Monday, April 18, 2016

Footlight Parade

Are Ruby and Joanie supposed to be nude
in this poster? Sure looks like it!
Footlight Parade
seen @ Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ

A long time ago, when they used to be shown in venues opulent and lavish enough to be worthy of the name "palaces," movies used to be preceded by live stage shows called "prologues." As I understand it, they were the brainchildren of exhibitors, who put them on as a supplement to the movie, a kind of stage-setter, as it were. Imagine seeing Batman v. Superman at Radio City Music Hall, preceded by a wave of Rockettes parading around in capes and masks and flying around on wires, perhaps, singing an original paean to the American superhero, and you'll get some idea of what the experience was like.

Hollywood producers weren't crazy about prologues, and they did their best to get rid of them by the time sound came to the movies. Why? Money, of course: theaters and performers were getting the moolah that could've been going to the studios through film rentals.

Could prologues work today? I could see them being done in select theaters in New York and L.A., but only in some kind of profit-sharing partnership between the studios and the exhibitors - and certainly not for every movie at every showing. The Force Awakens is a good example of the kind of modern movie a prologue could go well with: a big, mainstream extravaganza aimed at the widest possible audience. Make it part of a Wednesday-night world premiere at places like Radio City or Grauman's TCL Chinese, broadcast it live on YouTube as an hour-long program, complete with backstage interviews before and after the prologue, promote the hell out of it on social media, of course, and you're good to go. I can't see it working any other way in 21st century-Hollywood - but that's okay. Not every idea from the past would work well today.

A prologue would not have felt out of place last Saturday night at the Loew's Jersey, where I saw the movie Footlight Parade, a love letter to the era of prologues, made while they were going into decline (replaced by short subjects like cartoons and newsreels). The Loew's usually precedes their film screenings with a live performance on their Wonder Morton pipe organ, but wouldn't you know it, their usual organist had a gig somewhere else that night. (He did, however, make it to the Loew's in time for the second show, All About Eve. I heard the organ playing as the crowd for that show entered the auditorium.) 

Jimmy Cagney is a developer of prologues who sees the writing on the wall, or perhaps the marquee, when sound comes to the movies. He develops a scheme to keep his business afloat, though it means working his people harder than ever. Are they up to the challenge? Busby Berkeley did the choreography for this one, and as in other films he worked on, like Gold Diggers of 1933, his breathtaking, kaleidoscopic musical numbers are supposed to take place on a simple, ordinary stage within the reality of the movie, although they would have to be arranged in four-dimensional space to even begin to work for a live audience. 

I always find it hilarious whenever I see a movie like this, because no attempt is made to explain it away (and thank Zod for that!); they just cut to the audience in the theater applauding the spectacle they've somehow witnessed the same way we, the movie audience, did. Now that I think about it, though, I think the version we see is perhaps meant to be some kind of "dream" version of the "actual" performance. It's as if the filmmakers said well, filming it exactly as it would appear on a live stage would be boring, so let's jazz it up and make it fit for a movie audience instead. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was the rationale.

FLP is a pre-code movie, and as such, there are moments that aren't exactly politically correct. Early in the film, Cagney gets an idea for a prologue called "Slaves of Africa" which would involve dancers in blackface in a jungle setting. Thankfully, we never get to see that, but the fact that he seriously considers that kinda made me squirm. Also, he gets inspired by seeing black kids playing in an open fire hydrant, saying something like (and I'm paraphrasing) "a waterfall on beautiful white bodies." Plus, Ruby Keeler in yellowface... I know stuff like this just reflects the era in which it was made, and I shouldn't take it so seriously - and the fact is, I like this picture a lot, despite moments like this - but it still gives me that nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling.

Fortunately, any casual racism in FLP is more than made up for by the joyous presence of Joan Blondell. She plays Cagney's secretary who crushes on him and keeps him on the straight and narrow throughout the story. She totally kicks ass in this film - literally, at one point! She has many of the best lines, and like in Night Nurse, we get to see her undress! In fact, we see lots of ladies dressing and undressing in buses during the climactic third act, when the prologue dancers have to hustle from one theater to another to do three prologues in a single night. (Sure, it's possible. Why not?)

Keeler and Dick Powell made for a cute beta couple, although the whole cliche of Keeler suddenly becoming sexy and desirable once she takes off her glasses was kinda lame. I was willing to buy it though, if it meant seeing her dance with Cagney. And oh yeah, I cannot get enough of seeing Cagney dance. Just can't. What's that you say about a new musical about Cagney...? Also, there was a brief reference in the film to Jersey City, which got a boisterous round of applause from the hometown crowd!

When I wrote about opening credits in movies last month, Le reminded me of credits in films during the pre-code era, some of which would introduce the cast with images of them from the movie. FLP had that, and they did it last in order, after the title card and below-the-line credits, and just before the start of the movie. I have to admit, it was nice. Given the theatrical nature of this movie in particular, it was almost like the cast was coming out on stage to take a curtain call before the movie began.

Ran into Aurora in-between shows. She was there with a friend to see Eve. I might've stayed for it too, but I've seen it at the Loew's before. Aurora was seeing it on the big screen for the fist time and she was mighty excited about it, as any fan of the film would be, I imagine. I'll have to write about that one sooner or later...

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