It was because he set the standard for big, audacious musical numbers. Regularly seen in his films were epic, extremely detailed dance spectacles that would find hundreds of dancers linking together to create kaleidoscopic shapes, the cameras hanging over them in astonishment. Sequences which continue to sensorily astound us in other song-and-dance pieces, like the enormous “The Continental” sequence from The Gay Divorcee (1934) or the "Broadway Melody" fantasia from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), owe plenty to Berkeley. If his visual ideas weren’t put to the screen, there’d be nothing to outdo.
Berkeley doubtlessly liked to show off, and yet so much of his work never feels excessive. There’s a distinct feeling that the cinematic great simply wanted to provide audiences with an unparalleled moviegoing experience, something to leave them dumbfounded in a mostly uneventful day to day existence.
When most movie buffs think of Berkeley, they likely aren’t thinking about the features he made after 1933. Because 1933, for all intents and purposes, was the best year of his career. In addition to making his directorial debut with social drama She Had to Say Yes, he also choreographed three of the finest musicals ever made: the sprightly Gold Diggers, the feathery 42nd Street, and the lopsided Footlight Parade.
Of the bunch, Gold Diggers is the cream of the crop: it’s as unfading a musical as it is a backstage comedy, made even better by the presence of Ginger Rogers in an early performance. 42nd Street is seen as the most cinematic, given its nomination for Best Picture and its overarching exhibition. Naturally, Footlight Parade is frequently forgotten, even though it stars James Cagney as a song-and-dance man rather than a gangster for once.
Since Berkeley’s other 1933 movies are so uniformly terrific, we’d like to think that Footlight Parade is merely an overlooked classic waiting to be recognized. But such isn’t the case. Like 42nd Street, it's forgettable aside from the trio of remarkable musical sequences at the film’s end. But unlike 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade is generally dated and sometimes inadequate. Aside from being casually racist, it is also frivolously performed (except by Cagney and Joan Blondell, who are lively) and written, the storyline and the sometimes zinging dialogue doing not a whole lot besides servicing the film’s grand finale.
If the finale weren’t so grand, this might be a problem. But Berkeley’s choreography is so awesome that all the dressed-up jib jab preceding the concluding musical numbers make all the earlier time-wasting worth it. For the movie’s bookending half-hour, all we have to do is sit in bewilderment as Berkeley dazzles us with three breathtakingly mounted spectacles.
First is “Honeymoon Hotel,” a sort of send-up to the magic of cinema as a whole. Next is “By a Waterfall,” half a marvel in set design, half a proponent of the beauty of the water ballet and Berkeley’s genius. Last is “Shanghai Lil,” a semi-dramatic musical imagining of the doomed romance between a sailor and a prostitute.
None have anything to do with the movie’s main storyline. But Footlight Parade is the rare musical in which the moments that make it a musical don’t have to be connected to the film’s events to flow. We’re so floored by what Berkeley has to offer that there’s no real reason to sit through the film’s first hour at all: what makes Footlight Parade so special is its spectacle. The rest is hackneyed, fast-paced backstage drama that entertains well enough but practically evaporates in comparison. Though that’s probably only because anything not musical-related was placed in the hands of Lloyd Bacon, who is, inarguably, no Berkeley.
Berkeley would never have a year better than his jaw-dropping 1933 (though 1943’s The Gang’s All Here and 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid both proved to be highlights later on), but when an artist leaves this prominent a stamp on filmmaking, longevity needn’t matter.
For peak Berkeley, I’d say move in the direction of Gold Diggers of 1933, which captures his essence all the while fleshing out a total delight of a movie to supplement his work. Footlight Parade still has more than just a handful of moments to make it quintessential ‘30s cinema. Just view it after Gold Diggers and 42nd Street. B+
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
he draw of a Busby Berkeley musical is never the story or even the acting talents involved. The real draw is always Berkeley. For most of the mid-1930s, the filmmaker, a choreographer first and a director second, practically defined the movie musical. Not because he was directly involved with a given movie’s soundtrack or because he was an auteur — he often didn’t even direct the features which made him famous.