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If you’re like a lot of other movie buffs, and you’re a little intimidated by old movies, especially a “pre-Code” movie—mostly because you’re not entirely sure what “pre-Code” means—you should get yourself to Footlight Parade as soon as possible. The 1933 musical comedy, which screens at AFI Silver this weekend, is a perfect crystallization of everything pre-Code cinema had to offer. It’s funny and sexy. It sports lightning-fast dialogue, with its actors reveling in the new possibilities of talking pictures. And its filmmaking is transcendent, especially the three Busby Berkeley-directed musical numbers that close the film and use light, shadow, sound, intelligence, and bodies in motion to show off the full capabilities of cinema.
Footlight Parade arrived in theaters just a year before the enforcement of the Production Code began. In the late 1920 and early 1930s, film began to reflect the attitudes of the Lost Generation, who responded to the traumas and disillusionment of World War I by drinking, dancing, and screwing. Violence and sex was creeping into cinema, and the Legion of Decency, a Catholic group with enormous sway over the viewing public, was threatening boycotts and censorship bills in state legislatures. The Code was a compromise, a form of studio self-censorship to appease crusading moralists and keep the industry running. It limited everything from sex and violence to depictions of childbirth and interracial marriage, severely hampering film’s ability to honestly portray gender, race, sexual identity, or anything else that disrupted the status quo.
Pre-Code films luxuriate in the possibilities of the medium, just before the vice was tightened. In Footlight Parade, James Cagney, fresh off his star-making turn in the crime drama Public Enemy, plays Chester Kent, the creator of “prologues,” brief stage shows that play before movies in those grand, old theaters. There’s a delightfully contrived dilemma; Kent has to come up with three great prologues in order to win a big contract with a theater chain owner, but a former employee keeps stealing his ideas. He’s also juggling an ex-wife, an assistant with a crush on him (the beautiful, wisecracking Joan Blondell), a bookworm office worker who wants to be a dancer (Ruby Keeler), and two business partners who are secretly siphoning away his profits.
The plot is a lot to keep track of, especially with Cagney’s rat-a-tat delivery, but it’s mostly just a vehicle for the film’s sensory pleasures. For the women-interested, there is a seemingly endless parade of chorus girls in various states of scandalous costumes—in one clever twist, Kent schemes to keep his prologues a secret by keeping the girls locked up in the rehearsal studio, which allows director Lloyd Bacon to film them in their nightwear. The wisecracks zing, Cagney charms (and sings and dances, something he had not gotten to do since his vaudeville days), and the film gains euphoric momentum with a let’s-put-on-a-show energy culminating in an explosion of showmanship and pure cinema.
Nothing quite can prepare you for the ending, so I won’t try. But it’s fair to say that Berkeley, the great choreographer who directed the musical sequences himself, has made his masterpiece in Footlight Parade, where the prologues Kent and his team have been working on come to glorious life on the stage and, through the power of cinema, in your imagination. Berkeley toils in the liminal space of the screen, creating fully immersive musical numbers that would be impossible to create on an actual stage but are so charming and beautiful that you can hardly be bothered to nitpick. “By a Waterfall,” a water number that surely inspired Esther Williams movies such as Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet, is an absolute marvel of choreography, cinematography, and physical achievement, with dozens of dancers swimming in perfect rhythm, smiling through the pain for our perverse pleasure.
The film has certain blind spots endemic to its era; its almost total lack of actors of color did the Code’s work before it even began, and the final musical number, “Shanghai Lil,” while undeniably impressive in its conception and execution, relies on awkward stereotypes and a shocking case of “yellowface,” in which Keeler plays a Chinese sex worker. Troubling to modern eyes, these oversights are a symptom of their era (an era that would last for a disturbingly long time), which makes the film even more interesting. Footlight Parade is a perfect representation of a transitory moment in Hollywood, when silent films were giving way to talkies, freedom was giving way to censorship, and the liberation of the form still withheld opportunities for many.
That’s why Footlight Parade matters, but it’s hardly an academic exercise. It’s deliriously fun. The music is toe-tapping, the people are beautiful, and the filmmaking sublime. It’s a parade of pleasures, just before pleasure was outlawed. See it now before it’s too late.
Footlight Parade screens at AFI Silver on Friday, May 26, Saturday, May 27, and Monday, May 29. silver.afi.com. $10–$13.