Welcome to a new Film Friday, and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), Miss Pinkerton (1932), and Three On A Match (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Blondie Johnson (1933), The Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933), and Goodbye Again (1933). Today…
Footlight Parade (1933)
A producer fights labor problems, financiers and his greedy ex-wife to put on a show. Starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, Claire Dodd, and Gordon Wescott. Screenplay by Manuell Seff and James Seymour. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
“Chester Kent, a successful producer of musical comedies, finds himself out of work with the advent of talking pictures. His wife leaves him when he breaks the news to her, but he’s not down for long. He convinces his two partners, Sy Gould and Frazer, to join him in producing prologues, live performances to be presented before the movies are shown, and soon he has more business than he can handle. Everything does not function smoothly, however. As soon as Chester thinks up ideas, his competitor, Gladstone, beats him to the punch. Added to this is the fact that his partners seem to be cheating him out of his share of the profits. Throughout all the chaos, he depends on his loyal secretary, Nan Prescott, who is madly in love with him, even though he doesn’t realize it. Instead, to Nan’s disgust, he has fallen for Vivian Rich, a gold digging actress.
“Then theater chain owner Appolinaris agrees that if Chester can come up with three new shows in three days, he’ll sign all his theaters with him. Frantically, Chester sets to work, locking everyone in the studio to prevent leaks. With Nan’s help, he pays off his ex-wife, collects his share of the profits, discovers Vivian’s true nature, finds the leak and stages his three prologues. The first two numbers are a big success. Then at the last minute, Chester has to go on as the lead in the third because the star is drunk. He performs splendidly, gets the contract and after his last bow, he proposes to Nan.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Unlike the same year’s The Gold Diggers Of 1933, which we covered here two weeks ago and features a lot of the same elements — musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as songbirds and lovers, and Joan Blondell in a wisecracking role — this picture can be taken for more than the individual sum of its parts. In other words, the musical numbers, the performances, and the narrative all join forces to create a singularly enjoyable film. In many ways, Footlight Parade is a classic ’30s backstage musical from Warner Brothers, featuring songs by Warren & Dubin and Fain & Kahal, with the “let’s put on a show theme” as a recognizable hallmark. But the “let’s put on a show” bit is not all there is to the story — we have a through line involving a director trying to prove his viability in the age of talkies, a complication involving a mole for a rival producer, and several love stories, including the primary one between director and his loyal secretary (of course this is the Blondell role; she BUILT this archetype).
Among the many other facets that make this production superior is that it frees itself all hokum, instead utilizing the musicale’s easy charm in tandem with an indelible Pre-Code slant, making time for hookers, drugs, and innuendos. This sense of naughtiness is prevalent in several of Berkeley’s numbers. They’re musically not as memorable as 42nd Street‘s, but they’re all hummably delightful, and the staging is equally inventive — particularly “By A Waterfall,” in which Ruby Keeler goes skinny-dipping and Berkeley’s girls play in an onstage watering hole.
The cast, meanwhile, is perfectly assembled, and unlike in several other films we’ve discussed in this blog series, all of our stars are treated with substantive material; no one feels shortchanged. For instance, Claire Dodd gets to be the wicked villainess, who comes around with delightful relish to seduce and betray the protagonist. She’s not exactly a vixen, but she’s a good rival for Blondell, and nasty enough to pull off the scheme. And though Keeler and Powell are really only around to sing and dance, they do it unbelievably well, and in the meantime, the pair (especially Ruby) does a tiny bit of acting in the wings. (Neither is as bad as their reputations had them; both could deliver patter ably, and support the between-song moments.) And, as mentioned above, Blondell is in her element as the good broad secretary, but her role is bigger than it usually is in a film like this, and her chemistry with Cagney is unmatched. From what we’ve seen in this blog series, he really is her best screen partner.
But they elevate each other’s performance, and Cagney too seems appreciative of his role. Not too many early filmgoers quite knew of Cagney’s musical comedy ability and this film, in a surprise third act twist, gives the actor the opportunity to display his variety of talents. He drives the entirety of this picture, and it is not hyperbole to attribute the film’s cohesive strength to his overarching presence. Cagney’s energy, commitment, and finally, ability to surprise the audience, keeps the film from falling into familiar territory, imbuing the narrative with his iconic Pre-Code persona: hard-boiled, but charming in its snappy bemusement. And it’s because of this casting choice that Footlight Parade is a classic. Recommended to all.
Come back next Friday for another Blondell Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical comedy!