“Aw, talking pictures, it’s just a fad.”
‘Footlight Parade’, directed by Lloyd Bacon in 1933, is an American musical comedy starring James Cagney as Chester Kent, a theatre director whose career is failing. He comes up with the idea of staging a live action musical ‘prologue’ in movie theatres before the main feature, but under pressure from his managers he finds himself having to produce three in one night. He and his company are blitzed by work, struggling to find inspiration for the numbers and, in a subplot, Kent’s love life takes an unusual and expensive turn. It’s a fast paced and lavish movie, like Fellini’s ‘8 ½’, Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’ and Bob Fosse’s ‘All That Jazz’, it’s a movie that perfectly depicts the chaos and pain of creation. There is a fine balance here between the desperate attempts of Kent and his team to come up with the routines, and the final results. Created and directed by Busby Berkeley, these three sequences are undoubtedly the highlight of the film, particularly the last two: ‘By a Waterfall’ and ‘Shanghai Lil’. ‘By a Waterfall’ features hundreds of women dancing and swimming in unison, transforming the movement of the individuals into an extraordinary, organic tableau. Likewise, ‘Shanghai Lil’ features a parade of army soldiers, including Cagney who, because of his typecasting in tough, dramatic roles, comes as a surprise. This sequence ends with a patriotic moment that somehow avoids overt sentimentality, although watching the face of Roosevelt being cheered just a day after the inauguration of Trump is a little creepy and, perhaps, a little wish-fulfilling. Cagney is light-footed and witty in the part, whilst the snappy dialogue is reminiscent of Howard Hawks and movies such as ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘His Girl Friday’, but the success of the whole film rests on those dance numbers.
Would I recommend it? Yes – I’d suggest ‘Top Hat’ as a double bill, if only to contrast the control and style of Rogers and Astaire with the chaos and disordered order of Cagney and Busby Berkeley.