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Footlight Parade (1933)

Ninety years ago, audiences flocked to stay at the “Honeymoon Hotel” before meeting “Shanghai Lil” “By a Waterfall” in the third of Warner Bros.’ great Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. Earlier in 1933, 42nd Street had revived the film musical, thanks largely to Berkeley’s imaginative dance routines and the teaming of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Gold Diggers of 1933 had cemented the backstage musical formula, mixing risqué comedy, romance, and lavish on-stage numbers. But Footlight Parade is the one many fans consider the definitive Warner Bros. musical.

The numbers are some of Berkeley’s best, including the aquatic ballet he created for “By a Waterfall.” But the film also has a strong script about a musical producer (James Cagney) facing competition from talking pictures by staging elaborate prologues for movie theaters. He and Joan Blondell, as his secretary and love interest, carry the plot, while Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler handle the song and dance, most of it coming at the film’s finale, with a trio of production numbers that had audiences at the premiere standing and cheering. Best of all, Cagney goes back to his roots in musical theatre to take the lead in the “Shanghai Lil” number, the first time he got to dance on screen.

As a pre-Code film, Footlight Parade was cut heavily by local censors, with the suggestive “Honeymoon Hotel” number suffering the most. Warner’s cut it further to reissue the film once strict Production Code enforcement came in. It wasn’t until the picture was revived in 1970 that movie theater audiences got to see it in its complete form again.

d. Lloyd Bacon, 104 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics