Footlight Parade is a 1933 American Pre-Code musical film starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and featuring Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert and Ruth Donnelly. The movie was written by Manuel Seff and James Seymour from a story by Robert Lord and Peter Milne, and directed by Lloyd Bacon, with musical numbers created and directed by Busby Berkeley. The film’s songs were written by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics) and Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics), and include “By a Waterfall”, “Honeymoon Hotel”, and “Shanghai Lil”.
Kent (James Cagney) rallies his troops for their tall order: create three lavish prologues in three days
In 1992, Footlight Parade was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
James Cagney and Joan Blondell
Chester Kent (James Cagney) replaces his failing career as a director of Broadway musicals with a new one as the creator of musical numbers called “prologues”, short live stage productions presented in movie theaters before the main feature is shown. He faces pressure from his business partners to constantly create a large number of marketable prologues to service theaters throughout the country, but his job is made harder by a rival who is stealing his ideas, probably with assistance from someone working inside his company. Kent is so overwhelmed with work that he doesn’t realize that his secretary, Nan (Joan Blondell), has fallen in love with him, and is doing her best to protect him as well his interests.
Kent’s business partners announce that they have a big deal pending with the Apolinaris theater circuit, but getting the contract depends on Kent impressing Mr. Apolinaris (Paul Porcasi) with three spectacular prologues, presented on the same night, one after another at three different theatres. Kent locks himself and his staff in the offices to prevent espionage leaks while they choreograph and rehearse the three production numbers. Kent then stages “Honeymoon Hotel”, “By a Waterfall”, featuring the famous ‘Human Waterfall’, and “Shanghai Lil”, featuring Cagney and Ruby Keeler dancing together.
James Cagney as Chester Kent, creator of musical prologues
Joan Blondell as Nan Prescott, his secretary
Ruby Keeler as Bea Thorn, dancer turned secretary turned dancer
Dick Powell as Scott “Scotty” Blair, juvenile lead who is Mrs. Gould “protegé”
Frank McHugh as Francis, dance director
Ruth Donnelly as Harriet Bowers Gould, the producer’s nepotistic wife
Guy Kibbee as Silas “Si” Gould, producer
Hugh Herbert as Charlie Bowers, Mrs. Gould’s brother, the censor
Claire Dodd as Vivian Rich, Nan’s friend, a gold digger
Gordon Westcott as Harry Thompson, Kent’s assistant
Arthur Hohl as Al Frazer, the other producer
Renee Whitney as Cynthia Kent, Kent’s ex-wife
Paul Porcasi as George Apolinaris, owner of a chain of movie theaters
Philip Faversham as Joe Barrington, juvenile lead, another protege of Mrs. Gould
Herman Bing as Fralick, the music director
Billy Barty as Mouse and Little Boy
Hobart Cavanaugh as Title-Thinkerupper
Dorothy Lamour, Victoria Vinton, and Ann Sothern were among the many chorus girls in the film. It was Lamour’s film debut.
It is often written that John Garfield made his (uncredited) film debut in this film, but experts were divided if it was actually him in the very quick (5/6ths of a second) shot. According to the 2003 Turner Classic Movies documentary The John Garfield Story, it is not Garfield.
“Honeymoon Hotel” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
“Shanghai Lil” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
“By a Waterfall” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
“My Shadow” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
“Ah, the Moon Is Here” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
“Sitting on a Backyard Fence” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
The “By a Waterfall” production number featured 300 choreographed swimmers
Cagney, a former song-and-dance man, actively campaigned the executives at Warner Bros. for the lead in Footlight Parade, which became his first on-screen appearance as a dancer. Cagney had only fallen into his gangster persona when he and Edward Woods switched roles three days into the shooting of 1931’s The Public Enemy. That role catapulted Cagney into stardom and a series of gangster films, which throughout his career, Cagney found to be as much a straitjacket as a benefit.
Cagney’s character, Chester Kent, was modeled after Chester Hale, a well-known impresario at the time, and the offices he worked in were based on the Sunset Boulevard offices of the prologue production company “Fanchon and Marco” in Los Angeles.
Although early casting reports had Stanley Smith playing the juvenile lead eventually played by Dick Powell, the film became the third pairing of Powell and Ruby Keeler after 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933, the first two Warner Bros. Busby Berkeley musicals. Remarkably, considering the success of those two films, Berkeley was not the original choice to choreograph – Larry Ceballos was signed to direct the dance numbers, and sued Berkeley and the studio for $100,000 for breach of contract when he was not allowed to do so. Ceballos also claimed to have created a number later used in the Warner Bros. film Wonder Bar, which was credited to Berkeley.
Dorothy Tennant was originally tapped to play Mrs. Gould instead of Ruth Donnelly. Other actors considered for various roles included Eugene Pallette, George Dobbs and Patricia Ellis.
Footlight Parade was shot at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, and cost an estimated $703,000 to make (or approximately $13 million in 2012 dollars). It premiered on September 30, 1933, and was released generally on October 21.
The film made a profit of $819,080.
Bea (Ruby Keeler) was not an immediate fan of Scotty (Dick Powell)
The film was made during the Pre-Code era, and its humor is sometimes quite risqué, with multiple references to prostitution and suggestions of profanity largely unseen in studio films until the 1960s, when the Production Code collapsed. For example, Dick Powell’s character is being “kept” by Mrs. Gould until he falls in love with another girl. Joan Blondell tells her roommate, who tries to steal Cagney away from her, that as long as there are sidewalks, the roommate will have a job. In the Shanghai Lil number, it is clear that Lil and all the other girls are prostitutes working the waterfront bars. One character in the film, played by actor Hugh Herbert acts as the censor for Kent’s productions, constantly telling Kent certain parts of his production numbers have to be changed. His character is portrayed as buffoonish and comical, saying disagreeable lines to Kent such as “You must put brassieres on those dolls…” (referring to actual toy dolls) “…uh uh, you know Connecticut.” This character foreshadows the coming Production Code, which was in full force less than a year later.