Chester Kent produces musical comedies on the stage. With the beginning of the talkies era he changes to producing short musical prologues for movies. This is stressful to him, because he always needs new units and his rival is stealing his ideas. He can get an contract with a producer if he is able to stage in three days three new prologues. In spite of great problems, he does it.
Historically significant film….
“Footlight Parade” is fascinating on so many levels. There is no way the supposedly staged “theater prologues” could have been produced in any theater on earth, of course. Think of the huge pools and three-story tall fountains for “By A Waterfall,” for instance. (Berkeley directed John Garfield in “They Made Me a Criminal” six years later and had the Dead End Kids singing “By a Waterfall” as they took their showers.)
“Shanghai Lil” is the best production number in the picture. It’s a catalog of ’30s Warner Bros. sensibilities. Note the African guys mixed into the scene with white and Asian prostitutes. You would never see blacks integrated into a social scene in other films of the period unless they were porters on a train or maids in a big house. Here the black guys are sitting at the bar and singing with the others. I also get a thrill when the military dancers do a “card section” presentation of Roosevelt’s image. There’s also the NRA eagle–the logo of the controversial National Recovery Administration of the New Deal. FDR was the new president and hopes were so high that he’d pull the nation out of the Depression. You’d never see something so working class oriented coming out of MGM, of course. Warner Bros. wholeheartedly supported the uplift dictated by the F.D.R. administration.
Dear little Miss Ruby Keeler was never better than she is playing the Chinese hooker, “Lil.” She hardly even watches her feet as she dances, which was one of her signature flaws.
The Pre-Code stuff is fun. The “By a Waterfall” number is wonderful in that regard. The girls change into their bathing suits on the crowded bus speeding through Times Square with all its lights on. The spread-eagle girls swimming over the camera provide the kind of crotch shots that would not be seen for 35 years. In a few months the Production Code would eliminate such naughty pleasures.