December 28, 2012

Cagney Does Frankenstein

video

Late 1931, James Whale’s Frankenstein was an instant hit. Propelled by its photogenic Monster, the film’s popularity grew as it circulated across America and around the world. Very quickly, “Frankenstein” was name-checked in movies — typically, a line in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) went, “I don't know what he was, but he made Frankenstein look like a lily!”— and Karloff’s square-headed profile cameod in Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse cartoons.

One reference, significant but rarely if ever mentioned, punctuates a scene in Footlight Parade, a big budget Warner Bros musical of 1933. You can see the Frankenstein reference in the video clip embedded above. Here’s the set-up…

James Cagney plays an energetic musical comedy director who’s going out of business because of the new talking pictures. In the late Twenties, theaters had begun transitioning from live vaudeville to all-movie programs. By the early Thirties, with the advent of sound, short musical and comedy acts could be filmed and shown as cheap alternatives to increasingly expensive live entertainment. In Footlight Parade, Cagney’s character has a brainstorm: If he can put his shows — so-called “Prologues” — on tour, their cost would be shared across dozens, perhaps a hundred different theaters, making his live, “ready-made” Prologues affordable to exhibitors.

Soon, Cagney is in over his head managing several Prologues playing natiowide and having to come up with new themes every week to keep up with the demand. “I’m daffy coming up with new ideas,” he complains to his girl Friday, Joan Blondell. “We’ve done everything!” he says, pointing to a long list of touring “units” with themes including Soldier Girls, Bull Fighters, Ghosts, Voodoo, the Russian Revolution and a Cuban show. “A unit a week, where am I going to get any more ideas?

Blondell talks Cagney into closing down for the night and going home to rest. Cagney reluctantly agrees and, as he walks away, he can’t help coming up with a new idea…



Cagney starts for the door and jerks to a stop. “Say,” he asks. “What’s the name of that foreigner that built a monster he couldn’t stop?” . “Frankenstein” Blondell replies. “Shake hands with his Aunt Emma!” Cagney quips. Then comes the payoff: Cagney opens the door, stops, stands with his back to us, and turns. “Frankenstein…” he says. “Swell idea for a unit!

The scene might suggest that Cagney sees himself as Frankenstein, overwhelmed by his work, a monster he can’t stop. More obviously, the scene shows Cagney as preoccupied and always “on”, thinking up new themes even when he’s knocking off for the day. Best of all, Cagney takes it to the limit, specifically referencing The Monster’s introduction when Karloff first appears at the laboratory door, backing into the room and slowly turning on the doorstep for his big reveal. 

Footlight Parade — with 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 — was the last of a trio of Warners musicals released in 1933, all featuring incredibly elaborate musical numbers staged by the legendary Busby Berkeley. A late pre-code film, it abounds in racy dialog — with many great lines delivered by the fabulous Blondell — and risqué situations, notably the Honeymoon Hotel number. It even dares to lampoon censors, with comic Hugh Herbert appearing as a clownish inspector. At its core, Footlight Parade is just another “Show Must Go On’ musical, albeit one done on a dazzling scale. It’s also wildly  entertaining yet, for all its memorable music and All-Star cast, what had audiences really buzzing was leading man Cagney, best known for his violent, tough-guy gangster roles, who steps up and delivers a formidable song and dance number in the film’s all-out finale.

In another Frankenstein connection, one of the waterlogged chorus girls in the film’s mind-boggling By a Waterfall number was Cynthia Lindsay, a one time stunt double who went on to write TV sitcoms, notably episodes of My Three Sons in the Sixties. In 1975, Lindsay wrote Dear Boris, an affectionate biography of family friend Boris Karloff.


Here's a terrific, vintage trailer for Footlight Parade.


Related:
Cagney Does Frankenstein, Again!

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