“Footlight Parade”

When I was at university in London in the 1970s, I used to have to spend one Monday morning a week in Notting Hill. After my lecture, the day was my own. The local cinema, I think it’s The Coronet these days, showed two old black and white musicals for not very much money for old people, and me.

So I got to see Fred and Ginger on the big screen, and Busby Berkeley films.

Berkeley was a film director later, but for these films he handled the, er, choreography. Let’s say, the musical numbers.

The films inevitably seemed to star Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell. Others popped up: Ginger Rogers and Hugh Herbert were regulars.

“Footlight Parade” (1933) is not the best Berkeley film, or the best known (“42nd Street” is probably that) but it is interesting.

It stars James Cagney. Cagney loved doing song and dance films, and made one stupendous musical film (“Yankee Doodle Dandy”) that we will come back to later. The regulars are here.

The story is slight: Cagney produces musical introductions for cinema, live acts preceding a film. There’s some nonsense about rivals stealing his ideas, but the film finishes with three of these ‘prologues’ being shown.

One is the legendary By A Waterfall. Berkeley brings out all his skills, creating patterns like a kaleidoscope.

There’s water everywhere, and scantily clad girls.

It’s mad, of course, but looks stunning.

Before that comes Honeymoon Hotel, where Powell sings some slighly risque lyrics about everyone registering as ‘Smith’. And the girls get to take their clothes off.

The third song is Shanghai Lil. Cagney sings the tune and does his trademark dancing and Ruby Keeler plays the woman who steals men’s hearts.

It’s pre-code Hollywood, so there are some slightly naughty references, but nothing your mum would object to.

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