Footlight Parade Reviews
Cagney is a delight to watch in his film, which has him in a role different from his usual gangster typecasting. He's marvelously light on his feet, both when he shows performers how it's done early in the movie, and then later when he 'fills in' for a guy who has had too much to drink to perform 'Shanghai Lil', which is set in a Chinese den of iniquity. The banter and comedy throughout the movie keeps it entertaining, with the exception of Hugh Herbert, who's in a whiny, annoying role. There's also lots of 1933 eye candy here, with dancer's legs, skimpy outfits, and bathing suits abounding, helped along by the movie being pre-Code. Related to that and as a small side note, I thought it was funny to see Claire Dodd, wide-eyed, reading a book called "Naughty Stories" with a vamp on the cover.
As for the other leads, Dick Powell is not my favorite but he's passable, and Ruby Keeler is a joy, playing a cute secretary who transforms into a performer. There are some cringe-inducing moments, including Keeler as an Asian woman during 'Shanghai Lil, singing some broken English lyrics which may make you think of the cliché 'me love you long time' (one of the actual lines: "I miss you very much, a long time, I think that you no love me still"). Earlier in the film, Cagney will brainstorm for themes in his musicals and hit upon one with "African slaves" (after other wacky ideas, e.g. "Frankenstein"), and later, after seeing a bunch of African-American kids playing in the water from a fire hydrant, he'll quip "That's what [we] need - a modern waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies." You have to forgive the film for those transgressions, which are relatively small for the time period.
Overall - very entertaining and an absolute blast in some places, with Cagney and Berkeley turning in outstanding work. Great film.
To reiterate, the music numbers were one of a kind. I only wish they were scattered throughout the picture, instead of lumped one-after-another at the end. Also when you have a truly remarkable number like "By a Waterfall" it should be the finale of your film, but they actually sandwich it in the middle of the three big performances. I understand why they did it story-wise, because they wanted the moment that James Cagney took the stage to be momentous and be the thing that turns the tide, but it didn't work for me as a final climax. Speaking of Cagney, I think he does good enough with what he's given. He might have an overly gruff personality for some of the more delicate moments he is given, but when he takes on his "partners" it is a moment that totally suits him. Joan Blondell is charming but under-utilized. I think most of the humorous moments were because of her character, and she did well with that. Honestly I didn't have any huge problems with the cast, the sets, or the cinematography. I just didn't care about the story. I was uninterested, and I genuinely think that offering those big brash musical numbers more frequently might have made the experience better.