets her due, but her mastery of dialogue, comic timing and facial expression is simply unsurpassed.  This picture wouldn’t be what it is without her, making 27 films for Warners in 30 months, working particularly well with Cagney, making seven films together, romantically paired in four of them, yet only one, BLONDE CRAZY (1931), was expressly written with the two of them in mind.  She had just married the film’s cinematographer George Barnes (1933 – 1935) prior to the picture, and later married Dick Powell from 1936 – 1945, making ten pictures with him.       

Taking place in a giant, assembly-line production studio, Kent is seen constantly moving between production numbers in various states of completion, making tweaks on the fly, taking long-distance phone calls, fixing shows in movie houses across the country while preparing what to showcase next.  In the 20’s and 30’s, movie houses employed hundreds of singers, dancers, and musicians who were given work after their jobs dried up due to the talkies, yet house spies are routinely stealing his ideas and giving them to a competitor, leading Kent into desperate measures, locking all the players inside the studio for three rehearsal days prior to the live performance, where he would showcase a triple whammy of three different shows in three different theaters on opening night, and if successful, win the right to run prologues in theaters across the country.  The large-scale enormity of these grandiose production numbers would outscale any existing movie house, but the breadth of one’s imagination is certainly challenged by the sheer over-the-top extravagance of the fantasies, an epic achievement never seen before or since, turning this into a mind-blowing viewing experience, especially seen for the very first time.  Despite the superlatives, this film received no Academy Award nominations.  Of these three numbers, Honeymoon Hotel, By a Waterfall, and Shanghai Lil, the first was in fact directed by Larry Ceballos (as Berkeley was off shooting another picture at the time), who received no screen credit, underscoring the faceless nature of behind-the-scenes studio labor, much like the overworked Francis is depicted in the film, viewed as somewhat tepid by comparison, where lovers anonymously sign-in to a hotel under the name of Smith, filled with sexual innuendo and suspicions of out-of-wedlock quickie sex, singing and dancing their way through multi-level rooms and hallways, getting mixed up in some weird interractions, Honeymoon Hotel | Footlight Parade | Warner Archive YouTube (2:50).  But the last two dance extravaganzas definitely have the Berkeley imprint, building an 80-by-40-foot swimming pool lined with glass walls and a glass floor so swimmers could be shot from every conceivable angle, pumping 20,000 gallons of water a minute over the set’s artificial falls, designing nude bathing suits to create the illusion that the women were almost naked, imagined in a luridly suggestive dream fantasy of water nymphs.  The exaggerated abundance of female figures, ornate decorations, and elaborate staging in this final product is a staggering leap from rehearsals, where the results are utterly spectacular, more of a cinematic marvel than a dancing achievement, as the female form is hyper-accentuated through complex choreography, reflecting the Art Deco style of the 1930’s, Human Waterfall | Footlight Parade | Warner Archive YouTube (3:52).  At the New York premiere, the packed audience was so enamored they gave the number a standing ovation.  The final Shanghai Lil number finds Cagney inserting himself in the role when the lead performer ends up drunk, a significant moment, as it’s the only time Hollywood studios allowed the movie director portrayed onscreen top billing as a performer, as the studio formula was for the musical production to overshadow any character’s role, as stories were created for musical numbers, where they wanted to minimize the character and optimize the spectacle.  Cagney is a sailor searching for a lost love through all the girls working as prostitutes along the waterfront bars, including the back rooms of an opium den.  After a brief barroom brawl, the place is cleared by the cops, with Lil popping out of a barrel, none other than Ruby Keeler as a China Doll in stereotypical yellowface makeup speaking broken English, blatantly politically incorrect, while the other women are also dressed in outrageously slinky costumes with overpainted faces, yet the men at the bar, by contrast, represent a kind of universal diversity.  At the sight of one another they dance a euphoric tap dance on top of the bar, Shanghai Lil (Full Scene) | Footlight Parade | Warner Archive YouTube (4:52), with Cagney appearing light and nimble on his feet, eventually breaking out into large-scale patriotic dance numbers accentuating male military dress, where the melodic music of Yankee Doodle and Anchors Aweigh are readily discernable, featuring 150 sailors and chorus girls, with formations resembling the flag, President FDR, and an American eagle, all rallying support around Roosevelt’s New Deal, something that could easily be pulled from YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), yet Cagney manages to stow her away aboard a ship bound for sea, using a Chaplinesque method of playing cards in flipbook animation to signify their happy journey together.  Reverting back to real life, Blondell exposes the spy and crooked shenanigans with the books, kicks out the gold digger, with Cagney, oblivious to her for the entire picture, suddenly realizing she’s been the one he wants all along.   

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