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James Cagney made the transition from gats to taps when he convinced WarnerBros. head Jack Warner to give him a change of pace with the lead in Footlight Parade, Busby Berkeley's 1933 musical extravaganza. Coming on the heels of the studio'sfirst two groundbreaking musicals -- 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of1933 - the film had a way to go to top its predecessors. But, with Cagney dancing for thefirst time on screen, Joan Blondell cracking wise as only she could and 100chorus girls swimming through a gigantic studio tank in the spectacular "Bya Waterfall" number, most fans agree that it's the ultimate Warnersmusical.
As soon as he heard about the studio's plans to follow Berkeley's two smash musicals,Cagney campaigned for the role. After all, he reminded Warner, he hadstarted out as a song-and-dance man and only blundered into gangster roleswhen he'd switched roles with the original star of The PublicEnemy (1931). After Cagney reached film stardom, he continued to tap aroundthe house after each day's shooting. In fact, visitors with dancingexperience, like George Burns and Gracie Allen, were usually handed tapshoes and asked to join in.
Footlight Parade marked the third teaming for Dick Powell and RubyKeeler, who had shot to stardom in the first two Berkeley musicals atWarners. It also marked a reunion for Cagney and Blondell, who had startedat Warners together in 1930's Sinner's Holiday, which they had alsodone on Broadway. Footlight Parade was actually their sixth filmtogether. Blondell had just married the film's cameraman, George Barnes,though that didn't guarantee her better camera angles; her natural beautyrarely came through on screen and always astonished fans lucky enough tomeet her in the flesh.
A backstage story like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade savedmost of its musical numbers for the film's finale. Before the finale, however,the movie is a fast-paced comedy about a Broadway producer who fights the inroads made by talking pictures during the Great Depression by staging extravagant "prologues" for movie theaters. Though she didn't get to sing or dance in the film,Blondell almost stole the picture as Cagney's secretary and love interest.When she kicks out a gold digger after his fortune, Blondell quips, "Aslong as they've got sidewalks, you've got a job." The line would be edited out inlater years, when film censorship became more stringent, not to returnuntil the picture's 1970 reissue.
After the simple plot was established, Footlight Parade focused on dancing, with three of Berkeley's best numbers back-to-back. First up was "Honeymoon Hotel," inwhich Powell and Keeler's efforts to enjoy theirhoneymoon in private are thwarted by relatives, well-wishers and a lecherous baby(Billy Barty) who almost shares their wedding night. The numberwas heavily cut by local censors.
Next came the 15-minute number, "By a Waterfall." Berkeley came up with the ideawhen someone asked him how he was going to top the numbers in GoldDiggers of 1933. When he suggested the first on-screen aquacade,Warner screamed "Stop right there! It will take the Bank of America tokeep you going." But a few weeks later, he suggested that Berkeley try thenumber in Footlight Parade. The set, complete with an 80-by-40-footswimming pool, took up an entire soundstage. Berkeley had the pool linedwith glass walls and a glass floor so he could shoot the swimmers fromevery possible angle. Then he designed the swimming suits and bathing capsto create the illusion that the women were almost naked. He rehearsed thenumber for two weeks, then shot it in six days as technicians pumped 20,000gallons of water a minute over the set's artificial falls. The resultswere so spectacular that the audience at the premiere gave the number astanding ovation and threw their programs in the air. Broadway impresario Billy Rose eventried to steal Berkeley from Warners to stage his aquacade.
For the finale, "Shanghai Lil," Cagney donned a sailor's suit and tap shoesto sing and dance the story of a sailor searching for his lost love in whatmost astute viewers realized was a brothel and opium den. When he findsher -- Ruby Keeler masquerading as a Chinese girl -- they joyously tap dance onthe bar before getting caught in a full-scale brawl with 150 sailors andchorus girls. During the fight scene one chorus girl accidentally walkedinto a fist and ended up unconscious under one of the tables (the samedancer, years later, would marry MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer). Featuredbriefly in the sequence are a young John Garfield (five years beforesigning a Warners contract; he did extra work as a sailor briefly seenpeeking over a barrel during the fight) and then-unknown chorus girls AnnSothern and Dorothy Lamour. But the scene was Cagney's all the way. Whenthe film opened, a reporter from the trade paper Variety located MaxTishman, an agent who had fired Cagney for demanding a raise during hissong-and-dance days. When the reporter asked him what he thought of hisformer client, Tishman said he'd be happy to give Cagney the raise if heever wanted to come back.
Producer: Robert Lord
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Manuel Seff, James Seymour
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Chester Kent), Joan Blondell (Nan Prescott),Ruby Keeler (Bea Thorn), Dick Powell (Scotty Blair), Guy Kibbee (SilasGould), Ruth Donnelly (Harriet Bowers Gould), Claire Dodd (Vivian Rich),Hugh Herbert (Charlie Bowers), Frank McHugh (Francis).BW-104m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller