If you don’t know who Busby Berkeley is, you probably do and just don’t know it. Everything that made ’30s and ’40s musicals what they were was pretty much generated by that man. Huge, sprawling musical numbers, containing geometric patterns of performers in massive-scale song-and-dance is signature Berkeley, and characterized the musicals that he was in charge of the song productions. 42nd Street was a Busby Berkeley musical, even though he didn’t actually direct it; same with this one, Footlight Parade, directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring James Cagney is what at the time was considered a type-breaking role.
Cagney had mostly been known for playing gangsters and cold-blooded killers, so to turn around and star in a musical as a producer of musical “prologues” preceding theatrical films was a bit of a strange career move. Little did the public know that Cagney got his start as a song-and-dance and vaudeville artist, so this was merely Cagney returning to his roots. I like Cagney; I think he’s a wonderful actor who gives his all in each of his performances, and there is no difference here – he commands the screen with deftness and ease. As for the film itself, you can barely keep up with it at times; it flies by at such a pace that the audience rarely gets the breather they need to digest what has happened and prepare for the next rush. Still, the film is well structured for the amount of material it has, even if it feels rushed. The film is also akin to 42nd Street in that its musical numbers are a part of the plot and structure themselves, so it never feels like the characters are spontaneously breaking out into song; they’re in rehearsal for musical numbers, so the numbers themselves are part of the action.
Having Berkeley frame the dance numbers was an obvious choice for Warner Bros. for the time, and his musical numbers are typically extravagant and luscious to the senses. They’re the cornerstone of the experience of this film, and are a real treat even in black and white. The rest of the film, however, feels a little too close to 42nd Street to be coincidental; I really shouldn’t have seen these two films so close together, but both were shown on TCM so the choice really wasn’t up to me. Regardless, I liked this one, even if the proximity to my viewing of 42nd Street made the whole thing feel very samey, but the film does a number of things right, from Cagney to the musical numbers to the well-structured plot. Give this a shot as long as you don’t hate musicals too much.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10