The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios didn’t start with a scene from a Technicolor epic or a majestic view from a beloved musical. It began in bubbles, with a fountain made of women, a vision only Busby Berkeley could dream up. It’s a scene from the Depression-era musical Footlight Parade, a towering achievement of the musical genre, one that saves its gigantic, impossible set-pieces for a marathon that leaves even audiences at home breathless.
Directed by the incredibly prolific Lloyd Bacon, Footlight Parade stars James Cagney as Chester Kent, a Broadway director whose livelihood is in danger because of talkies. After his wife (Renee Whitney) files for divorce, Kent hatches an ingenious plan. He is going to make the best prologues moviegoers have ever seen. At first, his producers balk at the idea, but then he suggests they put the prologues out on tour, offering theater owners “package deals” across the country. The producers like this idea, and Kent sets to work.
Unfortunately for Kent (but fortunately for the audience), nothing comes easy for him. He has a spy in his midst, leaking details of prologues to his competitor. A wife of one of the producers insists Kent hire one of her “proteges” (Dick Powell) as a featured singer. Oh, and the producers aren’t paying Kent his full salary, the girl he thinks has fallen in love with him is a gold digger and his ex-wife revealed she’s not getting the divorce until he gives her more money. On top of all this, he has no idea that his secretary Nan (Joan Blondell) is really in love with him. Yeesh, what’s a guy gotta do to get a break around here? Tap dance?
Somehow Bacon keeps all these tangents together well enough for the first three quarters of the movie that you can feel out of breath even before the Berkeley numbers finally come in. Kent is told he can only impress an investor if his company can miraculously put on three prologues on the same night at three different theaters. It sounds insane and impossible, and it is, considering the numbers Berkeley has in store for us.
Seeing those production numbers today is simply jaw-dropping. At the height of the Great Depression, Warner Bros. basically gave Berkeley a blank check after the successes of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 to come up with whatever he wanted. So, he completely disregarded the story of Footlight Parade – which tells us that these numbers are supposedly being performed on the stage – and went bonkers. “Honeymoon Hotel” features intricate camera work as Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler keep singing as they move from floor to floor and room to room. In “By A Waterfall,” Berkeley takes the camera underwater to give us views we could never see from a theater seat. “Shanghai Lil” is a funny pastiche of Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietcrich movies that is designed like a world unto itself, coming to a climax when Cagney dances on the bar with Keeler.
There’s nothing realistic about any of these and other numbers in the movie. True, none of the lyrics to these songs by two duos (Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal wrote most of the numbers, while Harry Warren and Al Dubin penned “Honeymoon Hotel” and “Shanghai Lil”) have anything to do with the story, but they are so entertaining you can easily forgive them. The overwhelming optimism in many of these songs are shared by Footlight Parade‘s characters. There may be breadlines outside, but in these theaters, dancers and singers have smiles on their faces ready to spread like a disease you actually want.
It’s been more than four years since Warner Archive brought 42nd Street out on Blu-ray, and hopefully it does not take four more years to see another Berkeley classic released in the format. The label continues to be one of the best in the business, and it is amazing how well Footlight Parade looks for its age. The transfer comes from a new 2K scan of a fine-grain master positive and it looks gorgeous. Like many Warner Bros. films from this era, the film is set in a working-class world, so the visuals aren’t that striking. But once the musical numbers kick into high gear, Footlight Parade becomes visual candy. This Blu-ray makes sure you are seeing those visuals as audiences did in 1933.
The disc includes a DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio Mono soundtrack. I didn’t detect any annoying hissing or crackling on the soundtrack.
Extras replicate the original DVD, which was included in the 2006 Busby Berkeley Collection. It’s a neat selection of supplements and can help you replicate the days when shorts were shown with features.
- Footlight Parade: Music for the Decades – This is a 15-minute look at the film done in the fashion of many Warner Bros. DVD extras from the height of that format. Although very short, it does give a well-rounded appreciation of the film and its cast.
- Vitaphone Shorts – These are two shorts from 1934. The first, Rambling ‘Round Radio Row #8, jams three songs and a comedy sketch into nine minutes. Vaudeville Reel #1 includes several vaudeville acts, including Baby Rose Marie!
- Cartoons – WAC includes four Merrie Melodies shorts produced between 1933 and 1934. “One Step Ahead of My Shadow” and “Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence” are two black & white shorts never released on disc before. “Young and Healthy” and “Honeymoon Hotel,” the first Merrie Melodies short produced in color, are also included. As you can tell by the titles, these all use songs from Footlgiht Parade. And you thought corporate synergy was new!
Footlgiht Parade is one of the most entertaining musicals of its time and features one of James Cagney’s best performances. The script is on fire with snappy comebacks, hilarious inside jokes on the entertainment industry and witty double entendres that could only be pulled off in Pre-Code films. Make sure you get a copy of this if you love classic films, and maybe we can get Gold Diggers of 1933 on Blu-ray soon.