Updated: Aug 4, 2019
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“FOOTLIGHT PARADE” – WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION
Blu-ray, DVD; 1933; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime; FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: 2006 Documentary “‘Footlight Parade’: Music for the Decades” (disc only)
JAMES “JIMMY” CAGNEY is one of best points of “Footlight Parade,” the hit Warner Brothers’ musical from 1933.
So says Author/Archivist Larry Billman in the 2006 Documentary “‘Footlight Parade’: Music for the Decades” ported over to Warner Archive’s exciting new Blu-ray release.
Cagney, the breakout star of 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” got his start in vaudeville as a song and dance man. Like the characters he played, he was street wise, with a sharp comeback that left others laughing or smarting. “Public Enemy” is still considered one of the best gangster flicks ever made, but it was his 1942 musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy” that won him the Best Actor Oscar.
Cagney wouldn’t have had a chance at it without his work on “Footlight Parade,” a role he actively pursued. He shares credits with Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler of “42nd Street,” and Dick Powell, a croonerdancer, who would soon transform into a movie tough-guy. Blondell had also co-starred in “Public Enemy,” with Cagney. Here she’s his whip smart assistant, Nan Prescott, and gets one of the film’s best lines: “Outside, countess. As long as they’ve got sidewalks YOU’VE got a job.”
(1) The Warner Archive Collection delivers a great 2K scan of the fine-grain master positive. (2) Kent with his swindling partner, Silas Gould (Guy Kibbee) and dance director Frances (Frank McHugh). (3) Kent and his secretary/assistant Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell). Kent stays so busy, he hasn't noticed she's fallen in love with him. (4) James Cagney as hard working, fast talking Chester Kent.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon, “Footlight Parade” was made just before the Hays Code, that bastion of strict moral rules, were enforced. It plays like a final, defiant romp. Choreographer Busby Berkeley didn’t care about public opinion; he wanted spectacle. Stories were created for his musical numbers, each delivered with a generous soupçon of coy. He came up with his ideas while lounging in the bathtub. Every film began with smaller musical sequences, evolving one after the other to lavish, mind-blowing extravaganzas. “Footlight Parade” is no exception.
The story is set in the early ‘30s as “talking pictures” capture the public eye, where stage entertainment once ruled. In big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, theaters introduced films with a “prologue,” a musical number or sketch, with stage performers. Cagney’s Chester Kent is producing prologues, but his company is going downhill. Soon there'll be nothing but a breadline waiting for them.
Chester wants to save everyone – but how? He gets an idea to produce and deliver prologues in bulk, so to speak, while buying aspirin at a drug store. Bang – it’s off to the races as new numbers are created. The fun takes off with “Honeymoon Hotel,” that shows lovers – that we suspect are not married – singing and dancing their way through multi-level rooms and hallways. Men and women are shown in bed, actually under the covers together. The women give a new bride advice. Men do-si-do with a variety of partners as hotel detectives and staff agreeably look the other way. It was all against the law at that time but the audience ate it up.
There’s a number inspired by Chester’s cat, but a competitor manages to beat him every time, getting a similar number onstage just before Chester’s. Some dirty rat is telling tales where it shouldn’t!
Chester won’t give up, and Nan is determined to discover the rat’s identity. By then we have “By a Waterfall.” One-hundred singer/dancer/swimmers, dressed as nearly-naked wood nymphs, deliver high dives, and create kaleidoscopic precision routines. No one stops to question how any of this could have been produced on a stage. Making the audience believe was part of the magic. It was shot in six days in an 80-by-40 swimming pool lined with glass, so dancers could be filmed underwater, TCM reports. ”It’s outrageous,” filmmaker John Landis cheers, laughing in the documentary. This was all accomplished in real-life, too; no CG involved.
At 15 minutes, “By a Waterfall” is insane enough for a Berkeley finale – but wait – there’s more! “Shanghai Lil” gives Cagney/Chester a chance to show his skills, although we’ve had hints throughout the film. In top hat and tails, Cagney wanders a port-side dive “lookin’ for his Shanghai Lil.” A prostitute? Yes, the bar is filled with hookers, sailors and lowlifes. It is a huge set, circling from a bar into a divinely sleazy opium den, and back to the bar. Sailors fall into a brawl. Local cops show up, and Cagney changes into his U.S. Navy sailor’s uniform escaping arrest. Cagney and Lil (Ruby Keeler) tap dance across the bar; the shore patrol arrives, and a 150 member chorus line recreate the American flag, which transforms into a picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then to an eagle, symbol of Roosevelt’s New Deal National Recovery Administration.
It could have stopped there, but no. Chester quickly finds out who’s been stealing his ideas, and romance blossoms between him and the long-suffering, but brilliant Nan, who manages to cut a better deal for her guy and the performers. The end. Whew!
There’s a lot to love about “Footlight Parade.” There are also some eye-poppin’ blunders that might stun a contemporary audience. We 're somewhat used to women as “dames” and “dolls” in ‘30s films, but little person Billy Barty appears to play a devilish baby whose only purpose is to add a touch of the bizarre. Then there's the “yellow face” of “Shanghai Lil.” African Americans take the most hits as when Chester is inspired by black children playing under an open fire hydrant: “Say, that’s what the wood nymph prologue needs. A mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies!” Previously, he’d been up for “Slaves of Old Africa,” with white female dancers in black face with their white male masters. Thankfully, that never happens.
Kent comes up with a dance number inspired by his cat: "You ever see cats walk? Regular dance rhythm!" Frances is unsure, but game for "Sittin' on a Backyard Fence."
VIDEO & AUDIO
Warner Archive delivers an excellent 2K scan of the fine-grain master positive in its 1.37:1 full screen aspect ratio. There are a few “soft” moments when a second or third generation print is used to fill in damaged spots, but they are negligible. Scratches and dirt have been cleaned up very. If you see something, as in the tank of “By a Waterfall,” chances are it was filmed that way. Film grain is consistent. Blacks are solid and highlights sparkle, with a good range of gray between. Close-up and widescreen shots show lots of detail, and good texture in the costumes and props. Wait until you get a look at the “flowing hair” bathing caps!
The original mono track has been polished into a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. Subtitles are quickly accessible, but dialogue is crystal clear, all the better to enjoy the snappy dialogue. It’s solidly entertaining from dialogue to music to effects. Songs are by Al Dubin (words) and Harry Warren (music), the team who wrote the scores for Busby Berkley films of the 1930s.
EXTRAS You don’t need a karaoke player; Warner Archive takes us straight to a “Song Selection” option that jumps directly into the eight musical numbers: “One Step Ahead of My Shadow,” “Ah, the Moon is Here,” “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence,” “Honeymoon Hotel,” “By a Waterfall,” “Shanghai Lil,” and “End Title.” Use the handy subtitle option and sing along.
In addition to the documentary and trailer, find two “Vintage Vitaphone Shorts” featuring dance, singing, acrobatic and comedy sketches. Four “Vintage Cartoons,” show how the film’s music was used again in other Warner properties.
James Cagney regretted he didn’t make more musicals during his career, and it’s easy to see why in “Footlight Parade.” It may be a corny old story, but is still lots of fun. And it’s impossible to recapture or duplicate those Busby Berkeley moments anywhere but here.
— Kay Reynolds
Busby Berkeley's risque "Honeymoon Hotel" is one of the film's big numbers.
“Studios were smart enough to realize that when songs were composed for their movies, they owned those songs. So you’ll find all the studios re-purposing the songs ... You’ll find them underscoring sometimes in the pictures. You’ll find them used in the famous Warner Brothers cartoons.” — Rick Jewel, professor of film/author
One-hundred singer/dancers perform precision kaleidoscopic routines - a Berkeley standard - in a spectacular Kent prologue. They hope to get a contract with Mr. Apolinaris to work his theater chain and keep their jobs.
Kent, Bea and a 150 member chorus line perform the film's closing number, "Shanghai Lil."
Does Kent get his contract and a proper share of the profits? Watch and find out.