Monday, November 22, 2010

Footlight Parade

Of the various genres to become popular in the 1930s, the musical is near the top. As I've mentioned with 42nd Street, thanks to Busby Berkeley, viewers were treated to ever more spectacular musical numbers. Another of Berkeley's efforts shows up on TCM tonight: Footlight Parade, at 9:00 PM ET.

James Cagney stars as Chester Kent, a vaudeville producer left scrambling for work after the Depression more or less killed off vaudeville. That, and the moving picutres, now that the pictures can talk. However, with the Depression, even the movie theaters need gimmicks to bring in the patrons, and that's where Kent comes in. He's got his old gang who can produce "prologues", live musical numbers that will be performed for the audiences before the picture begins. It's still a cut-throat business, though; he's got a gold-digging girlfriend (Claire Dodd) to deal with, as well as two guys (Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert) who would steal his material. He's helped out though, by his able secretary (Joan Blondell) who would be a better match for him than Dodd. Along the way, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell become the stars of the prologues and fall in love....

In a movie like Footlight Parade, the story is second to the elaborate musical numbers, which bear no resemblance to reality. Nobody has a staircase like the one in Gold Diggers of 1933, and no movie theater could hold all the waterworks needed for the musical numbers in Footlight Parade. Never mind the prohibitive cost of the stuff, either. Audiences wanted escapism, and got it in droves. This also being 1933, they were treated to copious amounts of the mildly racy material that would be gone from movies just a year later thanks to the Production Code.

Even though Footlight Parade was made for its musical numbers, it would be a bit unfair not to mention the acting performances. Most of the folks here were staples of the Warner Bros. lot, and had worked together a number of times. Cagney is great as always, and it's a shame that he got shunted into more "serious" gangster roles than fun stuff like this. Joan Blondell is good as the cynical but no-nonsense secretary, although it would also be interesting to see wisecracking Glenda Farrell in the role. Keeler and Powell are their usual selves, basically reprising the roles they had done in 42nd Street. And Guy Kibbee is always fun to watch.

Footlight Parade got a DVD release as part of a Busby Berkeley boxset a few years back, but also seems to have gotten the individual DVD treatment.

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