Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Busby Berkeley: Talking pictures? It's just a fad


Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Manuel Seff, James Seymour, Robert Lord, and Peter Milne

Spoiler alert: moderate

1933 had to have been exhausting for Busby Berkeley: besides directing a melodrama for Warners, She Had to Say Yes, he choreographed three musicals for them (and yet another for Samuel Goldwyn, Roman Scandals, good grief).  The first two Warners efforts had proven amazingly successful, 42nd Street hitting big and Gold Diggers of 1933 hitting even bigger, and it's easy to see why: 42nd Street is a winsome backstage dramedy with a great Berkeley ending; Gold Diggers of 1933 is a borderline masterpiece, dragged down just a little by a fun but occasionally-spotty script.  And so I had gotten it into my head that this pattern would continue, and the movies Berkeley worked on would pretty much all be like that from here onward, maybe not uniformly super-classics in the mold of Gold Diggers '33, but treats all the same.  This was na├»ve of me, of course (though it doesn't help that people talk about Footlight Parade like it is in the choreographer's top tier), and, given my preference for ritzy studio entertainment, whether in 1933 or 2020, I suppose I routinely overestimate the capabilities of the Golden Age of Hollywood to provide such entertainment, insofar as that was what the machine was built to make.  In any event, Footlight Parade was quite ritzy, as far as that goes, particularly for a scrappy Warner Bros. production: at $703,000, it cost almost $300,000 more than either of its immediate predecessors.  You can kind of see how this was possible, once you (finally) get to its musical numbers.  It's also possible a breach of contract lawsuit brought by the originally-hired choreographer, fired in favor of Warners' new hotness Berkeley, was debited to the production.  Either way, by no means did the studio's injection of raw money automatically put it in the same league.

Because Footlight Parade is kind of genuinely unlikeable: not unwatchable, but slightly irritating and vaguely "off" throughout, and arrayed with the occasional lump-in-your-throat feint into the uglier excesses of what was socially acceptable in 1933.  Meanwhile, it's also the first Berkeley musical that I've seen where, on average, I didn't especially like the Berkeley musical numbers, which (obviously) is the most damning thing about it.  Meanwhile, despite the studio learning the right lessons from 42nd Street for Gold Diggers '33, Footlight Parade regresses, again jamming its Berkeley into a three-part finale, meaning that it lives or dies the same way 42nd Street did.  The difference is that Footlight Parade's backstage dramedy isn't so appealing, less "amiably waiting for the really good stuff to happen" than "mild suffering in the hopes of getting a reward."  And then, as noted, the good stuff's not even that good!  Yet one-third of it is so incredibly good that you can't simply dismiss the film it belongs to—which is in itself annoying.

So Footlight Parade concerns the business of Chester Kent (James Cagney), and business is not booming: as a director of Broadway musicals, Chester's feeling the two-pronged pinch of the Great Depression and the new resurgence of film musicals, making Footlight Parade sufficiently meta to remain interesting for several minutes.  However, Chester starts to get an idea for a new business model upon witnessing the clumsy showgirl prologues that movie theaters have been using to kill time between screenings; and, soon, he has the brainstorm to industrialize them, centralizing their production while his potential competitors keep dicking around with artisanal craft.  And up until, like, twenty minutes into Footlight Parade, my ignorant impression was, "congratulations, you invented short films, which have been around for thirty years."  In fact, he's simply somehow managed to create a countrywide clearinghouse of short stageplays, all designed by his team at the newly-founded Chester Kent Prologues, which he's formed with his untrustworthy business partner, Silas Gould (Guy Kibbee).  And these were a very real phenomenon, after all.  Chester's company is presumably based in part on the similarly streamlined methods of F & M Inc., run by siblings Fanchon Simon and Marco Wolf.  They put on thousands of such shows up through the mid-1930s until short films finally did run them off, though I suspect Simon and Wolf's notable success was based more on branding and uniform quality than Footlight Parade's assertions of true economies of scale.

Naturally, this scenario provides ample opportunity for various story threads to unspool across the narrative section of the film, and so there's some embezzlement here, some corporate espionage there, and an interloping censor (Hugh Herbert) everywhere you'd prefer him not to be.  In the biggest single subplot, we get an "if you took off your glasses, you wouldn't be such an unfuckable bitch" romance between the now-traditional pairing of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, which is clearly not going to be as gently charming as either of its two antecedents, and the actors seem mostly lost in attempting to fashion these thornier characters out of their stock types.  At length, the story finds a focus, setting Chester upon a quest to secure the exclusive contract to do the prologues at the biggest theater chain in New York.  You can plainly see the requirements of Berkeley's choreography shaping the narrative here, given that this turn demands that Chester put on three prologues all in the same night in order to demonstrate his company's superiority.  Even so, the heart of the film, I suppose, lies within Chester's secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), harboring a secret love for her boss, now given new urgency as her acquaintance Vivian (Claire Dodd), formerly of Hollywood, CA, almost effortlessly seduces him, despite Nan's obvious indispensibility, and despite Nan's face bearing less insectoid (indeed, even recognizably human) eyebrows.  The 30s, eh?

This makes it sound like Footlight Parade has enough going on, but it surprises me to write all that out and see how much plot this film contains, while in the execution it somehow never manages much more than the paper-thin illusion of a story.  For all that Footlight Parade is a gratingly persistent barrage of whirling incident, by the thirty minute mark, director Lloyd Bacon has exhausted whatever was initially intriguing about this headlong plunge into the prologue business.  In contrast to his similar but much lower-key approach on 42nd Street, Footlight Parade becomes borderline-tiresome to actually watch, manic yet aimless, a collection of scenes typically centered around Cagney yelling at somebody.  In the wake of his starmaking gangster films, Cagney pushed hard for the lead in Footlight Parade, and got it because, before getting nearly typecast as a criminal, he'd been a song-and-dance man in vaudeville.  Now, having arrived as the hero of a romantic comedy, he plays Chester just about as hard-assed as the film could possibly allow, taking a Chester who's already pretty mean on the page and making him meaner still.

Which is maybe Footlight Parade's real, fundamental problem: it's mean all over the place, never light enough to lend its frivolous tangle of plots the airiness they need to thrive, with a script that keeps lurching between screwball-snappy and surly annoyance for every single character.  So if you take all that, and then put it at 1.5 speed, you've got Footlight Parade's narrative phase down, though it's worth mentioning that it's also absurdly racist.  By which I mean its racism is both salient yet often structurally pointless: e.g., in a bolt of inspiration, Chester pitches a prologue with the terrifying premise of white women in blackface finding themselves enslaved, but, you know, sexily.  The single most relieving thing about Footlight Parade is that when I said, out loud, "oh, please, please don't do that," the movie actually listened.  It decided do a yellowface bit instead.

Which brings us to the Berkeley, mostly crunched into the back third.  There's a brief glimpse about halfway through, during one of the more go-nowhere bits of plot Footlight Parade has, involving another of Chester's prologue ideas, this one based around feline movement.  And "brief" is to its benefit: featuring Keeler and Powell in cheap Halloween costumes for babies, imagine a high school production of Cats but with 1930s novelty music instead of pop opera.  I concede that "Sitting On a Backyard Fence" is probably supposed to be a joke, but even Berkeley's jokes typically wow you in some way.

For example, "Honeymoon Hotel," the first of Berkeley's three big setpieces.  The title's ironic, though the actual song seems to get confused about this itself.  For about half of it, it's very plainly about adultery, but at some point it loses track and resets, telling the story of two legitimate newlyweds, at least as far as Powell and Keeler's characters are concerned.  It's not too bad, but the song is weak, and we also get a sense of what choreographing four movies in one year might've been like.  That is, "Hotel" enthusiastically returns to the well of Gold Diggers '33's "Pettin' In the Park," repeating several of its ideas without anything like the same verve: besides Billy Barty once again running around pretending to be a perverted child, it creates a diorama of hotel rooms that is 1)a technically adept piece of special effects work and 2)almost the exact same image as the wet girls diorama from "Pettin' In the Park," except not as sexy or graphically bold.  Meanwhile, it leans on just enough narrative to not be narratively interesting, while permitting narrative to tie its visuals down to a mostly mundane space.

This is maybe truer still of the third and final number, "Shanghai Lil", which I see people praise.  There's stuff to praise about it: eventually, it finds its way into Berkeley's customary use of human bodies to form geometric shapes, but mostly it's a vehicle for the film to finally stop wasting Cagney's vaudevillian skills (sorry to spoil the big surprise that this movie's singing-and-dancing lead is—gasp—ultimately compelled to sing and dance in one of his own shows).  "Shanghai Lil," as you likely guessed, is the yellowface number.  It's admittedly much, much less offensive than it could be (or the alternative), mainly just Keeler in heavy eyeliner and singing broken English lyrics.  It's about Cagney's sailor looking for his lost love, the prostitute (or something) Lil, and it spends an inordinate amount of time just being about that, effectively a full-on narrative short film whose dialogue simply happens to rhyme.  It gets to some tapdancing on tables, and at great length spills out into a richly-built stage recreation of "Shanghai," whereupon the choreography, for obscure reasons, becomes an advertisement for Franklin Roosevelt and the National Recovery Act.  It's technically impressive, but, like "Honeymoon Hotel," there's just enough story here to lose the thread of.

So let's go back to "By a Waterfall," because "By a Waterfall" is top-tier Berkeley, presumably the biggest reason anybody ever liked Footlight Parade in the first place.  "By a Waterfall," while starting out with a romantic idyll in the woods shared by Keeler and Powell, goes into an aquamusical dream sequence almost immediately, inventing a whole musical subgenre in the process, and, underscored by its gentle musical accompaniment, it lives in the whimsical, montage-driven fantasy space you wish your Berkeley could always stay in.  It's stunningly beautiful, and even meditative, translating Berkeley techniques flawlessly and inventively to swimming pools and water slides and fountains.  The water tends to slow the pace down, but in some ways that's a good thing: "By a Waterfall" is paced so well that every single idea gets a chance to fully develop, and just the instant it could get too indulgent (though of course indulgence is the point!), it switches to another clever notion about how to use its basic elements of synchronized swimming, moveable setpieces and, of course, barely dressed hot ladies beaming at the camera.

Every idea here is a good one, too—I'm particularly taken with the choreography that turns the swimmers into a vision of cell mitosis—but the high points, as always, are the gratifyingly frequent (yet gratifyingly distinct) kaleidoscopic arrangements.  They're all great, but the best earns a place in the upper echelons anyway with the use of fluctuating light sources from above and below, turning the concentric circles of interlocking swimmers into a hypnotic monochrome miracle.

It's so good, and the rest of the movie not so bad, that one is tempted to give Footlight Parade a pass—but I'll resist that urge anyway.  I mean, sure, it's almost universally the case with Berkeley movies that the setpieces are the crucial part, but as much as it is a disappointment that I genuinely would've had a better time with the compilation disc than the actual film, in this case, the compilation disc still wouldn't have cut all the chaff.

Score: 5/10

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