With modern musicals being about as embarrassingly bad as they come (the nadir being Christopher Columbus' deplorable Rent), it's good to stop and take stock of the golden days of the movie musical. One of the splashy musical's most prominent heroes was Busby Berkeley, a choreographer who knew a lot about dance and even more about subtext. Through both his Gold Diggers pictures, Dames, 42nd Street, and Wonder Bar, you can see his dance style saying as much about the story as it is acting as a subversive agent. However, it never got so sly and perverse as it did in Lloyd Bacon's exceptional Footlight Parade.
In his finest non-dramatic role, James Cagney plays Chester Kent, a stage musical director who turns into a prologue director when silent pictures go all talkie. Prologues are lavish musical numbers they put on before and in between films, and Kent is the best in the business at them. When the possibility to sign a 40-theater deal comes up, Kent goes nutty and must rush out three ace prologues in three days. Keep in mind; this is all while dealing with his contemptible fiancée, Vivian (Carole Dodd), his loyal, loving assistant, Nan (Joan Blondell), two business partners who are ripping him off, and a spy in his dance company that is stealing his ideas. And then there are the two main leads that are falling for each other (sweetly played by Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler).
The three main performances in Footlight Parade are at the end, the three prologues that must win over the owner of the 40 theaters. All three are choreographed with precision and feisty glee by Berkeley. In "Honeymoon Hotel," he shamelessly dances around and hints at the amorous happenings on one's wedding night, and in "Shanghai Lil," you can see his deviant smile behind Cagney choosing the Navy (male dominance) over the woman he's been looking high and low for. Most shocking is "By the Waterfall," which casts a man's dream of love and marriage as a group of lovely women, flirting and swimming near a waterfall. On many of the overhead shots during the swimming scenes, there is more than a passing resemblance to the act of fertilization. It's a seditious stab at the ratings board (timely now on its DVD appearance, what with the MPAA running rampant) and never makes the mistake of being too obvious.
The film generates laughs at a criminal rate, and it almost makes it hard to follow. Much like Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, however, we can still grab what is going on and see the generous story layering and deep character that Bacon and writers Manuel Seff and James Seymour worked in with deep love. Cinematographer George Barnes and editor George Amy are consistently inventive in the way they shoot the musical numbers. In "By the Waterfall," their dazzling ability with space seems a little too good at distracting us from the fact that none of these could ever be put on any sort of stage.
Bacon and Berkeley collaborated on three other films, Wonder Bar, Gold Diggers of 1937 and 42nd Street. I'll always have a place in my heart for the warmth of the dance numbers in 42nd Street, but one can't argue that both men were at the top of their game with Footlight Parade. For all intents and purposes, it seems that what modern musicals are missing in abundance is the sense of mischief that movies like this and Cabaret (arguably the last truly great movie musical) had. With stinkers like Rent and From Justin to Kelly roaming the Cineplex, the most musical thing you can hear these days is Berkeley and Bacon rotating in their graves.