This article was written by Promise E. Pope, the director of social media for the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.
Footlight Parade was the third musical that our dear friends the Warner Brothers made in 1933. Naturally, it was the best because it featured the most talented actor at the studio, Jimmy Cagney. Why the brilliant moguls never thought to put him in more than three musicals in three decades I will never know. They seemed to have a three theme, didn’t they? Anyway, these musicals were a real departure from the usual pictures that had made the Warners famous in the previous pre-Code years. (Pre-Code is such a silly term, since the Code was already in place. Why don’t we call it pre-Breen?) The Warners were noted for making dark, harsh, bitterly realistic movies about common people like gangsters, taxi drivers, nurses, and gamblers.
In 1933, they suddenly seemed to realize that all that realism was depressing people. That’s hardly what folks needed in the Great Depression! In 1933, some genius at Warner Bros. decided it was time to lighten things up with three peppy musicals. It probably was Jack. I’ve always said that he was foresighted. He pioneered sound in 1927, and in 1933 I think he foresaw the optimism that was going to come in less than a year with good old Joe Breen’s grand enforcement of the Code.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite foresighted enough to realize that people were getting tired of dirty entertainment. Footlight Parade may have been filmed in black and white, but I see blue and red in every reel. Don’t ever think that I or any of the Brannans hate pre-Code, Shurlock, or any era of un-Codish films in general. We just love to see a movie that’s fully dedicated to the Code. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t love some pre-Code films. I love them because they are so wonderfully, marvelously old, because they were made during my favorite decade, because they feature some swell talent, and because they give me great hope. That’s something that Tiffany and I have in common. We both derive a great sense of hope from pre-Code films; the dirtier they are, the stronger the effect. Just nine months after Footlight Parade danced across the screen with all its merry devilry, the Code was completely enforced by Joseph I. Breen. That gives me real hope for the future.
In the mean time, PEPS is hosting a blogathon to celebrate the birthday of Joseph Breen, our favorite person from Old Hollywood. Well, maybe he isn’t your favorite person, but I just know that all the grand articles in this event are going to endear him to you! Yesterday was his 129th birthday. Happy Birthday, Uncle Joe! (Lest there be any confusion, I must explain that Joseph Breen is no relation of mine. I just like to think of him as my uncle.) To celebrate his birthday and support my best friends, the Brannans, I am contributing to the Breenathon by breening my favorite pre-Code film, Footlight Parade. (I haven’t mentioned that picture in this article yet, have I?) Now, let us dispose with this tomfoolery and proceed to the breening. (Before we completely dispose of it, doesn’t tomfoolery sound like the name of some adorable Irish hoodlum? I can just picture Warner Bros. credits saying “James Cagney as Tom Foolery.”)
The basic plot of Footlight Parade is not too far gone. The two main problems are Chester Kent’s love life and Mrs. Gould’s proteges. Let’s start with Chester. Firstly, when the story begins, Chester is married. Now, if Chester wants to be married, that is perfectly fine. However, it is only fine if he stays with his wife or is reconciled with her in the end. Unfortunately, Mrs. Kent is a mean-spirited gold-digger who demands a divorce when Chester loses his job. She’s the sort of role who would have been played by Jean Harlow in 1931. He agrees to the divorce then merrily proceeds to have romances with two other women. Since curtailing his later romantic activities would dampen the plot, his wife must be eliminated. Since this is Warner Bros., I considered death for her by a speeding truck or machine gun fire, but then I decided that that would be too harsh; she needn’t be killed. Instead, she could be changed to Chester’s fiancee. Imagine this: after Chester has heard the dismal news that talkies are killing musicals, he could go to his fiancee’s house, where she could say her heartless lines about him giving her the finest things; instead of a divorce, she would give him his ring back to break the engagement. Later, she comes back into the picture and says that she has not gotten a divorce; if she does not get a cash settlement, she will make a scandal because of his engagement to another girl. Instead, she could threaten to start a breach of promise suit, including the evidence of some letters he wrote to her. (After all, breach of promise suits were dreadfully popular in the 1930s, at least in movies.) This really is just as effective in the plot, and Chester is rendered completely eligible for Nan, the girl he marries in the end.
Aside from Nan, Chester’s other love interest is Vivian Rich. She is a “friend” of his secretary, Nan. Vivian pretends to have a lot of class and refinement, but she really is just a cheap, loose gold-digger. Of course, there is nothing in the Code which says that gold-digging cannot be depicted. The only problem is the generally suggestive flavor about her relationship with Chester. Only a few slight changes need to be made to the night when they first meet in Nan’s apartment and the next day. The alteration of a few lines, expressions, and movements would make the whole relationship seem more acceptable. Vivian doesn’t need to look sweet and blameless; we know that she is a gold-digger even if Chester doesn’t. The important thing is to preserve Chester’s image. As it stands now, the situation with Vivian makes him look like a real cad. If played properly, he will simply look like an unfortunate, foolish youth who has a great talent for becoming infatuated with girls who are after money. It’s funny, but filmmakers really needed Uncle Joe Breen to teach them not to drag their heroes through the mud before mounting them on white chargers and sending them into the sunset. Somehow, a finale just isn’t as romantic when the knight on the white horse is covered with mud. Mr. Breen didn’t need much Code soap to clean up characters like Chester Kent.
Mrs. Gould is the other problem. She is married to one of Chester’s business partners, Sy Gould. She is introduced to the plot when she connives Chester into hiring her protege, Scott, as a singer. Obviously, the young man is accepting a dishonorable relationship with a married woman to advance his career. This makes him little more than a singing gigolo! I think of Mrs. Gould as his “sugar mama,” which is the female version of a sugar daddy. After Scott has lost interest in Mrs. Gould in favor of a young woman, she finds a new protege, Barrington, who is even younger than Scott. Seeing her with Barrington is positively absurd, since he looks young enough to be her son. Her husband obviously knows about her skulduggery with these young men; apparently, he doesn’t care. To make the situation acceptable, it must be clear that there is nothing romantic between Mrs. Gould and these fellows. She is simply an untalented, possessive, overly aggressive singing teacher. She believes that she is a very gifted teacher and talent-discoverer. Thus, she is always trying to get her “brilliant” students into Chester’s prologues. Later, Scott becomes interested in a young secretary, Bea, who doesn’t like him because of his relationship with Mrs. Gould. She should simply not like the way he lets his teacher get jobs for him. When Scott begins to manage his own career, Mrs. Gould is hurt, since she thinks that her brilliant pupil no longer needs her. Thus, she begins to promote Barrington instead.
Charlie Bowers is a problematic but barely necessary character. He is Mrs. Gould’s goofy, somewhat effeminate brother. His job is to warn Chester about potential censorship problems throughout the nation. He is obviously a mocking spoof of Dr. James Wingate, the head of the Studio Relations Committee at the time. Just like Charlie Bowers, the two successive heads of the SRC told studios which censor boards disliked certain elements. Bowers is depicted as an idiotic bluenose who tries to force morals on others but is quite lecherous himself. I think that’s a pretty petty, immature way to depict a man who was just trying to help those Warner Brothers and all the other studios, but what else can you expect of Jack Warner? You can bet that, under Uncle Joe’s watch, he wouldn’t even have tried to make such a stupid caricature of any moral guardian, especially Mr. Breen himself. It wasn’t just because he knew Joe wouldn’t tolerate that; he had too much respect to mock him because Joe commanded respect. If Charlie were changed to just a goofy idea man, he could remain. He should constantly pester Chester (that’s a clever little rhyme, isn’t it?) with his ridiculous ideas for prologues, avoiding unemployment because of his relation to Mrs. Gould. However, he must have no effeminate qualities, and the situation with him and Vivian should be toned down. You see, Chester and Nan walk in on them doing who knows what. He is obviously quite drunk. Instead, they could just be kissing a little. The disgusting situation is made goofy by Charlie’s subsequent mumbled line, “I was just showing Miss Rich what you can’t do in Kalamazoo.”
The other troublesome side character is Mr. Apolinaris. He is the owner of the theatres for which Chester is trying to secure a contract. His primary dialogue involves complaints about his stomach troubles. This comes under Sections III and XII of the Code, Vulgarity and Repellent Subjects. Maybe some scriptwriter at Warner Brothers thought it was funny for a man to be constantly discussing his indigestion, but Joe Breen, who suffered from stomach complaints himself, poor lamb, knew it was and is not funny. I’m sure anyone who has suffered from a similar ailment would agree. All the discussion of his stomach problems should be removed. He could be given a different ailment, such as back pain or arthritis. However, that’s Lloyd Bacon’s problem, not mine. (Mr. Bacon was the director, by the way.)
The script is filled with pre-Code shenanigans. There are plenty of implications, double meanings, and downright suggestive lines. There are also a multitude of eye-brow wigglings, once – twice – and thrice – overs, and other strictly pre-Code actions and movements. It would take too long to mention them all. Let’s just say that the whole synopsis wouldn’t have fallen apart if one removed lines like the one Nan says to Vivian: “As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job!” I’ll save us all a lot of time by summarizing that all risque lines and actions should be removed or replaced with acceptable ones.
Now, let’s say a brief word about costumes. Brief is an appropriate word when we are talking about pre-Code dance costumes. Well, I’ll get to the dance costumes when I discuss the dance numbers. Every time the chorus girls are seen, care should be taken to ensure that all the girls are properly dressed. Jack Warner lost no opportunity to show chorus girls in skimpy, tight, and generally revealing wardrobe, but Mr. Breen made him lift his mind out of the gutter. The only other costuming problems are dressing scenes. When Chester drops by Nan’s apartment unexpectedly one evening, she disappears into the bedroom to replace her boudoir clothes with a dress. Unfortunately, Mr. Bacon did not have the same ideas about modesty. He thought it would be a good idea for the audience to watch Nan struggle to put on her stockings. In this scene, the camera should stay in the living room with Chester and Vivian; Nan’s voice should just be heard. Also, there is a scene when all the chorus girls are about to go to sleep in the dormitory which has been created for them in the theatre. Naturally, there are many girls in virtually transparent nightgowns and others who are still undressing. All the girls should be wearing properly covering sleepwear. Finally, there are a few shots of a bus which is transporting the chorus girls from one theatre to another between the three final prologues. The girls are in the process of changing their costumes, and many are in their barest undergarments. All the girls should be wearing properly covering robes or at least full slips. Better yet, don’t show the girls changing their clothes on the bus at all!
Now, we come to the last category, the dance numbers. Before we discuss the three grand prologues which form the movie’s finale, let’s take a brief look at “Sitting on a Backyard Fence.” The lyrics are fine, and so is the choreography, despite what Charlie Bowers says about the movements being pretty vulgar. The only problem is when a boy dressed like a mouse thumbs his nose at a mousetrap. (It may seem silly to some that nose-thumbing was forbidden under the Code, but it obviously was considered quite vulgar by some. When I watched Speedy, Harold Lloyd’s last silent film from 1928, I realized that it must have been very vulgar then, since it was used as a running joke throughout the whole movie. It wouldn’t have been used so often if it wasn’t vulgar!) All the costumes are acceptable except the leading man’s. I know that it seems strange to say that there is something indecent about a fellow’s costume, but this one is definitely strange. The young man who sings the song with Bea is dressed like a cat, but he is wearing a leotard! His funny-looking legs are completely bare. Not only is the costume indecent, it is downright ridiculous! (As a matter of fact, it is far more ridiculous than it is indecent.) This uncredited, elsewhere-unseen young man’s presence in this number is also strange, since, earlier, Chester told Scott that he would be in the cat number. Apparently, Dick Powell didn’t want to show his legs. They just cast that nobody because he was the only one who would wear the costume. He must have been Sam Warner, Jr. (I’m just joking; his name was really Billy Taft, but he does look rather like the Warner Brothers.) He should wear the catsuit with long pants which is briefly seen on the other men in the number.
The first of the three big prologues is the “Honeymoon Hotel.” This number was a cute little invention on the part of the Warner Brothers which was specifically created to make every possible joke about honeymoons. I could spend this whole paragraph discussing the changes to be made, but it would be pointless. Why should we redecorate a house that is built on weak timbers? The whole number is about the wedding night and the intimate part of marriage, which has no business being paraded across the screen. It is mocking, flippant, and sometimes downright embarrassing! On the other hand, if I, as the breener, demanded that the whole number be ended with the bride and bridegroom getting into twin beds, I would make the Code, the PCA, and myself look utterly ridiculous; also, any studio that agreed to such a ridiculous revision would be the laughing stock of Hollywood! The Code demanded cleanliness, but not at the cost of respectability. The number must be changed. It would be no great loss. It features no dancing, and the only person who really sings is Dick Powell. The rest of the number is just walking around and performing witty, risque lyrics in Sprechstimme. Many premises could be used, but Tiffany gave me one that she, Rebekah, and Mr. Brannan formulated. Using the same melody, the number could be changed to “The Penny Promenade.” The idea of this number is that this pair of young sweethearts goes to the Penny Promenade, a fairytale street where every piece of merchandise, form of diversion, or service offered costs no more than a penny. It is a Depression era fantasy which would have been a dream come true for every boy and girl in 1933. How is it that all these things are sold for only one cent? Well, the theory is that love makes everything cost only a penny, a fanciful idea which is based on the very popular Depression concept that you don’t need money when you’re in love. In the actual number, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler could be standing together in the beginning just as they are in the current number. Instead of seeing the advertisement for the Honeymoon Hotel, he could pull out an ad for the Penny Promenade. Then, the ad could turn into the real place the same ridiculous way it does in the current number. Then, they would walk down the street, seeing all the things you can get for a penny. There would be an assortment of characters advertising their wares and service, and Dick and Ruby would observe with glee. The only other customers would be three children, a funny little boy with a miniature date on each arm. Anyone who has seen Footlight Parade should remember the funny little munchkin with glasses, who also appeared in the other two Warner Bros. musicals from 1933. He would be the little boy in this number; he could be wearing the same costume as in the current number, or it might be funny if he were wearing a full dress suit and an opera hat! Then, a shower comes along and begins dropping pennies all over the stage. I’m not going to say that they should interlude into “Pennies from Heaven,” since that wasn’t written until 1936. What a pity! After the penny shower, girls in penny costumes begin to dance across the stage. I picture the costumes as huge pennies with girls going through them. Several girls could do cartwheels across the stage and make it look like they are pennies rolling alone. The little munchkin should be seen with his girls again. After seeing the beautiful, mature penny girls, the little boy deserts his dates to chase one of the penny girls. If this was in color, all the girls would be redheads. Color would be very effective in this number; it could transform from black and white when they go to the Penny Promenade. That would give the whole number a sort of dreamland, over the rainbow feeling. Of course, that’s Jack Warner’s business. If he decides that they should add color, that has nothing to do with breening. Here are some lyrics which Tiffany and Rebekah wrote to give you the idea of the sort of lyrics which could have been used in this new number:
(Dick) How am I to pay what I have to pay
When my wallet is so bare?
I’m not a Wall Street millionaire nor Astor’s heir.
So I’m going to pay just what I can pay
With my budget for today.
I’ve but a cent or two or three,
But that’s enough for me!
You don’t need an awful lot of money
To enjoy your sweetheart’s serenade,
‘Cause every single day is bright and sunny
On the Penny Promenade.
There they don’t demand that you be wealthy;
Only penny prices will be paid.
All you need to be is young and healthy
On the Penny Promenade.
It may seem a strange biz, but the secret of
The Penny Promenade is that currency is love.
If your heart is full of sweet romance, dear.
You can come and join the happy trade.
Come with me; we needn’t take a chance, dear,
On the Penny Promenade.
(Here the number would transform to the Promenade. The next lines would be sung by the various vendors, who could be played by the actors who were in the Honeymoon Hotel number.)
We can cook you up a fancy dinner.
Mem’ries of our dishes never fade.
On each bank night everyone’s a winner
On the Penny Promenade.
Come and play a game or shoot a target.
You’ll have lots of fun in the arcade.
Dollar is excluded from the argot
On the Penny Promenade.
Come hear the sweet music played without our walls.
Any art form you pick is within these halls.
Our hotel’s just like the Waldorf Towers;
You’ll be awfully glad when you have stayed.
All our rooms have private baths and showers
On the Penny Promenade.
You can buy your girl a diamond necklace
Or a bracelet made of shiny jade.
Buying jewelry simply isn’t reckless
On the Penny Promenade.
These slippers are dainty as a feather;
These shoes come in leather and in suede.
Be prepared for any kind of weather
On the Penny Promenade.
You can buy a new suit or a fancy gown.
Silks dyed shades of grapefruit will impress the town.
(The girls simply couldn’t resist making a Cagney grapefruit joke in that line.)
(The three children are seen for the first time. One girl says the first line, the other says the second, and the boy says the last two.)
Let’s all have a fancy ice cream soda.
No, I want a glass of lemonade!
We’ll go far above our sugar quota
On the Penny Promenade.
Only money made from gleaming copper
Will be taken when we have our trade.
With a penny you can be a shopper
On the Penny Promenade.
You may be concerned that all your money
Will be spent, but do not be afraid.
It’s not true that every day is sunny
On the Penny Promenade.
Every day at seven on this merry street,
Pennies fall from heaven and land at your feet.
Stand right in the street and flip your hats, folks.
Here’s our version of financial aid.
This is far from being a PR hoax
On the Penny Promenade.
(Then the pennies will come. More lyrics should be in the song, but you get the idea. Let’s let those schmucks with Underwoods do something for themselves.)
Now for “By a Waterfall.” There is no problem until the swimming dream sequence begins. When Ruby Keeler’s costume transforms for the first time, only her bare legs are shown; those crooks are trying to make the audience thing that Ruby is completely undressed. There will be none of that. Also, her bathing suit should not be skin colored. The chorus girls wear two different costumes during this number, and they are both absolutely shocking in their bareness. New costumes should be designed. This number is nothing but a series of water ballet routines and swimming formations. As the multiple numbers which Busby Berkeley choreographed for Esther Williams prove, these could be done within the Code’s limits. Mr. Berkeley just hadn’t discovered the great possibilities of delicacy yet. To make a long story short, care should be taken throughout the number to ensure that there are no improper formations, no suggestive movements, no indecent shots, and no excessive focuses on the women’s legs. The lyrics are fine. The only other thing is the shot of the fake birds in the nest at the very end. Aside from the fact that the birds look ridiculously fake, I think that there is some joke here about having babies that should probably be cut out.
Now, we come to “Shanghai Lil,” the greatest number and the greatest problem. First I want to tell you that I adore this number. I think it is so wonderful, but it is also infuriating. There is so much talent and cleverness in it, but there is also so much dirt. It obviously is the best number in the whole movie. It has the most developed melody, it has interesting lyrics, it has one of Jimmy’s only singing solos, and it has some magnificent dancing. Plus, it is the only prologue in which Jimmy actually performs. He looks adorable in his sailor suit, and he also looks grand in the full dress suit at the beginning. I think it is by far Ruby Keeler’s best number, too. She looks awfully cute in yellow face (meaning no offense, of course), and the Chinese accent really does something for her voice. Well, that’s enough about what I like. Let’s clean it up. First, there are multiple women who wear indecent costumes. These should all be changed. Honestly, when I think of some of the women who are sitting at the bar, I sometimes want to scream with horror. I can hardly believe that even the Warner Bros. could stoop to such blatant nakedness in 1933! Now I’m getting ahead of myself. I think the girl giving Jimmy’s character a flower is an implication that she is a loose woman. That should be cut. Many of the women sitting at the bar are obviously women of ill repute. The lyrics should be changed in such a way as to be clear that these girls are, say, dancers at the most popular club in Shanghai. If some people still want to think other things about them, we can’t help that. It is very important that it be clear that Lil is a nice girl. Rebekah Brannan’s excellent debating on this subject has thoroughly convinced me that she is a nice girl in the original number. If you can’t take our word for it, leave a comment on this, and Rebekah will send you a list of her proofs. Just to be sure, though, it should be a little clearer that Lil is the best dancer in Shanghai. The sequence that shows about a dozen people sitting at the bar is probably less than a minute long, but it features a problem a second. Almost every woman’s chest is disgustingly revealed, there are many implications that the women are women of ill repute, and there are references to men offering Lil houses in exchange for… well, you can imagine what. In this sequence, there is an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Jew. Naturally, the Jewish moguls would decide to poke fun at their own fellow countryman. He sings, “Says she vun’t (won’t) be mine for all of Palestine. Oy!” I think it’s absolutely hilarious that an Irishman had to teach Jews not to make fun of their own race! Well, Jack Warner was anything but a good Judaist. He and his comrades disgraced the Jewish race and attracted great criticism from their fellow Semitic brethren. Mr. Breen helped them improve their image. Then, Jimmy walks through an opium den which is filled with besotted, nearly naked women. This half-minute sequence had no bearing on the plot; it just was included because those rascals wanted to do anything which they possibly could to annoy moral people. This should be cut out. I don’t know about the man on the table who says that Lil is “anybody’s gal.” The important thing is that Jimmy punches him. If this was removed, you could think of some other reason for him to start the fight. Then, Lil appears. There is no problem there. In the actual dance, Bill (Jimmy) plucks a flower off Lil’s top and tosses it aside while dancing. I detect an implication there which I don’t like one bit. In the actual dancing, Jimmy, of course, is marvelous as always, but I think he moves his hips just a tiny bit too much. The last thing is that there is an “Asian” girl standing in the street who is wearing a bikini. I don’t know why she is wearing a bikini, but she is, and her navel and chest are showing. Her costume must be changed. Other than that, it’s perfect!
Well, I think I’ve basically breened this movie as much as possible without going into breening every single scene line by line. Tiffany does that in her articles, but I honestly don’t have the energy or the ability for it. I tend to miss some things and invent others. I hope you enjoyed reading my article. Be sure to read all the other marvelous articles in this blogathon, especially those by the Brannans, since Mr. Brannan, Mrs. Brannan, and Rebekah are contributing their first articles to the website for it. I wanted to publish this article on dear Uncle Joe’s birthday, but I couldn’t manage it. Here’s a belated birthday wish for our favorite Hollywood star! Happy Birthday, Joe! Oh, if only our lifetimes could have crossed. Alas, the Brannan girls and I are forced to admire him from afar. Please watch Footlight Parade very soon and assume a different perspective of it. I dare you! Don’t think, “Oh, I’m so glad that this is full of pre-Code shenanigans.” Think, “Would this movie really have been inferior if it had been sealed by Mr. Breen?” Not Breen, mind you. Mr. Breen, if you please. The least we can do is give him a little respect, since he is old enough to be the great-grandfather of most of us!
Don’t leave the website without following PEPS! Bringing back the Code is our civilization’s only hope for the future! By the way, if you would like to send any poison pen letters to me, you can comment on this article or visit my Facebook and Twitter pages. I may not be winning many friends, but I am helping to keep Uncle Joe’s memory green! Or should I say Breen? Perhaps clean? Oh, that’s enough of this nonsense! Just be sure to follow PEPS and sign the petition!
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