Earlier this year, I fell instantly in love with the Busby Berkeley-produced musical Gold Diggers of 1933, with its lively cast (including a young Ginger Rogers), unexpectedly oddball sense of humor, and stunning musical set-pieces. Footlight Parade, also produced by Berkeley but directed by Lloyd Bacon, has many of the same winning ingredients at play — such as Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Guy Kibbee— but is sort of a (likable) mess in comparison.
James Cagney stars as Chester Kent, an impresario of live entertainment prologues to motion pictures. With his career under pressure due to the change from silent to sound films, Chester devises a scheme to mass-produce these musical prologues, sending himself into a creative frenzy of sleepless labor, culminating in the production of three show-stopping numbers aimed at winning a lucrative contract.
There's a lot to like in Footlight Parade. Cagney is great, as is Blondell as his lovelorn assistant. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell pull out their usual charming cheese-ball tricks, and Guy Kibbee is on-hand to puff his cigar with typical incredulousness. One of the highlights of the cast, however, is Frank McHugh, as Kent's beleaguered choreographer, who is reluctantly forced to mimic a cat and sing a romantic duet with Powell. There are three-and-a-half major dance numbers in Footlight Parade, and each one is, at turns, clever, engaging and jaw-dropping. The aquatic number "By a Waterfall" is, by far, the stand-out, full of inventive design and suggestive Pre-Code era eroticism.
The problems with Footlight Parade mostly stem from a sense that it, like Kent's many in-movie creations, was thrown together hastily and without a cohesive story or theme to pull its many parts together. Although Berkeley's numbers are always a treat, Footlight Parade doesn't break one out until the 40-minute mark, and even that one is cut-short. It takes almost another half-hour before before another number is performed in earnest, and Cagney, who is a delightful dancer, only performs during the final song, which anticlimactically follows "By a Waterfall." This teasing structure might have worked if Footlight Parade had a strong narrative to carry its hour-plus of straight plot, but it's all uninspired screwball busy-ness that is only made watchable by its excellent cast. Kent's self-punishing plan to mass-produce live musical numbers makes no sense (why didn't they think to film these numbers and distribute them as short films to play before the features?) and all of the romantic hijinks that carry on to fill the time between manic rehearsals are throwaways.
Clearly, Footlight Parade was conceived as a package to deliver three randomly unrelated Berkeley choreography concepts, and this "revue" format is one of my pet peeves about musicals of its era. Gold Diggers of 1933 neatly fit its dance numbers and plot all within the common theme of women attempting to survive the harsh economic and sexual realities of The Great Depression. The only thing uniting the three numbers at the end of Footlight Parade is a last gasp of bold sexuality set to uninspired music and almost maddeningly repetitive lyrics. These three numbers are still awe-inspiring in execution— although one is head-and-shoulders above the others— but two of them, at least, also suffer from queasily outdated content that is preceded by one of the most shockingly racist lines of dialog I've heard in one of these old musical comedies.
There are plenty of reasons to watch Footlight Parade. It's fun and, at times, weird with strong performers who gamely paper over its many cracks, and at least one bonafide classic production number. That it doesn't match the heights of Gold Diggers of 1933 is a sin it has in common with most other movies, but it's close enough in time and spirit to make its relative shortcomings a source of some disappointment.
Footlight Parade was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickchart boss Nathan Chase. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #150/1539 (90%), making it his third favorite Musical Comedy out of 15. Footlight Parade ranked on my Flickchart at #1603 (59%), where it's #29 out 55 Musical Comedies.