Last night, I caught a Busby Berkeley movie I’ve never seen before: 1933’s Footlight Parade, with a charismatic, manically energized Jimmy Cagney as the producer of “prologues,” live stage acts paired with “talking” pictures, all for 50 cents a show. Joan Blondell does a great job as his witty, put-upon secretary, and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, sing and dance their little hearts out.
Fun though these stars are to watch, the movie isn’t really about them. Instead, it’s about the Busby Berkeley dance numbers piled up at the end: Honeymoon Hotel, a nudge-nudge, wink-wink number about a hotel that caters to honeymooners as well as those who didn’t quite manage to get married; By A Waterfall, which is the ne plus ultra of all Busby Berkeley numbers, as hundreds of women cavort in pools and fountains (you really have to see this one if you want to know what Busby Berkeley was all about); and Shanghai Lil, which has Cagney looking “high and low” for his Shanghai Lil (Keeler charmingly made up as a Chinese gal). In the last musical number, not only does Berkeley present an amazing melange of races and nationalities (all of which are shown as somewhat sleazy, hanging out as they do in Shanghai bars), Berkeley ends with a blatant tribute to President Roosevelt and his National Recovery Act, including a montage of the American eagle that was the NRA’s emblem (beginning at about 8:00).
Although the homage to Roosevelt and the New Deal is blatant, it’s formulaic. If you want to see what I think is one of Hollywood’s best political statements, watch the following clip of the Remember My Forgotten Man number, which Berkeley created for one of my absolute favorites, Gold Diggers of 1933. The number starts a bit slowly, but really picks up at 2:30: