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Daily film recommendation: 'Footlight Parade'

The Human Waterfall in the "By a Waterfall" number
The Human Waterfall in the "By a Waterfall" number
Warner Brothers

Airing on TCM September 5 at 11 PM EST

Following the huge success of their iconic musical “42nd Street”, director Lloyd Bacon and choreographer Busby Berkeley topped it the next year with a bigger, better film: “Footlight Parade”. James Cagney welcomed the opportunity to break free of his popular gangster persona and return to his song-and-dance roots as the main character, Chester Kent, a director of musical prologues that are performed in movie theaters before the main feature. He is given the opportunity to get a contract with a producer, but he has to be able to put on three new prologues at three different theaters on the same night, with only three days to rehearse them. Chester keeps the entire cast and crew locked in his offices over the entire rough rehearsal period, paranoid that his rival will steal his ideas otherwise.

Cagney is at his best in this movie. He’s fast-talking and charismatic, just as he is in his gangster roles, but it’s wonderful seeing those attributes applied to a completely different kind of character. His frequent costar Joan Blondell plays Chester’s secretary Nan, and their chemistry and Blondell’s wit are top notch. Besides Blondell, “Footlight Parade” includes many of the same cast members as “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933”, another hit musical featuring Berkeley numbers. Dick Powell plays the show’s lead Scotty; Ruby Keeler plays secretary-turned-leading lady Bea Thorn; and Guy Kibbee plays producer Silas Gould.

Berkeley’s dance numbers are even more ambitious here than they were in “42nd Street”. Like those other similar musicals, the numbers are saved until the very end, when we see all three completed prologues performed back-to-back: “Honeymoon Hotel”, “Shanghai Lil” (in which Cagney gets to show off his mad dance skills), and “By a Water”. The latter is the quintessential Berkeley number; its human waterfall is an iconic image in film history, and is even showcased in the Great Movie Ride at Walt Disney World.

All of these factors, combined with the film’s fast pace and the risqué humor that can only be found in Pre-Code movies (like that priceless moment when Blondell tells Clair Dodd’s Vivian Rich “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”) make “Footlight Parade” not only the best Busby Berkeley musical—and he had a hand in a lot of great ones—but also one of the best musicals of all time.

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