Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley | Footlight Parade

the vulgarians at the gate
by Douglas Messerli

Manuel Seff and James Seymour (writers, based on a story by Robert Lord and Peter Milne [uncredited]), Lloyd Bacon (director), Busby Berkeley (dance numbers) Footlight Parade / 1933
By coincidence, the same week in July when Howard and I attended a local large screen showing of James Cagney’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, Netflix sent me a DVD of Cagney’s 1933 film, Footlight Parade, enabling me to see Cagney as a hoofer twice. He got far more screen time and far better dances in Yankee, but as an actor Cagney is more energetic and far more frenetic in Footlight; when the camera’s on him, there’s hardly a moment when the former Broadway director, Chester Kent, isn’t cooking up a new dance, booking a new movie house for his “musical prologues,” interviewing a new cast member, or simply strutting from room to room wherein his mini-factory of rehearsal halls he tries out numerous numbers (both musical and human) simultaneously

Battered equally by his producer’s wife, Harriet Bowers Gould (Ruth Donnelly), who troops in an army of would-be protégés (including Dick Powell as Scotty Blair), and the same producer’s nay-saying brother, Charlie Bowers (Hugh Herbert), who would like to censor every act that Kent cooks up, Kent caught up in a near whirlwind of moment-to-moment changes. The movie, filmed just before the establishment of the Film Production Code, joyfully makes fun of what clearly the writers and directors saw coming, as Bowers demands the dolls—toy dolls, not the real girls—sport brassieres ("...uh uh, you know Connecticut.") at the very same moment that Kent is transforming his scantily clad dancers into yowling cats and the film’s director is dishing out a gay satire in which Dick Powell sings of his love, arms about his cigar-munching musical director, a stand-in for any would-be lover. 

      Fortunately, Kent has the level-headed and seemingly unflappable, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell) by his side, a secretary so confident that the film suggests she could run the place, even if—given the machinations of Kent’s former wife, Cynthia (Renee Whitney) and Nan’s gold digger friend, Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd)—she can’t always be as sure of her man. Fortunately, he’s too busy to spend much time but a lunch date with other women.

      Besides, he has choruses of loving boys and girls at his at the flip of his wrist, and it’s those lovelies that are truly the focus of this film; just to make sure, plain-looking secretary, Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler), who has secretly (even to her) fallen in love with Scotty Blair, decides to marcel her hair and jump into the larger pool.


     Although the film was directed by the always sturdy Lloyd Bacon, the dance and musical numbers, at the heart of this extremely light-hearted work, came directly from the overheated imagination of Busby Berkeley, who in this movie went all out in the work’s featured three “prologues,” “Honeymoon Hotel” (Harry Warren, music and Al Dubin, lyrics), “Shanghai Lil” (by the same duo), and “By a Waterfall” (by Sammy Fain, music and Irving Kahal, lyrics). As if the numerous sexual innuendoes of the first song, performed supposedly on-stage in a hotel-sized set, were not enough, Bacon links up the three numbers by busing the girls from theater to theater, while we glimpse them openly changing costumes.

       Berkeley’s “Shanghai Lil” gives Cagney a terpsichorean turn with Ruby Keeler impersonating his Chinese prostitute girlfriend, much in the way that Gene Kelly courted Cyd Charisse in Singing in the Rain.

      But it is in “By a Waterfall,” with Dick Powell croons out his love to Keeler that really gets the full Berkeley treatment and presages his several later Ester Williams musicals. I could hardly describe the scene better that does John Wakeman’s World Film Directors, Volume One.

            The camera then pulls back to reveal the waterfall itself
            with Berkeley girls sliding down it like half-naked nymphs.
            The camera retreats still further to disclose an immense
            pool where the girls dive, swim, and float to form geometric
            patterns that fold and unfold like flowers, separate and
            rejoin in new shapes, and finally assemble themselves into
            a multitiered human fountain from which water cascades
            into the pool.















As critic Arthur Knight summarizes, through the dance’s numerous fragmented shots, “It is the camera that is doing the dancing, not the chorines!”

      Strangely, by so forcefully featuring these supposedly “on stage” elaborated numbers, Footlight Parade makes it clear why the footlights of Broadway theater are no longer appealing. Instead of “real” dancers, the camera is now both spectator and spectacle, an observer who in the hands of someone like Berkeley, itself becomes the center of attention. Kent can longer direct his Broadway works because the “vulgarians” are at the gate, the talkies representing a kind of second-hand theatrics that speak in the language of technology instead of true singing and dancing human voice and bodies. Human beings have been collectivized to become the troops of war—a war, in this case, against the live actors featured on the stage.

      It’s strange that this and other Berkeley movies so clearly made it apparent that motion pictures were not what they pretended to be. Yet can any one of us easily turn our gazes away from such cinematic feats?

Los Angeles, July 11, 2017

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