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Footlight Parade

The Busby Berkeley Collection

If 1933's Footlight Parade is the best of the Busby Berkeley musicals, its all due to the presence of James Cagney. And that's nothing against Berkeley regulars like Joan Blondell or Guy Kibbee, it's just Cagney's performance (at the time against-type casting for the former Public Enemy) enlivens the material with one of the screen's best actors, which sets it apart from the rest. Cagney stars as Chester Kent, who is struggling during the Depression and decides to sell revues to as many theaters as he can at a reduced rate, just as supermarkets reduce their rate by selling in bulk. Getting new numbers is always a hassle, and there's a spy stealing Kent's material, while his partners (including Guy Kibbee) are bilking Kent of his due. Kent's secretary Nan Prescott (Blondell) harbors some feelings for him, while he romances another woman and also has to deal with his not-yet-ex-wife, and Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) joins the company and gets feelings for secretary-turned-dancer Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler). Footlight Parade is an amusing backstage comedy that saves its best bits for last: Though there's a number in the middle entitled "Sittin' on a Back Yard Fence," the finale wraps up with three numbers back-to-back-to-back: "Honeymoon Hotel," the swimming pool-based number "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil," which features an obviously pre-Code opium den and Cagney hoofing with the best of them. And it's Cagney who enlivens an already fun picture — just watching him stroll across a stage reveals a musicality that is entrancing, and here he's offered a chance to prove his worth as a dance man, even more than in the also-excellent Yankee Doodle Dandy. Much of the film is directed by Lloyd Bacon (as he also did the same year's 42nd Street), and he does a fine, workmanlike job, staging some great knowing banter. But — as is the case with the earlier effort — his work is outshined by Busby Berkeley's insane and extravagant staging of the musical numbers. "Honeymoon Hotel" is another ode to would-be marriages (at the hotel all the married people have the last name of Smith) with a strange and perverse appearance of a horny child played by Billy Barty, and "By a Waterfall" one of the great examples of Berkeley's brilliant sense of human symmetry that begs the question (as do all these films): How could this possibly staged in a theater so that people could actually see it? No matter — neither a stage nor words can do justice to the kaleidoscope ingenuity of the numbers. Warner Home Video presents Footlight Parade in full-frame (1.33:1 OAR) and DD 1.0 audio. Extras include the featurette "Footlight Parade: Music for the Decades," featuring John Landis and John Waters among others (15 min.), the vintage shorts "Rambling Round Radio Row #8" (10 min.) and "Vaudeville Reel #1" (11 min.), the vintage cartoons "Young and Healthy" (7 min.) and "Honeymoon Hotel" (7 min.), and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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