Old Ass Musicals: Footlight Parade (1933)

By  · Published on September 26th, 2010

Every Sunday in September, Film School Rejects will present a musical that was made before you were born and tell you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Musicals tells the story of a theater man played by James Cagney who takes the immense talent in his troupe and translates that into an impossibly large spectacle that movie-goers will enjoy before a film plays. If nothing else, it tells of a better time when singers and dancers thrilled movie crowds instead of Fill in the Blank quiz games sponsored by Coca Cola where “George Clooney” is always the answer.

The charm of this movie is undeniable. That’s thanks mostly in part to a clever story and the unmistakable sweetness of James Cagney. He may be stereotyped by history as a cutthroat mobster, but (as the column has proven before) he’s a versatile actor who is more of a song and dance man than a scowling, scar-faced gangster. Here, it’s no different.

Cagney plays Chester Kent – a once-promising Broadway director who has been forced by popular demand to create musical live shows to play before films (that young upstart art form). Unfortunately, he’s overworked, beaten down by his investors, and there’s a spy within his midst taken his creativity and delivering it to enemies. Fortunately, his secretary assistant (the beautiful and talented Joan Blondell) is falling in love with him. Hopefully he’ll wake up to that fact before the movie’s over.

If the main focus of a musical (especially an older one) is to uplift, Footlight Parade works like gangbusters. It fills every moment with an energetic Cagney who is frustrated, but not in any severe or fatal harm, and lets him sing to Harry Warren and Sammy Fain numbers and dance to Busby Berkeley choreography. Most of the action takes place in his rehearsal/theater space where the air of creativity is always present, whether it’s in a group of performers discussing a possible number or Chester Kent struggling to come up with the next big idea.

The concerns pile on as the film goes along, and Kent is challenged with creating a whiz bang concept that will secure his position in the industry and maybe even remind movie goers that they should head for the Broadway box office from time to time. The solution ultimately becomes the most absurd, unrealistic, physics-defying finale that, ironically enough, depends on the magic of movies to deliver to its full scope.

There’s nothing deep about this movie beyond the character interactions and the usual complexity that comes with unrequited love and business partners that can’t be trusted. It’s a light, enjoyable film that probably plays best with a rainy day backdrop or as a substitute for work that needs to get done.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t a little raunchy for its time. When Footlight Parade was made, the world was still living in the Pre-Code Era and was largely self-policed for “obscenities.” Even so, this film features some great bawdy humor that admittedly seems about as sexy as a pile of knock knock jokes by today’s standards but nevertheless pushed a few boundaries back then. One of the absolute best comes in the form of Joan Blondell’s character telling her conniving roommate that she’ll have a job as long as their are streets. Granted, underhanded snipes like that are par for the course now, but hearing someone cleverly told they’re a whore is eternally applause worthy. Female members of the audience back in 1933 were probably pumping their fists like Arsenio Hall and yelling, “You go girl!”

While that last part is still not confirmed by historians, this film’s status as a piece of culturally significant art is; it was added to the National Film Registry back in the early 1990s.

Of course, Busby Berkeley is an iconic name associated with a Golden Era of Hollywood musicals. Footlight Parade is just one example in the tower of his success. The numbers are flashy, big, and full of life. It’s a cynical world we live in (what with everyone Arsenio-style fist-pumping all over the place), and it’s easy to mock something as innocent and sweet as Footlight Parade, but the movie deserves attention because it stands out against that pessimistic view and delivers a world where giant fountains can be erected in minutes inside movie theaters while women in elaborate costumes kick their heels high into the air. It might be easy for a modern audience to dismiss it, but when given the chance, the movie will effortless work its way into your heart, and you’ll find yourself smiling without even knowing it.

Discover more movies from before you were born and read more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.