A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

Chester Kent: James Cagney
Nan Prescott: Joan Blondell
Bea Thorn: Ruby Keeler
Scotty Blair: Dick Powell
Francis: Frank McHugh
Silas Gould: Guy Kibbee
Harriet Gould: Ruth Donnelly
Bowers: Hugh Herbert
Vivian Rich: Claire Dodd

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Manuel Seff, James Seymour
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art direction: Anton Grot, Jack Okey
Film editing: George Amy
Choreography: Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley's great trifecta of 1933 also includes 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy). Footlight Parade is the least distinguished of the three by virtue of having the most inane of plots, but it also has a blazingly wonderful performance by James Cagney as the harried impresario Chester Kent, who creates "prologues" for movies -- live action musical numbers designed to precede feature films, a phenomenon that survives today only at Radio City Music Hall. Cagney not only gets to display his typical volcanic persona but also gets to strut his stuff as a dancer. As in other early Berkeley films, the great mad production numbers are not spread throughout but instead clustered at the end. First comes "Honeymoon Hotel," which is a string of double entendres about the fact that people have sex in hotels, and aren't necessarily newlyweds: e.g., everyone registers as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Then there's the lavish "By a Waterfall," which anticipates (and excels) the swimming pool numbers that Berkeley would later craft for Esther Williams at MGM. And finally, Chester Kent gets to save the show by going on for a lead dancer who comes down with stage fright in the "Shanghai Lil," number with Ruby Keeler in yellowface, dancing on the top of waterfront bars with Cagney -- her clunky, anxious tapping is an odd mixture with Cagney's stiff-legged style. (We are fortunately spared one of Kent's more appalling ideas, a musical number about slavery in which the female dancers would appear in blackface and be captured by the male dancers.) The whole thing is good, mildly ribald pre-Code stuff: Joan Blondell's Nan, who crushes on Chester Kent, introduces the predatory Vivian Rich by "accidentally" almost pronouncing her last name with a B, and comments that as long as there are sidewalks, Vivian will never be without a job.

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