Sunday, March 1, 2009

Movies: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933

Not all Busby Berkeley super-musicals are created equally; though they are all fantastic, some are more fantastic than others. I thought that 42nd Street was the epitome of the genre, since it had me singing in the subway station afterward, but that was before I saw Footlight Parade, which had me tapdancing in the subway station whilst singing, whilst seeing other moviegoers doing the same!

42nd Street is the sweet story of Bea (Ruby Keeler), a newbie thrown into the lead part at the 11th hour when the show’s star finds herself in bed with a sprained ankle. This is actually the climax of a lengthy set-up in which that star is torn between two lovers—the old vaudeville lover who taught her everything she knows about show business but who’s unhealthy for her career, and the wealthy, fat philistine who’s funding the entire production because of his lust. Bea, meanwhile, has met the mysterious man from Vaudeville and has taken a liking to him, though she’s also being courted by one of the men of the cast, a well-meaning “juvenile” as they were called, and a few other assorted fellows. The old star rages with jealousy at first, but in the end, turns the show over to the ingĂ©nue with pleasure—freeing herself to go back to vaudeville with her long-time lover. Bea and the juvenile are paired off with ease, and their romantic denouement is a mini-musical, the abridged version of the show, featuring three or four sing along numbers complete with taxi-top tap dancing, mock shootings, and girls, girls girls!

I know that sounds unstoppable, but what it you pair Ruby Keeler with James Cagney, tap dancing across a bar? Exactly. This show is even more about show business—Cagney is a man put out of the musical business by the success of the talking picture. Rather than quit (though his wife quits him), he starts a new business: staging song-and-dance prologues for the moving pictures, complete with Live! Dancing! Girls! In pussycat costumes! In love slaves of the Orient costumes! In mermaid costumes! Joan Blondell plays his secretary and gal Friday—in love with him though he doesn’t notice and instead takes up with her good-for-nothing “friend.” He has two business partners robbing him blind, but he doesn’t notice because he’s so devoted to his business. MAN can he dance! Watching him demonstrate the look he wants for the pussycat number, as compared to what the cigar-smoking rehearsal director had arranged (the man looks much more like a bookie than a rehearsal director). . . Cagney is a physical genius, in and out of character. Keeler flaps her feet around and is supposedly really something, but she’s as awkward as a baby chicken trying to fly, her scrawny legs flapping around and her scarecrow arms sticking out wildly. Cagney is liquid music, sound in a body, completely and naturally free. Unlike his troupe of dancing girls—someone is leaking his numbers to the competition, so for three days, while they prep for a big production, an audition of sorts for a contract with the biggest picture-house owner in the country, he shuts everyone in the studio on lockdown—that’s right, fifty dancing girls sleeping on cots in the rehearsal studio, in their pincurls and nighties, running for breakfast. You can’t beat a movie like this; it just doesn’t get better.

So too bad for Gold Diggers that I didn’t see it first—if I had, I’d probably have liked it better. Then again, it came out a year after Footlight Parade, so my disappointment was, for once, historically accurate. It’s a cute enough story—Ruby Keeler, an out of work showgirl who rooms with a few others like herself, is in love with the mysterious songwriter who lives across the way. He’s in love with her too, and everything is looking up when the girl’s old producer shows up to say he’s putting on a new show—right in the middle of the Depression! He hears the neighbor’s songs and decides to have him write the show; everyone’s terribly excited until they realize they don’t have any funding. But the mystery man shows up with $10,000, and won’t say where he got it. He also won’t perform onstage, opposite his girlfriend, even though he has a better voice than the juvenile they’ve cast in the production. . . until there’s a show business emergency and he has to go on. Once he does, we find out why he was so mysterious—he’s filthy rich, and his family doesn’t want him in show business. To thwart his controlling older brother, though, Ruby’s two roommates cook up a scheme to trick the stick-in-the-mud and his old lawyer into falling in love with them, with some mixed identities thrown in for good measure. Their plan works, and everyone finishes off happily in love, but what good is that without fifty dancing girls comprising a “human waterfall,” like they do in Footlight Parade? Exactly. Trash. Cagney has spoiled me so terribly!

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