Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The World According to Busby Berkeley: “Garp” and “Footlight Parade”

I don’t ever walk out on movies in theatres, even when they fail to fulfill my expectations. But there are times when, sitting on my couch at home, I realize it’s just not worth my time to continue watching something I find dreary. Such was the case with The World According to Garp, George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s bestselling saga about eccentric people and random acts of violence. Never having read the novel, I can’t comment on the film’s fidelity to its source. But such actors as Robin Williams in the title role, Glenn Close (in her screen debut) as his gutsy mother, and John Lithgow as a star-football-player-turned-transsexual are always fun to watch—until they aren’t. When the opening scene introduced a charming cameo by stage greats Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as Close’s parents, horrified by her flouting of social convention to the point of fainting dead away, I was ready to buy into the whole megillah. But approaching the two-hour mark, I’d had enough.

 Which is why I turned to something reliably amiable: the 1933 Warner Bros. pre-code classic, Footlight Parade. Like other Warner Bros. musicals of this era—including 42nd Street and Golddiggers of 1933Footlight Parade features clunky tap-dancing by Ruby Keeler and gags galore by other members of the WB stock company. Story? There’s always a bit of romance and a bit of back-stage drama. But what’s important is that these films, reveling in the opportunity presented by the coming of sound to the motion picture industry, lean heavily on exotic musical numbers choreographed by the P.T. Barnum of Hollywood musicals, the man with the unlikely moniker of Busby Berkeley. This is especially true of Footlight Parade, in which the three most audacious numbers are presented, one after another, to form the film’s climax.

 As always, there isn’t much plot. James Cagney, calling upon his naturally authoritative presence as well as his past career as a song-and-dance man, is a producer/director of Broadway musicals. Because they’re being replaced in the public’s mind with motion-picture talkies, his business is on the rocks . . . until he realizes he can produce the live-action “prologues” then popular on the motion picture circuit, as lead-ins to the feature films. His wife has left him; his smart, sassy secretary (Joan Blondell) quietly pines for his love. Meanwhile an upstart young tenor (Dick Powell) gets his big break, and discovers he’ll be playing opposite another office staffer (Ruby Keeler), who downplays the fact that she’s an ace musical performer. But what’s really urgent is Cagney proving his mettle by staging three elaborate prologues for a wealthy would-be backer on one New York evening.

 The three production numbers presented back-to-back-to-back are pure Busby Berkeley. The first, “Honeymoon Hotel,” is a naughty little fantasy about two just-marrieds capering through a hotel full of knowing lovers, all of whom have registered as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The last, in which Cagney shows off his terpsichorean talents as a sailor looking for his Shanghai Lil, features Keeler impersonating a cute China doll in ways that today would seem appalling. The most classic Berkeley of the bunch is “By a Waterfall,” showcasing scores of beautiful blondes in skimpy attire. They cascade joyfully into a pool, and then reassemble for a kaleidoscopic water ballet. What we see on screen—the crane shots, the underwater filming—would of course be impossible in an actual theatre. This movie may be a salute to live entertainment, but only motion pictures could bring these dazzling moments to life.




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