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Chester Kent produces musical comedies on the stage. With the beginning of the talkies era he changes to producing short musical prologues for movies. This is stressful to him, because he always needs new units and his rival is stealing his ideas. He can get an contract with a producer if he is able to stage in three days three new prologues. In spite of great problems, he does it. Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <email@example.com>
An opium den, a dirty little boy (actually a midget), prostitutes galore, a violent fracas in a dive, a motel for sexual shenanigans, scantily clad babes with cleavage a lot, a boozer falling down the stairs, a racially mixed clientèle in a bar with Asians, Africans, and Anglos treated equally, does this sound like a film playing at the local shopping mall? Wrong. These are all scenes from a 1933 musical.
The first half of "Footlight Parade" is preparation for a musical extravaganza which occupies the last half of the film. Chester Kent (Cagney) is about to lose his job and does lose his playgirl wife as a result of talking pictures squeezing out live stage musicals. His producers take him to see a popular talky of the day, John Wayne in "The Big Trail." Before each showing of the flick, a dance number is presented as a prologue. Shorts, news reels, serials, and cartoons would later serve the purpose. Kent gets the idea that a prologue chain would be the road to salvation for the dwindling live musical business. Kent is basically an idea man along the lines of choreographer Busby Berkeley. Could it be that Cagney's character is patterned after Berkeley? Could be.
In preparation for the prologues, Kent learns that his ideas are being stolen by a rival. He uncovers the traitor, fires him, then unbeknown to him a new leak is planted in the form a dazzling temptress. His assistant, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell - soon to be Mrs. Dick Powell) has the hots for Kent and is determined to expose the wiles of the temptress. A new singer from Arkansas College shows up in the form of Scotty Blain (Dick Powell) who turns out to be a real find and is paired with Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler). The resulting three prologue musicals, which couldn't possibly have been presented on any cinema stage of the day, are as fresh and enjoyable today as they were over seventy years ago, "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil."
Of special note is the song and dance of tough-guy James Cagney. Like Fred Astaire and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cagney's dancing appeared natural and unrehearsed, although hours went into practice to get each step just right. Not as good a singer as Astaire, Cagney's singing, like Astaire's, sounded natural, unlike the crooning so popular at the time. It's amazing that one person could be so talented and so versatile as James Cagney.
Most critics prefer the "Shanghai Lil" segment over the other two. Yet the kaleidoscopic choreography of "By a Waterfall" is astonishing. How Berkeley was able to film the underwater ballets and to create the human snake chain must have been difficult because it has never been repeated. The close up shots mixed brilliantly with distant angles is a must-see. The crisp black and white photography is much more artistic than it would have been if shot in color.
Though not nearly as socially conscious as "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Footlight Parade" stands on its own as one of the most amazing and outrageous musicals ever put on the big screen.
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