Footlight Parade Shines On
The film Footlight Parade (1933), is the kind of movie musical that went extinct long ago. The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Berkeley had a distinct style to his choreography and this film typified this style. It is worth revisiting this film to see how a simple storyline with lots of eye candy can be just as entertaining as a film like Spiderman 3. Few musicals in the last decade have been successful and they are constructed far differently from the musical comedies of the 1930s and 40s. This movie also follows a common storyline of musicals at that time which is a live, theatrically produced stage musical is produced and problems with the actors and director ensue. Released just one year before the Hays Code took effect, this “pre-code” film is worth revisiting as Berkeley’s musical numbers still seem racy even by today’s standards.
Footlight Parade follows the story of Chester Kent played by James Cagney, who is hired to produce “prologues” which are live performances that precede the showing of the main feature at movie houses in the 1930s. Movies had killed musical theater, talkies had killed silent film stars and it all wiped out vaudeville. The prologues were away to keep the live performers on stage. Kent is forced in a race against time, romance and competition to produce several different productions in a short period of time. If he is successful he will win a contract with a major film exhibitor to continue producing even more productions in the future. While the musical numbers do little to progress the storyline (they never did in movie musicals of the era), they keep the pace moving right along. This was Cagney’s first movie musical debut and was one of only three that he ever did. The cast is rounded out by Warner Brothers stars Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in the lead roles. The concept of each prologue is that it is all taking place on the stage of movie houses. The most familiar of the dance sequences or prologues is called “By a Waterfall.” The musical number involves a large pool with rockscaped waterslides and women in skimpy costumes. The scene features underwater dance sequences, akin to synchronized swimming. The camera shoots the girls dancing underwater with shots through glass from the side of the pool and under the pool. The number culminates in a giant three-story human fountain decorated with women in bathing suits and swimming caps standing on revolving platforms that turn counter to each other. The camera slowly moves back revealing the massive living fountain. Through the synchronized movement of the chorus girls legs and arms, geometric patterns abound within the inspired choreography. Kent succeeds in pulling off a production number that had the audience within the movie giving the number a standing ovation. While in reality audiences in 1933 gave this a standing ovation during its premiere.
One also wonders how this number could ever take place on a stage if it were truly staged in the way it is produced in the film. The cinema allows the traditional nature of the theater to be pushed beyond its own boundaries. Berkeley captures the choreography from overhead. The camera can also capture close-ups of the “beautiful faces” of the chorus girls in the prologues. It was considered rather revolutionary that Berkeley filmed these sequences using close-ups, which were rarely seen on film in those days.
What makes Footlight Parade truly cinematic is that the camera is constantly moving through space as these various production numbers are being filmed by the camera. The camera is never a static observer of the action. Quite often, the camera itself moves past the smiling chorus girls. The audience is often placed right in the middle of the action, in some scenes, underwater with the action. A key sequence of choreography captured on film is during the “By A Waterfall” sequence when the camera begins with close ups of the chorus girls faces, then as the camera dollies backwards, a gigantic human-fountain is revealed to the camera. This moment is reported to have brought standing ovations from the movie audiences. For someone today, even viewing this moment on a television in your living room, you can relive the sense of awe that first audiences must have felt. This same human-fountain was also chosen to be featured in The Great Movie Ride at the Disney/MGM Studios.
Additionally, this sequence of “By a Waterfall,” features characters who are dancing within their reality. The characters are all performers putting on a show within the show. The scene is not portrayed as some abstract art; but it is the actual performance of these characters for the audience that came to see the movie which followed the prologue. Things such as the romantic leads falling in love with each other and fact that all the characters do is live and breathe performing is presented in a stylized manner. The fact that they are seen rehearsing and then performing this production numbers is quite realistically portrayed.
Another key musical sequence from the film is “Shanghai Lil,” which follows an American sailor trying to find his girlfriend around town in Shanghai before he has to set sail back to the USA. In the patriotic finale, Kent who had to fill in for the lead, joins the marching troops and groups of “big name” performers create the American flag, an image of FDR, and an American eagle. This end sequence is shot from overhead and is achieved through choreography and the use of color boards held over their heads to form patterns and pictures. This number is also reflective of Warner Brothers’ sensibilities and pro-FDR stance at the time, which is not something you’d likely see in the MGM musicals of the day.
Once again, this number presents us with moving imagery that would not be possible in still photography. The movie camera allows us to be right in the middle of this production in such a way that even a live audience could not be part of. From the camera following Kent on his search for Keeler’s character of Shanghai Lil to their big tap dance number to the patriotic finale, the movement is what keeps our attention. Just like in the “By a Waterfall” prologue, the characters in the film are again performing for a live audience. Their reality is what the audience is watching. And by audience, it is meant the audience within the film as well as the movie’s. This movie reflects much of the close connection that movies had with the stage, to the point that most of the early movie musical comedies revolved around the theater.
The other prominent musical number in the film is called “The Honeymoon Hotel.” This number is also very revealing as being “pre-code.” It revolves around a hotel where there is nothing but couples staying on their wedding nights. A young Billy Barty keeps popping up in all of their rooms. Women sing about being nervous since it is, after all, their wedding night. By today’s rating standards, this film would not likely even garner a G rating. Between this musical number and all of Berkeley’s close-ups of the girl’s backsides, it was clear this movie was made for adult audiences. The VHS release of this movie also contains a cartoon with bug characters also acting out the “Honeymoon Hotel” song. It is equally provocative and disturbing.
As quoted from the Bright Lights Film Journal, “Warner’s pre-Code films work from the social and sexual realities of their time, and provide, even today, the kind of thrills unimaginable in a modern studio system dedicated to capitalist propaganda and status-quo apologizing.” Footlight Parade features cleavage, prostitutes, an inter-racial bar and even an opium den. Some today might describe it as a sex-musical-comedy, but regardless, it is all in fun. It could be concluded that the Hays Code brought on much more of a conservative attitude towards entertainment that did not exist before it’s creation. Vaudeville acts, which often contained adult themes and humor were still fresh in the minds of the audiences at the time of Footlight Parade’s release. The storyline, though simplistic, is also as entertaining as the musical numbers. The film is considered by many as being Berkeley’s best work, if nothing else, it is some of his most creative. In 1988, the U.S. Library of Congress established the National Film Registry to preserve film deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important." There is a good reason why this film was chosen to be added to the National Film Registry in 1992, it tells us a lot about the world of filmmaking and audience’s taste in 1933. The other reason is that it is a classic, period.