Thursday, August 1, 2013
WHAT: The first two thirds of the movie are fine. A fast-paced backstage drama about the aspirations and Depression-era struggles of a dance company trying to make a name for itself as the top provider of live-on-stage "prologues" to accompany movie screenings at grand downtown movie palaces in New York and across the country. It's a story about the upheaval from silent films to "all-talking" and more importantly "all-singing, all-dancing" pictures, and its ripple effect on live entertainment, made in a moment when the topic was still in the daily papers, as many Warner Brothers pictures of all genres were. With James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler in key roles, there's a streetwise, hard edge to the acting performances lacking in certain other Busby Berkeley-associated features with plots that evaporate off the screen and are barely worth sitting through to get to the lavish musical numbers. (I'm looking at you, Gold Diggers of 1935!)
If you've never seen the last thirty-five minutes of Footlight Parade on the big screen, however, you've missed out on some of the most spectacular reels of cinema ever sent through a projector. Even the largest of televisions can't capture the unreal scale of Berkeley's final three, back-to-back-to-back musical numbers in this film, each one representing one of his three major varieties of productions as identified in David E. James's book on experimental filmmaking in Los Angeles, The Most Typical Avant-Garde. "Honeymoon Hotel" is not identified by James as such but seems to fit in his first category of "sophisticated versions of stage show set design and ensemble dancing, unfolding in theatrical space and continuous time", although in content this sex farce is as pre-code bizarre as just about anything dreamed up by the Fleischer Brothers.
"By A Waterfall" (pictured above) is among the most elaborate of Berkeley's numbers of James's second type, where "film-specific devices and effects are used to elaborate complex orchestrations of dancers into abstract patterns". These are commonly Berkeley's most celebrated productions; they include "Young and Healthy" from 42nd Street and "I Only Have Eyes For You" from Dames, for instance. In the case of Footlight Parade and "By A Waterfall", the transportation from the theatre stage into the realm of the impossible is marked by Dick Powell's slumber as a kind of dream state. The aquatic theme of this sequence makes it stand apart from all Berkeley's other achievements. The term "synchronized swimming" hadn't even been used yet at the time: it would make its first recorded appearance a year later according to Dawn Pawson Bean.
Finally, "Shanghai Lil" representing James's third category of Berkeley production: "quasi-narrative compositions, again dependent on film-specific procedures and essentially autonomous". He notes that these number differ from the other two categories in combining the "largely dystopian narrative" whose echoes are basically banished from the "entirely utopian interludes" of category 1 & 2. But "Shanghai Lil", like "Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 and "Remember My Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933 in James's words "contains a noir countermovement, a recognition of violence, class difference, and exploitation that interrupts the saccharine bliss". Indeed, with its themes of prostitution, militarism, colonialism and substance addiction (whether the explicit alcohol or the coded heroin), "Shanghai Lil" must be the most disturbing of the musical numbers Berkeley ever created, even before taking account the discomfort of seeing Ruby Keeler in yellowface makeup.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight & tomorrow at the Stanford Theatre at 5:35 & 9:10.
WHY: I've always thought that the Castro should have a Busby Berkeley retrospective annually, and that Footlight Parade should be included. It's been two and a half years since the Castro's last such retro (a mini-retro featuring four films in fact), so this Palo Alto booking has to be the next best substitute.
HOW: 35mm on a double-bill with Flying Down To Rio