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.