The Past is Prologue



Marvelous Mary came round with a steak pie and was in a musical mood so we ran FOOTLIGHT PARADE. One of those films I can’t be sure I’ve ever see all the way through. I had seen the big musical numbers, for sure, but the plot, or rather plots, seemed new to me.

Warner Bros are recycling the GOLD-DIGGERS OF BROADWAY 1933 format, but they’ve made it even stranger —

Firstly, rather than a Broadway revue, showman James Cagney, having been put out of business by talking pictures (ironic casting), starts staging elaborate live prologues for movie shows (something like this really did go on in big theatres in big cities, but of course Busby Berkeley is going to offer up stuff that couldn’t staged anywhere except a movie studio).

Then, rather than showstoppers at beginning and end, this one has no real full musical numbers until the climax, where we get three back-to-back-to-front. Honeymoon Hotel and By a Waterfall both star Dick Powell and are very peculiar in the best Busby Berkeley manner — lots of creepy stuff with child-dwarf Billy Barty, and so on. It’s been pointed out that the colossal swimming pool on the latter number (where chorine meets chlorine), with its sheer ten-foot sides, would be a death-trap for any unlucky dancer whose doggie-paddle gave out on her.


The true amazement comes with Shanghai Lil, in which Cagney, who up until now has been a vast improvement on Warner Baxter, now gets to be a vast improvement on Dick Powell too.

Of course, much of the number is a stupendous build-up to the crashing disappointment of Ruby Keeler in yellowface, clodhopping insipidly on a bartop, but we also get Cagney dancing, his body flowing like a trickle of liquid descending from his big, cocky cranium. So there’s the build-up, the astonishing pre-code detail (an opium den! racial mixing! naked girlies!) and Cagney, and the giant spectacle of it all, orbiting around the ordinary, untalented, unexciting R.K.

I did actually like Ruby in the film’s early part, where she plays a bespectacled secretary. The characterisation gives her something — character. An unfortunate example of a movie makeover robbing someone of interest rather than heightening their charm.


13 Responses to “The Past is Prologue”

  1. Footlight Parade is Key Cagney. All the energy that went into the gangster melodramas ha made him famous is redirected here into show business stop-at-nothing manic tumultuousness. Only Joan Blondell can keep up with him. The first 3/4s of the film is thus all build-up for him to let loose at the last. After this this psychosis of White Heat is the logical next step, and finally One Two Three — a triumphant curtain call in which the energy expended in those “prologues: is utilized to turn Commie Cutie Horst Buchholtz into a “respectable” Capitalist, and thus suitable for the luscious Pamela Tiffin to marry.

  2. For all the undoubted Genius of the System, you also wonder at the Stupidity of the System that let Cagney dance so rarely on screen, and compelled him to do so alongside Ruby Keeler.

    Which reminds me — you know, I’ve never seen Yankee Doodle Dandy?

  3. Well that’s a Major Gap. One of his most popular films he dances all over the damned place in it.

  4. jwarthen Says:

    I don’t know if Cagney’s moves were onscreen earlier, but in OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), in which he isn’t even the lead male, the most memorable scene is his: he arrives late at the terminal-town’s dance-hall, and as he checks in his coat, he surveys the floor smiling as if he (Wellman too) knows this is gonna be good. Then he grabs his doll and is off like a shot.

  5. I think that’s Cagney’s first movie, isn’t it? But he was a hoofer by trade, so any opportunity to cut a rug must have made him feel confident. Shades of Christopher Walken.

    Have been meaning to do a whole series on my Major Gaps, many of which are simply horrifying! Scout Tafoya was going to collaborate… just waiting for a good opportunity to do it.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    In TAXI!, he and Loretta Young cut a mean rug at a dance contest. Then he punches out the winner, one George Raft. There’s also a scene featuring the (Los Angeles) Cotton Club performers and some eye-opening Baby Got Back choreography.

  7. I know I’ve seen it, and quite enjoyed it, but I barely remember anything. So many fine pre-codes, so little brain.

  8. La Faustin Says:

  9. “Watch that mug’s pan when they hand us that cup!”

  10. Cagney is clearly a better dancer than Bob Hope, but Hope gives it the old vaudeville try and gets away with it by sheer force of personality, I reckon.

  11. I also love this (end of Yankee Doodle Dandy spoilers! kind of)

  12. Hope needs a lengthy cutaway to pull it off, but does seemingly defy gravity, and gets away with the impossible task of FOLLOWING Cagney, so I’ll give him all due credit.

  13. Footlight Parade was fabulous! more please! I’ll bring the steak pie!

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