Footlight Parade

Today, I'm reviewing Footlight Parade (1933). The pre-code musical stars Joan Blondell (left), James Cagney, and Ruby Keeler.

This article is part of The Busby Berkeley Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. This is also part of a year-long series of articles celebrating the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. studio.

Warner Bros. publicity department ballyhooed Footlight Parade (1933) as having "the most magnificent spectacles ever conceived" and the backstage musical certainly lives up to that billing. Legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley crams each musical number with eye-popping set pieces that include an alley cat number, a tribute to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and a show-stopping human waterfall.

Footlight Parade tells the story of Chester Kent (James Cagney), a colorful Broadway showman who finds himself out of job because of the popularity of sound movies. However, the ever-inventive Chester has an idea that he believes will put him back on top: Staging live-action numbers called musical prologues before the start of each film. Chester gets the backing of a powerful producer, Si Gould (Twitter sensation Guy Kibbee), but various complications arise including Mrs. Gould's meddling and Chester's complicated love life.

Footlight Parade was the third of several Berkeley-helmed musicals that Warner's produced in the early 1930s. All of these films combined mildly risque comedy and a backstage plot with elaborate production numbers that featured Berkeley's signature geometric choreography. Studio chief Jack Warner often lost patience with Berkeley's spendthrift ways, but he agreed to make Footlight Parade in part to please Cagney, who badly wanted a change of pace from the gangster roles that made him a star. 

Warner added Cagney's frequent co-star Joan Blondell and top musical couple Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as box-office insurance. The rest of the cast was filled with Warner's deep roster of character actors, the standouts of which are the always wonderful Kibbee, Frank McHugh as an exasperated director ("it can't be done, I tell ya, it can't be done," is his oft-repeated line), and Hugh Herbert as a lecherous censor ("I was just showing her what they won't allow in Kalamazoo," he says after being caught in an illicit embrace).

Despite the great acting, Footlight Parade is dominated by the four elaborate Berkeley-choreographed numbers that serve as the film's centerpiece. 

Sittin' on a Backyard Fence

Almost 50 years before the musical Cats debuted, Berkeley dressed Keeler and a bevy of chorines in feline costumes for "Sittin' on a Backyard Fence." This relatively simple (by Berkeley's standards, anyway) routine manages to be charming, surreal, and bizarre all at the same time, which is borne out by the "what am I looking at" expression on McHugh's face (click here for a clip ).

Honeymoon Hotel

Newlyweds Keeler and Powell check into the Honeymoon Hotel for this innuendo-laden number that features the wink-wink nudge-nudge lyrics that were so popular in thirties musical comedies (the catchy tune is also a real earworm; I've had it stuck in my head for days). "Honeymoon Hotel" is also a great showcase for Berkeley's superb camera work. He is a master at creating the impression that he is filming a stage show while giving moviegoers images that they could not have experienced in a theater setting. The dissolve that opens the scene, which shows a newspaper ad turning into a hotel lobby, is a good example of this (clip above).

By a Waterfall

Footlight Parade's undeniable showstopper is the By a Waterfall aquacade. The penny-pinching Jack Warner nearly collapsed when he saw Berkeley's design for a custom-made 80-by-40 foot pool -- "It's going to take the Bank of America to keep you going," Warner moaned upon seeing Berkeley's design -- but Berkeley certainly made spectacular use of the elaborate set. He filled every last inch of the screen with a virtual army of showgirls (among them was Dorothy Lamour making her film debut) who form intricate geometric designs that culminate in a jaw-dropping human waterfall (photo above and here's a clip).

Shanghai Lil

Shanghai Lil is Footlight Parade's big finale. It starts out in a Far East opium den where cocky sailor Cagney is looking for lost love Keeler (gif above) before taking an unexpected turn into flag-waving patriotism with a salute to newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt and the National Recovery Act. The eagle design created by the dancers was the symbol of the National Recovery Act, a Roosevelt-sponsored government program that was designed to get Americans back to work during the Great Depression.

Footlight Parade is available on DVD and video on demand.


  1. Every time I start watching a Busby Berkeley-choreographed number, I think, "As IF this would ever work on the stage!" But before I know it, I'm mesmerized by the designs and costumes and the precision. I can only imagine the Warner Bros having heart palpitations about the cost!

    1. In this movie and Berkeley's Esther Williams movies, I always imagine the audience getting soaked by all that splashing around ;)

  2. Great article Amanda! I must admit, this is not my most favourite Berkeley's movie (but I do like it, don't get me wrong!) and what I like the most about it is James Cagney's presence. But we have to give credtis to some of these beautiful dance routines! ;)

    1. I think the best overall Berkeley movie is Gold Diggers of 1933, but I chose to write about this one because of my favorite James Cagney

  3. I just revisited this movie not too long ago and am obsessed. I love the Gold Diggers movies so much but I think the one thing that the do lack is the charm and edge that James Cagney so readily provides in this one. Thanks so much for participating in the Busby Berkeley Blogathon!

  4. Footlight Parade is a great, delicious, and under-appreciated, film. Remember that it was released before Prohibition was repealed. (It premiered on September 30, 1933 and the 21st Amendment was only adopted December 5th of that year). And the Busby Berkeley choreographic presentations offer, first, a disturbingly sterile Heaven (By a Waterfall) with Dick Powell as the only man surrounded by dozens of virginal beauties; second, Middle Earth, where newlyweds, Powell and Ruby Keeler go off to the Honeymoon Motel, tempered with the natural result of a baby (and responsibility); and third, Hell, where an AWOL drunken US Navy sailor (Cagney), who is besotted with, and searching for, a Chinese woman, Shanghai Lil (Keeler) in an integrated bar, where all classes of society, and all races, are found having fun, guzzling alcohol, and discussing the merits and demerits of Shanghai Lil. Amazingly, the ladies seen in the first two numbers, are found in the back room of the bar, flat on their backs, totally drugged out in an opium den.

    If that is not enough, a "wait wait" moment occurs when Cagney and Keeler finally meet and begin to dance together, and Cagney rips off a flower from Keeler's tunic. I can't help but thinking that Jimmy Cagney just deflowered Ruby Keeler in front of, well, everybody.

    At the end of this skit, that is the play within a play, Cagney's character promises Shanghai Lil, (and the audience) that they will both sail off from China and be together, which is a welcome antidote to the stereotypical theatrical productions ("Madame Butterfly", "Sayonara", "The Barbaian and the Geisha", and "The Sand Pebbles, to name a few) which require a romance between an American and an Asian woman to culminate in death and disaster. While we might think the barriers between Cagney's character and Keeler's Shanghai Lil are insurmountable, we know that Cagney will make his promise, however improbable, to come true.

    Finally, the electricity between Cagney and Keeler is so great, it makes Dick Powell's and Keeler's scenes together seem flat. While I can wonder why they were not paired together in other films, I can guess why they were not. Autres temps, autres moeurs.

  5. Dear Amanda,

    Hello! I'm looking forward to your article about Jeanette and Nelson's top five musical moments! I just wanted to send you a little reminder note about the banners. Since you're writing about both of the Singing Sweethearts, please use the either the first or second banner, both of which feature a picture of Jeanette and Nelson together.

    Thank you!


    Rebekah Brannan


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