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James Cagney made the transition from gats to taps when he convinced Warner Bros. 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's first two groundbreaking musicals -- 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 - the film had a way to go to top its predecessors. But, with Cagney dancing for the first time on screen, Joan Blondell cracking wise as only she could and 100 chorus girls swimming through a gigantic studio tank in the spectacular "By a Waterfall" number, most fans agree that it's the ultimate Warners musical.
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 had started out as a song-and-dance man and only blundered into gangster roles when he'd switched roles with the original star of The Public Enemy (1931). After Cagney reached film stardom, he continued to tap around the house after each day's shooting. In fact, visitors with dancing experience, like George Burns and Gracie Allen, were usually handed tap shoes and asked to join in.
Footlight Parade marked the third teaming for Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, who had shot to stardom in the first two Berkeley musicals at Warners. It also marked a reunion for Cagney and Blondell, who had started at Warners together in 1930's Sinner's Holiday, which they had also done on Broadway. Footlight Parade was actually their sixth film together. Blondell had just married the film's cameraman, George Barnes, though that didn't guarantee her better camera angles; her natural beauty rarely came through on screen and always astonished fans lucky enough to meet her in the flesh.
A backstage story like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade saved most 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, "As long as they've got sidewalks, you've got a job." The line would be edited out in later years, when film censorship became more stringent, not to return until 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," in which Powell and Keeler's efforts to enjoy their honeymoon in private are thwarted by relatives, well-wishers and a lecherous baby (Billy Barty) who almost shares their wedding night. The number was heavily cut by local censors.
Next came the 15-minute number, "By a Waterfall." Berkeley came up with the idea when someone asked him how he was going to top the numbers in Gold Diggers of 1933. When he suggested the first on-screen aquacade, Warner screamed "Stop right there! It will take the Bank of America to keep you going." But a few weeks later, he suggested that Berkeley try the number in Footlight Parade. The set, complete with an 80-by-40-foot swimming pool, took up an entire soundstage. Berkeley had the pool lined with glass walls and a glass floor so he could shoot the swimmers from every possible angle. Then he designed the swimming suits and bathing caps to create the illusion that the women were almost naked. He rehearsed the number for two weeks, then shot it in six days as technicians pumped 20,000 gallons of water a minute over the set's artificial falls. The results were so spectacular that the audience at the premiere gave the number a standing ovation and threw their programs in the air. Broadway impresario Billy Rose even tried to steal Berkeley from Warners to stage his aquacade.
For the finale, "Shanghai Lil," Cagney donned a sailor's suit and tap shoes to sing and dance the story of a sailor searching for his lost love in what most astute viewers realized was a brothel and opium den. When he finds her -- Ruby Keeler masquerading as a Chinese girl -- they joyously tap dance on the bar before getting caught in a full-scale brawl with 150 sailors and chorus girls. During the fight scene one chorus girl accidentally walked into a fist and ended up unconscious under one of the tables (the same dancer, years later, would marry MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer). Featured briefly in the sequence are a young John Garfield (five years before signing a Warners contract; he did extra work as a sailor briefly seen peeking over a barrel during the fight) and then-unknown chorus girls Ann Sothern and Dorothy Lamour. But the scene was Cagney's all the way. When the film opened, a reporter from the trade paper Variety located Max Tishman, an agent who had fired Cagney for demanding a raise during his song-and-dance days. When the reporter asked him what he thought of his former client, Tishman said he'd be happy to give Cagney the raise if he ever 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 (Silas Gould), Ruth Donnelly (Harriet Bowers Gould), Claire Dodd (Vivian Rich), Hugh Herbert (Charlie Bowers), Frank McHugh (Francis). BW-104m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller