Chester Kent has been flopping on Broadway, so it’s time for a slight career change.
He gets a new gig as the creator of prologues, which are performed in movie theaters before the feature presentation. Chester comes up with the brilliant idea of staging prologues that can be shown around the country, at any theater.
In order to impress the theater circuit interested in his idea, Kent’s business partners put the pressure on him to put together three spectacular prologues. (Those three end up to be the now-famous Busby Berkeley musical numbers “Honeymoon Hotel,” “By a Waterfall” and my personal favorite, “Shanghai Lil.”)
Faced with the task of creating a large number of prologues that can be shown country-wide and sure that there’s a mole leaking information to a competitor, Chester has become more than a little bit overwhelmed by his work – so overwhelmed that he doesn’t realize his secretary, Nan, has been in love with him all along.
Lloyd Bacon directs this spectacular 1933 musical, Footlight Parade. James Cagney gets back to his song-and-dance roots (and is just as impressive as he is in his “tough guy” persona) as Chester Kent, and Joan Blondell stars as ever-supportive Nan. Also appearing are Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell (who are adorable, as usual).
This mix of Cagney with a slew of wonderful staple performers of the musical genre in the ’30s makes for very high expectations. Cagney and Blondell, the leads here, are two of my absolute favorite actors. They’re always delightful to see on screen, whether together as a power couple or appearing separately, and both of them do an amazing job here.
I was instantly drawn in by the cast, but the film itself draws the viewer in as well with its high energy and aura of excitement. The song and dance numbers are very fun. In typical Busby style, they’re absolutely extravagant. Flashy costumes and sets catch the viewer’s eye and hold our attention.
There is no way the three huge, signature numbers could have been performed in an actual movie theater, but they are beautifully executed and fun to watch, so it’s easy for the viewer to suspend reality for a moment and pretend that they could actually work as prologues.
That being said, this is a show biz musical through and through, so those who aren’t interested in the behind-the-scenes goings-on will likely find the plot to be dull.
Though Cagney and Blondell’s eventual romance is certainly a big part of the film, it takes a back seat to the drama surrounding the creation of the prologues until the film nears its end. The jealousy and snarky-ness of Blondell’s character is a consistent undercurrent to the film, and they do get together eventually, but I wouldn’t consider this a strictly romantic musical.
Footlight Parade is a wonderful piece of work. It isn’t my favorite from any of the performers or from the Depression era, but it’s a good film with a gripping story and wonderful performances, especially from Cagney and Blondell. The score: 3.5/5