Directed By: Lloyd Bacon
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler
Tag line: "Stupendous dance spectacles with hundreds of glorified beauties, staged under water! New laughs and song hits from Gold Diggers' famous stars..."
Trivia: Film debut of Dorothy Lamour
Footlight Parade adhered to the formula laid out in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, both of which were released a few months before it. After an hour or so of behind-the-scenes turmoil, during which dancers, directors, and songwriters work like crazy to ensure their “Big Show” is a big success, the movie wows us with a handful of Busby Berkeley-designed musical numbers, each a little flashier than the one before it. It even features some of the actors from the previous movies, like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee. But Footlight Parade did have one ace up its sleeve: Mr. James Cagney, who absolutely shines in the role of Chester Kent, the former Broadway director who, thanks to the advent of talking movies (which, according to the "experts", are more audience-friendly than stage shows), finds himself looking for a new line of work.
Fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to look long. Backed by his producers Si Gould (Guy Kibbee) and Al Frazer (Arthur Hohl), Kent decides to start making prologues, the live shows that are staged in movie houses just before the main feature begins. Aided by his personal assistant, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who’s been secretly in love with him for years, Kent comes up with some hot new ideas, which are promptly stolen by his conniving assistant Harry Thompson (Gordon Westcott), who uses them to land a job with a rival company. Still, Kent presses on, hiring singer Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) and allowing office girl Bea (Roby Keeler) to return to her first love: dancing. But when heavy-hitter George Appolinaris (Paul Porcasi), who owns a chain of 40 theaters across the country, says he wants to see 3 new prologues in as many days, Kent locks down the theater (to ensure no leaks get out to his competitors) and tells everyone they can’t go home until the work is complete. Can Kent successfully devise and choreograph a trio of musical numbers in three days’ time, or is his dance director Francis (Frank McHugh) right when he says doing so is damn near impossible?
Despite its similarities to 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade does manage to mix things up a bit, casting Joan Blondell (who played a streetwise chorus girl in Gold Diggers) in the role of a faithful assistant, and turning Ruby Keeler into a mousy secretary, complete with pulled-back hair and eyeglasses. As for the film’s big numbers, “The Honeymoon Hotel” is a tad risqué (most of the guys sign the register book with the name “Smith” to hide their adulterous affairs), but is fun nonetheless; while “By a Waterfall” afforded Berkeley a chance to choreograph some water sequences so precise they’ll blow you away (for added effect, Berkeley shot a portion of it underwater). And then there’s James Cagney, brimming with energy from the very first scene. Not only is his comic timing spot-on, but the actor gets a chance to show off his dancing as well in the final sequence, “Shanghai Lil” (though not as impressive as “By a Waterfall”, this grand finale has its moments).
Having just played a gangster in Public Enemy, Footlight Parade afforded Cagney the opportunity to showcase the skills he’d display a few years later in Yankee Doodle Dandy. With its astonishing musical numbers, Footlight Parade is, in every way, a Busby Berkeley film, but Cagney comes damn close to stealing the show.