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Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda

Sunday, June 15, 2008
6:30 p.m. Footlight Parade
Lloyd Bacon (U.S., 1933)

Introduced by Matthew Kennedy

Matthew Kennedy is the author of Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes, as well as Marie Dressler: A Biography and Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory.

It’s all over the news: silent pictures are finished, and that means curtains for the stage musical. Such is the setup for Footlight Parade, a backstage saga that is “fast-paced, knowing, and arguably the best of the Warner Bros. Depression musicals” (Matthew Kennedy). James Cagney stars as a peripatetic producer inspired by the crisis to create entertainment on an industrial scale. Blondell is his bright-eyed, lovelorn secretary, flashing glances of annoyance and sidelong affection, perhaps most entertaining when she’s insulting her rival for Cagney’s attentions: “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!” Spiced with pre-Code jabs at mass morals, the parade of verbal and physical fancy footwork culminates in a trio of wildly elaborate Busby Berkeley numbers—the naughty “Honeymoon Hotel”; “By a Waterfall,” with its hundred cascading chorines; and the weird chinoiserie-cum-military-drill “Shanghai Lil.” Footlight Parade found Blondell working with both current and future husbands: after divorcing cinematographer George Barnes, she would go on to marry costar Dick Powell in 1936.

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Manuel Seff, James Seymour. Photographed by George Barnes. Musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. With James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell. (104 mins, B&W, 35mm, From Library of Congress, permission Warner Bros.)