Today my film class watched Footlight Parade (1933), the Depression-era musical starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and featuring elaborate musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. Berkeley’s choreography and use of the camera is something I have loved ever since I was a kid, falling in love with Dames (1934) and Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), which my mother bought on VHS.
When I think about it, musicals were my first real cinematic passion. Yes, I loved the Marx Brothers and other classic comedians, but in a different way. I think I saw Easter Parade, which we also owned on VHS, more times than any other film during my childhood. Having Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller and Peter Lawford together in one movie was absolute heaven to me. Similarly, I thought very highly of Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town and On the Avenue (I have been a fan of Dick Powell for most of my life). Plus there were all the other Fred Astaire movies I also saw on VHS: The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress, Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich, Holiday Inn, You Were Never Lovelier, Yolanda and the Thief, The Barkleys of Broadway, Three Little Words, Royal Wedding, The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings. We owned Finian’s Rainbow but for whatever reason I never watched it. I’d like to now, though.
My mother has sheet music from a lot of the great 20s and 30s musicals. I used to love to sing “The Words Are in My Heart” from Gold Diggers of 1935 and “By a Waterfall” from Footlight Parade. Finally seeing the film made me so unbelievably happy; it hurt a little to hear other students in the class remark afterwards that it was “so cheesy” and that the “Shanghai Lil” number was “so horrible it’s awesome.” When I watch musicals, I’m just so gosh darned happy, so it’s hard for me to fathom anyone thinking Jimmy Cagney and Ruby Keeler were awful. Obviously there are uncomfortable racist elements in that number and throughout the film, but you have to understand the political incorrectness that prevailed in Hollywood at that time. I don’t excuse it, but unlike the girl in class who said she couldn’t get past how racist “Shanghai Lil” was, I enjoy the film as a musical with terrific songs and dancing.
Hey, any movie that features a human waterfall gets my vote!