Following the huge success of their iconic musical “42nd Street”, director Lloyd Bacon and choreographer Busby Berkeley topped it the next year with a bigger, better film: “Footlight Parade”. James Cagney welcomed the opportunity to break free of his popular gangster persona and return to his song-and-dance roots as the main character, Chester Kent, a director of musical prologues that are performed in movie theaters before the main feature. He is given the opportunity to get a contract with a producer, but he has to be able to put on three new prologues at three different theaters on the same night, with only three days to rehearse them. Chester keeps the entire cast and crew locked in his offices over the entire rough rehearsal period, paranoid that his rival will steal his ideas otherwise.
Cagney is at his best in this movie. He’s fast-talking and charismatic, just as he is in his gangster roles, but it’s wonderful seeing those attributes applied to a completely different kind of character. His frequent costar Joan Blondell plays Chester’s secretary Nan (the only person who can hold her own with Chester, and who is secretly in love with him, much to his obliviousness), and their chemistry and Blondell’s wit are top notch. Besides Blondell, “Footlight Parade” includes many of the same cast members as “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933”, another hit musical featuring Berkeley numbers. Dick Powell plays the show’s lead Scotty; Ruby Keeler plays secretary-turned-leading lady Bea Thorn; and Guy Kibbee plays producer Silas Gould.
Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic dance numbers are even more ambitious here than they were in “42nd Street”. Like those other similar musicals, the numbers are saved until the very end, when we see all three completed prologues performed back-to-back: “Honeymoon Hotel”, “Shanghai Lil” (a bit of a problematic number in which Keeler plays the Asian titular character that ends in an overt burst of patriotism, but also in which Cagney gets to show off his mad dance skills), and “By a Waterfall”. The latter is the quintessential Berkeley number; its human waterfall is an iconic image in film history, and was even showcased in the Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World until that attraction closed in 2017.
Speaking of movies, “Footlight Parade” is a great early example of Hollywood reflecting on its rapidly changing industry in the advent of talking pictures. The prologues that Chester stages for a career are short live theater productions that are performed onstage before the movie starts, but with silents out and talkies in, there’s less of a market for that kind of spectacle. “Footlight Parade” was released a mere six years after the ground-breaking 1927 film “The Jazz Singer,” but the effects the new sound technology had on how and what kind of movies were made was by then widely felt.
All of these factors, combined with the film’s fast pace and the scandalous situations, scantily-clad dancers, and risqué humor that can only be found in Pre-Code movies (like that priceless moment when Blondell literally kicks Clair Dodd’s Vivian Rich out the door, declaring, “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”) make “Footlight Parade” not only the best Busby Berkeley musical—and he had a hand in a lot of great ones—but also one of the best musicals of all time.
Runtime: 102 minutes. “Footlight Parade” can be rented on all digital platforms.