Sep 12, 2019
On Blu-ray: James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade (1933)
All film fans have their cinematic version of comfort food and mine is the musicals of choreographer Busby Berkeley. These busy, bubbly productions full of wit, beauty and excitement are pleasant to have on in the background, but deserving of the most devoted attention. I’m especially fond of Footlight Parade (1933), because it features James Cagney, famous for crime movies, but an excellent dancer and interpreter of song who rarely had the opportunity to ditch his prop Tommy gun for tap shoes. The film looks great in its Blu-ray debut, now out from Warner Archive.
Director Lloyd Bacon assembled a cast that will be happily familiar to fans of Warner Bros. productions of the day. Cagney is joined by Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Dick Powell in the leads, with endearing characters like Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, and Hugh Herbert in the supporting roles. As a group they work with a slick precision that is hidden behind a façade of insouciance. They’re all entirely comfortable with their personas, quick with a quip, and interact with each other like highly trained dancers.
Cagney is the picture of delight as stage producer Chester Kent, a quick-thinking impresario who must find a way to incorporate live entertainment into cinemas if he hopes to stay in business. He gets into romantic trouble with the always dangerous Claire Dodd, while his lovelorn secretary looks on in exasperation (Joan Blondell, who gets one of the best lines of the era when she tells Dodd, “as long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job”). As great as he was as a gangster, Cagney looks most at home in this setting and frequent costar Blondell is his best screen partner.
The musical numbers are among the best Berkeley staged, from the light charm of kitty-costumed dancers in Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence to the sensual longing of Shanghai Lil. Nothing can beat Busby’s most elaborate number though, a stunning precursor to Esther Williams’ operatic aquatic productions, By a Waterfall.
Never has Berkeley's camera seemed more perfectly placed, moving above, below, and through a smilingly willing group of waterlogged chorines. Something about the water makes this precisely-calculated collision of glamour and military discipline look as easy as rolling into the river. It is the perfect cinematic marriage of art and craft.
Special features on the disc, which are carried over from the DVD release, include the featurette Music for the Decades, the fascinating vintage featurettes Rambling ‘Round Radio Row #8 and Vaudeville Reel #1, a collection of vintage cartoons, and a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.