The greater part of the film, in fact, nearly the whole of its duration before the final act, recounts the story of how Kent tries to put together his prologues, despite various troubles, and how Nan simultaneously helps and longs for him. This narrative is nicely related and moves along at such a brisk speed that it is never dull. I cannot say that there is anything in it that will surprise the viewer, but it is alive with enough energy and enough genuineness, as well as so many clever wisecracks and rejoinders, that it is still fun. What is more, the leads all give spirited performances that are joyous to watch.
With one exception (a fairly brief but amusing piece about alley cats), the film's musical numbers, which are presented as being the prologues Chester is staging, are located near its conclusion, which placement does, admittedly, reduce some of the tale's drama while not enlivening the narrative with the vivacity inherent in the sequences themselves. These do not, clearly, enhance the movie's pacing. Nonetheless, the three numbers that wrap Footlight Parade up are just delightful.
The first of these, "Honeymoon Hotel," is the least impressive, but it is still thoroughly enjoyable. Not surprisingly given such a title, it relates a brief story of a recently married couple visiting a hotel, where they encounter intrusive relatives and singing (and scantily clad) brides, are interrupted by a mischievous child (played by Billy Barty), and have a misunderstanding when the bride apparently sees her husband with another woman. The number is fun and pleasantly naughty.
"By a Waterfall" is even better. Over the course of the number, Berkeley dazzles the viewer with an army of women swimming in synchronized formations and, while in or out of the water, arranging their bodies into complex, kaleidoscopic patterns. The choreographer creates a marvellous, rich extravaganza animated by an appreciation both of the bodies of his performers and of the ornate, detailed configurations made with these. There is not a second of this that is not astonishing.
The last musical number, "Shanghai Lil," is just as good as is that preceding it. In it, Berkeley tells of how an American sailor, played by Cagney, searches for the woman he loves, the eponymous Shanghai Lil, through bars filled with jaded men and women and even through opium dens littered with the recumbent bodies of male and female addicts, until he finds her and the pair engage in a charming duet. The whole thing ends with a large and joyous dance sequence featuring a shipload of sailors. I should note that the number is impressive not only for its music and dancing, but also for its depictions of an interracial romance (though Lil is played by Ruby Keeler) and of drug and alcohol use. All of these elements give the routine a vibrancy that few of the more sanitized numbers from films of the period have.
While Footlight Parade is hardly a masterpiece, it includes some of the best musical routines that have ever been filmed and is, thanks to these, a truly memorable work.
Review by Keith Allen
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