Berkeley’s dazzling masterpiece Footlight Parade has racy Pre-Code dialogue, Cagney (the best actor he ever worked with) and full indulgence of an obsession with chorine geography. The wisp of a plot involves the brief vogue for staged prologues before new-fangled talking pictures, and concludes with three massive production numbers of sharply escalating nuttiness.
Footlight Parade required two directors, Lloyd Bacon for the plot and Busby Berkeley for the musical numbers. At RKO, the Astaire-Rogers musicals would soon change the landscape, but for the moment, the backstage musical was king. While Berkeley's dance extravaganzas of the early 1930s would seem to be impossible anywhere but on the movie screen, they in fact did have origins dating back to 19th century stage spectacles. They evolved from the revues that had been popular on Broadway in the 1910s and 1920s. Revues were not a series of completely unrelated acts, like in a vaudeville show, but a series of musical and comedy specialties structured around a loosely defining theme. This theme, in many cases, may only have been the decorative display of the female body. Berkeley learned about choreography from closely observing the dancers, he had no dance training. There were intimations of his movie style in chorus numbers Berkeley did on stage, where showgirls became factory assembly lines or airplanes. There were no overhead views, but he used stairs and platforms to alter the space on stage, and in Earl Carroll Vanities of 1928 he used an optical device called the "Vanities Votaphonevitotone" to project enlargements of one chorus girl's face at a time on a screen.
Berkeley's giddy, girly kaleidoscopes in his great early Warner Brothers period, from 42nd Street in 1933 to The Gold Diggers of 1935 had an art deco geometry that other dance numbers simply didn't. There was a tension between innocence and vulgarity, a fragmenting of the female body that only he could imagine on the screen. He made the camera a participant in his dance routines, not just a spectator, from the earliest work he did in Hollywood for Eddie Cantor in Whoopee. Berkeley had a unique advantage at Warner Brothers, in that he was not required to showcase a particular musical star, but worked with an ensemble, since it was the chorus that seemed particularly to inspire him. He loved shiny black floors and dancers in white, he loved girls' faces and other parts of their bodies, too. These numbers were rehearsed and rehearsed until they were perfect.
42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 made so much money for Warner Brothers that they hastened to continue their series with Footlight Parade. At the premiere of Gold Diggers of 1933, Sid Grauman of the Chinese Theater asked Berkeley how he could ever top the numbers in that film. He improvised, “Sid, I can see a big waterfall coming down through the rocks with girls sliding down the rapids into a huge Ziegfieldean pool with 24 golden springboards and a gold fountain telescoping into the air…” Cheapskate Jack Warner blanched, but Berkeley’s pictures were making so much money for the studio, he allowed him to design his fantasy for “By a Waterfall”
During the Depression, theater attendance fell off so much that exhibitors took desperate measures. One of them was to have live stage shows before the films, in some cases condensed versions of Broadway hits. The Rockettes shows at Radio City Music Hall are a remnant of this kind of production. Fanchon and Marco were the best known stagers of these prologues, and Footlight Parade was vaguely based on their organization.
The three production numbers that end this film each run at least a full reel (11-12 minutes) and cost about $10,000 minute—Depression era dollars, so multiply that at least by a factor of 10. They are unique in the sense that never before or since did three such wildly imaginative follow one another in “can’t top this” succession. “Honeymoon Hotel” begins with a jaunty Pre-Code raciness. In another year or so, there would be no more Dubin and Warren songs about having sex. “Shanghai Lil” is a bit on the politically incorrect side, with Ruby Keeler making an absurdly unconvincing Oriental siren. But the opening pan down the bar, visiting with hedonists of all races and religions is the sort of scene that would also be a casualty of the Production Code. Cagney’s electric tapping stunned the moviegoers who had seen him in 13 films over the last three years, all as a nervy tough guy.
Synchonized swimming is rather a neglected skill nowadays, and the girls here had the additional challenge of an shallow pool in which to dive. There were 100 girls sliding down the studio waterfall into a lake. “With the technicians, I designed the pool and made caverns underneath it with thick plates of glass that I could shoot the camera through…I designed a special bathing costume with rubber head pieces looking like hair that ran down across the girls’ bodies to give a semi-nude effect. We rehearsed it for two weeks and shot it in six days. It was my toughest number to film, because of the camera set-ups underwater, above water, and for the high shots, plus the physical stress and strain of the girls in the water. We had hydraulic lifts in operation that pumped 20,000 gallons of water a minute over the falls, and the set underneath the stage looked like the hold of some enormous ocean liner.” (Kobel) An entire sound stage was used, the pool was 80 X 40 feet, and the studio even built him a glass tunnel under the pool, so the girls could swim over him. The result is “the most staggering water ballet in the history of liquid…neither taste nor logic was a factor by any means in this interminable series of simpering half-naked women, wearing silly rubber bathing caps meant to represent hair, gamboling through an astounding variety of aquacade formations, all in a sequence ostensibly taking place on the stage of a movie theater.” (Barrios). The camera cavorts in and out of the water, and never were scantily clad nymphs examined in such mischievous detail. Please note: Not a single drop of water splashes the camera lens. At the New York premiere, the packed audience gave the number a standing ovation.
The set for "By a Waterfall."
Busby Berkeley had a troubled life. He was born in a trunk, as they used to say, his parents members of a traveling repertory company. His father died when he was eight, and his older brother died of a drug overdose shortly after. He was devoted to his mother, trying to make up for the deaths of his father and brother. He went to school at a military academy, where no doubt the marching formations made an impression on him, he was also athletic, and played semi-pro baseball. He enlisted in officer training for WWI, and was commissioned a lieutenant. It was in France that he tapped into a talent for organizing complex parade drills for 1200 men. He never saw any action, but did stay in Europe after the war organizing shows for the remaining troops, before the days of the USO. Back in the US his connections landed him a collection of theatrical jobs some for comic acting and some for staging dance numbers. By the late 1920s, he was known as a successful and innovative choreographer, and it was the lure of directing Broadway star Eddie Cantor on screen in Whoopee that brought him to Hollywood.
Berkeley and chorines
Berkeley married and divorced five wives (one more wife was widowed) but the splits were all for the same reason, “Buzz was married to his work and his mother.” (Lambert). He had a drinking problem, in the mid-30s there was a car crash in which he killed three people in the other car, (although he was acquitted at his trial for manslaughter), a suicide attempt and bankruptcy. In the 40s, he worked for MGM and Fox, choreographing Carmen Miranda’s 30 ft banana headdress in The Gang’s All Here and water ballets for Esther Williams, but his later career was spotty. An affectionate parody of 1930s musicals called Dames at Sea was popular on Broadway in the late 60s, and led to a revived interest in his career. Five years before his death, in 1971, a Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette gave both him, as a director and Ruby Keeler, as a dancer, a swan song, and he spent the last years of his life lecturing for appreciative audiences at film festivals and universities.
Lloyd Bacon, a WB workhorse director, had a long history with Cagney. In Picture Snatcher, also from 1933, Bacon was in such a hurry to get through the schedule, he even occasionally filmed a rehearsal. He keeps the story moving along briskly.
Cagney and Keeler in costume for "Shanghai Lil," Powell stands over Berkeley, Bacon in white fedora (?).
James Cagney rocketed to fame as the Public Enemy, one of the talking screen's first gangsters. His characters could win a fight, and be funnier than the next guy, an essential part of the movie male's self-image, just being codified in the talkies. Unlike rivals Edward G. Robinson, a thoughtful "Method" type actor who used his salary to amass a famous art collection, or Bogart, an upper middle class WASP who spent his career playing against type, Cagney projected heightened facets of his own personality. He had grown up in a poor NYC neighborhood, a tough and wily street brawler. One close boyhood friend died in the electric chair for murdering a cop, and plenty of his other pals ended up in Sing-Sing.
He hated being typecast as a gangster though, and fought Warners over and over again, staging various walk-outs during his career, to change the direction of his career. Footlight Parade was Warners first big concession to his discontent. Although Cagney had been a song and dance man on Broadway, this was his movie fans' first opportunity to see the facet of his personality that would win him his only Oscar, for the schmaltzy Yankee Doodle Dandy. Here, his Chester Kent is a whirlwind, balancing dames, dances and dollars and propelling the story forward with jaunty momentum. He was a quick study in real life, too. Berkeley said, “He could learn whatever you gave him very quickly. You could count on him to be prepared. And expert mimic that he was, he could pick up on the most subtle inflections of movement. It made his work very exciting.” (McGilligan).
Cagney was married for 64 years to the vaudeville partner he wed in 1922. He hated romantic scenes. He wouldn't even kiss an actress on the mouth if he didn't like her; in at least one film, the final clich ends with Cagney kissing his leading lady chastely on the forehead. But, Blondell and Cagney were lifelong pals who had been in many films together, their warm camaraderie adds zing to their romantic scenes.
Cagney shows Frank McHugh how to move like a cat.
Joan Blondell was likewise born in a trunk, and made her first appearance on stage in the arms of her vaudevillian parents. Her youth was spent in perpetual touring with Ed Blondell and Company. At 17 she won a beauty contest in Dallas, TX. The $2000 prize helped her family exist in the era when vaudeville was being killed by the movies. She worked odd jobs during the day and acted for free at night, until Broadway beckoned. Her success in The Trial of Mary Dugan and then Penny Arcade led to Hollywood. She and James Cagney costarred in Penny Arcade, and arrived at Warners together. A couple of--at the time--more well known actors, Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp, were given the parts she and Cagney played on stage. But, when the execs viewed the rushes, it was clear that the newcomers needed to be put under contract, pronto. The studio lobbied to change her name to Inez Holmes, but she refused, trembling that her small rebellion would lose the chance at a five year contract.
Claire Dodd can't get close to Cagney while Blondell's around.
Everyone at Warners worked hard, in the early 1930s she made 27 films in 30 months. She was known as “one take Blondell” which stood her in good stead as she toiled in the Warners factory, “They’d even pan me going to the ladies’ room,” she said. The wise cracking babe was her specialty. She made seven movies with Cagney, and 10 with Dick Powell, who she married in 1936. “We both knew what “camp” was. We had a sense of humor; we needed it too, to play some of the roles we were given. We’d been doing the same sort of films for so long that we used to change our lines around or add to them, ad-lib during filming, and nobody would be any the wiser.” (Kobel).
"When reporters first asked Joan if she were married to (cinematographer) George Barnes, she opened those bright blue eyes 'way up big, put on one of her broadest smiles, and replied, "I won't say yes--and I won't say no." The boys were so delighted, they christened her The Artful Dodger..." Motion Picture Magazine, December, 1933.
Ruby Keeler was born in Nova Scotia, but moved to NYC as a child. She attended a Catholic school where there was a ballet teacher, and at 11 enrolled for tap lessons at a dance studio. Told there were openings in a George M. Cohan production on Broadway, the 14 year old girl lied that she was 16, and was hired for $45 a week. When the show closed, she danced in chorus lines in speakeasies during Prohibition. She was still so young, her mother arrived when the clubs closed to walk her home. In 1928, she was hired to dance in the sort of prologue shows seen in Footlight Parade, while waiting for the Ziegfield show, Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor, to be ready to begin rehearsals. She came out to the West Coast to work in prologues there, and in Hollywood met Al Jolson, he of course the great Broadway star who sang and spoke in the film that started the talkie revolution, The Jazz Singer. When she returned east, Jolsen followed her and they were married secretly. She continued to dance in New York, until hired by Warners to play the ingénue in the Berkeley film that really started them all, 42nd Street. She became quite popular, and then, in best Star is Born fashion, as his celebrity dimmed she became more and more famous. She once told an interviewer after their divorce, in 1940, "Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer who ever lived. He told me so every day."
February,1934 Silver Screen cover
Dick Powell, another hard working veteran was born in Arkansas. His mother loved music, and Dick and his older brother Howard sang in church choirs, solo and duet, working all the Protestant denominations in Little Rock. In 1925, he joined a touring dance band as musician, crooner, comedian, master of ceremonies, and came to Warners in 1931. He, too, found fame in 42nd Street. “I knew I wasn’t the greatest singer in the world,” he said, but in his 30 Depression era movies he was peppy and full of charm. At first, he was replaced in this film by Stanley Smith, a second string crooner, because Powell had pneumonia. Realizing his audience demanded a pairing with Keeler, the studio was forced to postpone his scenes until he was at least somewhat recovered. He starred in film musicals for ten years, and after WW II restarted his career as a character actor, playing hard boiled detectives. Later, he turned to producing, where he became very successful in television.
Keeler, Cagney, Blondell, McHugh and Powell
The whole cast of Footlight Parade is in top form, from Claire Dodd to Hugh Herbert to Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelley and all the WB character actors who made every film from this period such a delight. Ruby Keeler reminisced, “I recall the many times I stood n a sound stage and marveled at what Buzz did. He was a forceful, positive man bursting with ideas. He was into everything and seemed to know everything. He would argue with cameramen and composers and producers who would tell him that what he wanted couldn’t be done. But it would be done, and done exactly as he wanted it. His attitude was that anything is possible. He was energetic, tireless, tough and sometimes rough, but look at his pictures and tell me how any other kind of man could have achieved what he did.” (intro to Thomas and Terry).
Thanks to Mike Mashon at the Library of Congress, who also
sent "By Request" a Vitaphone short starring Claude Hopkins
and his Orchestra. The complete personnel, as listed at LoC is as follows:
Mack; Continuity: Cyrus Wood; Photography: E. B.DuPar. 11 mins., black & white,
35mm. A music short set in a nightclub which features Claude Hopkins
This short, a bit more lively than the many Vitaphone shorts directed by Joseph Henabery, opens with the musicians sitting on rickety porch, improvising on musical instruments. Although costumed in work clothes, band members have customized these stock outfits by reshaping hats and wearing their overalls with an urban panache. The second half of the short takes place in an Art Deco nightclub, with the band appearing as elegant as Duke Ellington's Orchestra. Tip, Tap and Toe, an astonishing African American tap dancing trio, does an amazing number. Hot jazz and interesting settings made quite a hit with the audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
(Sheet music, fan magazines and final still from moviediva's collection. Berkeley and chorus girls from Lambert, Cagney and McHugh from Gilligan, Cagney and Dodd, and ensemble from Dickens, pool, "Shanghai Lil" from Rubin. Sources include: Showstoppers by Martin Rubin, Gotta Sing Gotta Dance by John Kobal, A Song in the Dark by Richard Barrios, “Joan Blondell and Dick Powell” in the April, 1998 Architectural Digest, Busby Berkeley by Gavin Lambert in the April 2000 Architectural Digest, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur by Patrick McGilligan, Films of James Cagney by Homer Dickens,The Busby Berkeley Book by Tony Thomas and Jim Terry. “Joan Blondell” by Ronald Bowers, April 1972 Films In Review, Ruby Keeler by Ronald Bowers, AuSe 1971 Films In Review, “Dick Powell” by Anthony Thomas in May 1961 Films In Review.)