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A hand-made cartoon climaxes James Cagney's transition from stage director to movie-maker


Footlight Parade

1933. Directed by Lloyd Bacon; choreography by Busby Berkeley. With James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh

Here's how the Netflix envelope describes Footlight Parade: "James Cagney channels Busby Berkeley (who choreographs the stunning, kaleidoscopic dance routines) as a Broadway director who comes up with a scheme to break into movies through, well, stunning, kaleidoscopic dance routines."

Netflix has it right that there's something strange and self-referential lurking here. But the Broadway director never tries to "break into movies," at least not explicitly. And the point about the dance routines, I think, is that Cagney's and Berkeley's are miles apart—a whole continent's worth, in fact. Footlight Parade exposes the subtext of all Warners "backstage" musicals: the best stage show is a movie. On the surface, this film is about theater people standing up to the movies, but what they really do, technologically and aesthetically, is happily succumb.

Driving the plot is that great cultural upheaval: talkies have arrived and live theater has become obsolete overnight. "People aren't paying for shows any more—talking pictures are what they want!" The producers who have backed director Chester Kent's (James Cagney) musical comedies decide to go into the picture exhibition business, delighted that "they deliver the show in tin cans and we got nothing to worry about!"

It's a disaster for Chester and the "kids" he employs. Right off the bat we have the odd feeling that by watching this movie we are being disloyal to the characters in it.

Chester salvages his career by producing live prologues to be performed in movie houses before the feature. And how does he pitch the concept? As the next-best thing to mechanically-reproduced entertainment. He adopts the "chain-store idea" of standardization and economy-of-scale: A prologue will travel around the country playing hundreds of theaters. "Exhibitors everywhere will be tickled pink to get ready-made prologues," he promises. Soon he is preparing a new and different "unit" every week and sending it out on the road. The performers, costumes, sets, and orchestra can't be packed into tin cans like celluloid, but almost.

For example, when there's an elopement in the Iceland unit, he orders Joan Blondell to "send up a new boy and girl." Performers are cogs in the big prologue machine, as interchangeable as the girls who cycle through Busby Berkley's musical numbers.

Throughout the story, Chester defies moving pictures by becoming like them, moving from craftsmanship to mass production. It's hard to imagine that his musical comedies were ever exactly gracious, but now he is obsessed with speed, novelty, sensation, topicality, and variety. (At one point, stuck for a new concept, he leaps up and exclaims "I've got a big idea—cats!" If he only knew.) There's a shot where the camera tracks past multiple "units" going through their paces in adjacent rehearsal rooms; you'd think you were watching one of those studio comedies that show Indians, gladiators, and the court of Louis XI on neighboring sound stages.

Then of course there are the "prologues" themselves. I've puzzled for years over why Footlight Parade crams its three big production numbers together in the film's last half hour. This embarrassment of riches is clearly what the whole movie has been building up to—the final and definitive victory of cinema over theater.

As is obvious to everyone, "Honeymoon Hotel" and "By a Waterfall" bear as much relation to stage shows as Quidditch does to Parcheesi. None of the numbers that Kent is supposed to have staged could possibly take place on even an enormous proscenium. It's not just a matter of scale: these numbers get their punch from cinematic techniques: close-ups, tracks, high- and low-angles, cross-cutting, careful control over the viewer's attention. This is not the way that theater works. In fact, during the course of the movie we have seen bits of rehearsal—a chorus line taps away to the "Shanghai Lil" music, for example—but none of this finds its way into the final numbers, which have very little dancing per se. If anything dances, it's the camera not the chorus. In the three climactic extravaganzas, cinema rules.

Capping it all is a quiet moment at the end of the final number, "Shanghai Lil." The sailor played by Cagney pulls out a stack of cards and entertains Lil with a little home-made animation. He flips through the cards in the style of countless proto-cinematic devices and we see a jerky cartoon of a ship pulling out of port. Cinema of the purest kind! Whatever the stage can do, it's hard to compete with the primal magic worked by flickering images and the persistence of vision.


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein