A solid backstage romantic comedy starring Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell ends with all singing, all dancing, all swimming Busby Berkeley numbers in typical hallucinogenic forget-the-Depression style.
Cagney is fantastic as the brash, workaholic Broadway director Chester Kent who’s put out of business by talkies until he cooks up a scheme to stage lavish musical prologues before the pictures. Blondell is his hardworking assistant who runs interference and loves the guy, though he’s too clueless to notice.
Jimmy Cagney is an incredible actor with a range that makes him as entertaining and believable as a Broadway hoofer barking out dance steps to the chorus as he is spitting bullets in a gangster picture. Unlike many early musicals that hang on an extremely tenuous plot, Footlight Parade has a fairly complex storyline that successfully juggles a number of subplots, most involving Kent’s love life.
And then, of course, there are the Busby Berkeley musical numbers. Variations on a theme of female body parts as building blocks in a geometric hodgepodge of images. The movie builds up to a big finish, three lavish, over-the-top production numbers including a couple of risqué pre-Hayes Code routines, one set in the “Honeymoon Hotel” and the other in an elaborate waterfall/swimming pool that features Ruby Keeler in an Esther Williams-style water ballet. The third number, set in a Chinese bar filled with soldiers on leave, hasn’t aged well and isn’t that interestingly choreographed, but it does star a singing and dancing Cagney.
While I appreciate Berkeley’s place in movie history, as well as the amazing amount of coordination, timing and sheer endurance that went in to creating these elaborate production numbers, about midway into each one, ’round about the time the song reprises for the sixth time, my mind goes numb and I start to get, dare I say it, a tad bit bored. It’s been quite some time since I last saw a Busby Berkeley picture. Watching this film, I was reminded why. (***1/2)