Saturdays and summer vacations are often the best times to have movie marathons. I rarely have time to sit down and have a back-to-back-to-back marathon of films, so I'll usually spread the movies out across several days. For example, in anticipation of Marvel's The Avengers, I watched each of the five films - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger - in the days leading up to the premiere. Last year, I prepared myself for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides by watching each of the previous three films every Friday before the fourth film hit theatres. These marathons usually help to get me in a summer blockbuster mood, in which I'll be inundated with splashy effects and loud noises more often than anyone should be.
There's something exciting about just letting yourself get absorbed into a series of movies. You become a part of that world, and you enjoy moments and situations that generally don't occur in real life. People sing and dance. Fight scenes are elaborate and choreographed. Explosions are thrilling and only marginally life-threatening. To celebrate summer movie marathons, Saturday Matinee will devote the whole summer to a very special movie marathon. Each week, we'll take a look at one or two films represented in Disney Hollywood Studios' The Great Movie Ride, along with an accompanying Disney short that fits thematically for viewing. This week's film and short allow us to dabble in both The Great Movie Ride and the Summer Olympics, as both highlight swimming in memorable scenes: 1933's Footlight Parade from Warner Bros. and 1935's "Water Babies" from Disney.
Initially slated for this week, but dropped due to lack of connection to the Summer Olympics (as well as lack of interest from yours truly), is James Cagney's other Great Movie Ride contribution: 1931's The Public Enemy. Early talkies are hard to get into, and while I do have my favorites (1931's Cimarron and 1932's Rain, for example), The Public Enemy isn't one of them. Readers are more than welcome to watch the film, as it's Gangster Cagney at his earliest and best. Personally, I enjoy Cagney in his non-Gangster roles, such as in the aforementioned Footlight Parade, along with A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Strawberry Blonde.
Talking pictures! Talking pictures! It's taken the country by storm. This could spell trouble for Chester Kent (James Cagney), who directs Broadway musicals for a living. He considers talking pictures a fad, but soon realizes that he can franchise his live-action musical prologues in tandem with the new talking pictures. He brings his idea to Si Gould and Al Frazer, his producers, who immediately jump on the idea and buy up more theatres to help strengthen their newfound franchise. Chester works laboriously to ensure the musical prologues work, often butting heads with his dance director, Francis (Frank McHugh), who doesn't think he can provide the choreography Chester wants. At Chester's side is the fiercely loyal Nan (Joan Blondell), who does whatever she can to help Chester, a man she's openly in love with. If only he'd actually notice!
In the B-side of things, young dancer Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler) becomes the new lead, opposite Scotty Blair (Dick Powell). Scotty, a prot�g� (read: rent boy) for Mrs. Gould, does his best to romance young Bea. She knows of his unspoken relationship with Mrs. Gould, and often rebuffs his advances. However, Mrs. Gould soon gets a new prot�g�, leaving Scotty free to pursue Bea without any complications. The film's third act goes by at breakneck speed, giving you three showstopping numbers in a row: "By a Waterfall," "Honeymoon Hotel," and "Shanghai Lil."
Somewhere in a little pond, isolated from the rest of the world, live the water babies. These are no ordinary babies. They are the sprites of the sea. They emerge from lily pad cocoons, tiny cherubs eager to enjoy the day. The fresh-faced water babies begin each day with a morning swim, sometimes needing a gentle push in the water. The water babies frolic and play, dunking each other, riding a waterfall. Soon, they hear the trumpeting of horns, and the turtles on parade, carrying water babies using flowers as instruments. They follow this caravan with swans and dragonflies as propulsion and transportation.
Now on the land, the water babies engage in swinging and jumping, this time with frogs and other amphibians. A spider's web becomes a trampoline, with snails and centipedes as a watchful audience for a toad race. A water baby dressed as a toreador emerges, hoping to test his wits against a bullfrog. He grabs a red flower and waves it for the bullfrog to chase. He's masterful with the petal, easily leading the bullfrog. Soon, it is time for the water babies to rest. They take to their duck boats and their leaf canoes, birds fly them back to the lily pads. Each water baby finds his pad, and as a ladybug rings bluebells for sunset, the water babies lay down for another rest.
"Oh, gee, Mr. Kent, that'd be swell!"
The Great Movie Ride's queue line features a screening room of sorts before guests are loaded into the attraction. The room showcases eight trailers, representing eight films in the attraction. The trailers themselves are actually shortened versions of the real trailers in order to get the entire reel to last only 10 minutes. If they played all eight trailers at their regular length, the reel would be 23 minutes long. You can even notice the modern announcer's voice for Footlight Parade's trailer - which was specially created for the queue line, as I assume they couldn't find the original trailer in time. Whenever Footlight Parade's faux-trailer appeared in the Great Movie Ride queue, I always waited in anticipation for the brief exchange between James Cagney and Ruby Keeler. Keeler's declaration (seen above) was always fun to hear, especially by the cast members in the room. There were always certain lines from the trailer reel that they'd mock and imitate, with Keeler's line being one, and Jeffrey Hunter's "Ethan, no, you don't!" (The Searchers) being the other. I guess they had to have some way to keep themselves amused!
Personally, I love the trailer queue, as it gives new generations of moviegoers exposure to classic films. Were it not for The Great Movie Ride, I might have never seen or heard of Footlight Parade. Ever since my first viewing, it's become one of my favorites of the Pre-Code era. The film is rife with snappy dialogue and intended innuendo. Mrs. Gould's relationship with Scotty, for example, could be interpreted any which way you want, but it most certainly still steers towards something naughty. This makes Scotty's replacement by Barrington all the more humorous, since she's just moving from one boytoy to the next without pre-text anymore. As a Pre-Code film, Footlight Parade is able to get away with such incidents. Pre-Code may seem tame by today's standards, but is still fun to watch with that 20/20 hindsight. The movie goes out of its way to suggest naughtiness without being blatantly obvious, especially in "Honeymoon Hotel." It's more fun to watch when you think about all the couples there as illicit lovers rather than young newlyweds.
A small portion of "Shanghai Lil"'s tracking shot
It's also intriguing to see incidents in Footlight Parade that pre-date several better-known productions - from Warner Bros. and elsewhere. The ramifications of talking pictures to the industry was further explored in 1950's Sunset Boulevard (Paramount) and 1952's Singin' in the Rain (MGM), although both focused more on the Hollywood side rather than the Broadway side. In addition, Singin' in the Rain always treated the transition from silent to sound with its tongue firmly implanted in the cheek. For Footlight Parade, the threat of talking pictures was much more serious, even with such a lighthearted story at play. This brought it closer to Sunset Boulevard, at least in unspoken undertones. You never worried about Singin' in the Rain's Don Lockwood's career fading to obscurity, whereas it was a very real possibility for Chester Kent in Footlight Parade, and actually happens to Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond.
Of the three showcase numbers, "Shanghai Lil" has always been my favorite. Not just for Cagney's masterful hoofing with Ruby Keeler, but because it features great cinematography. Just watch the long tracking shot in the beginning. It features a variety of minor characters, showing the intermixing of various nationalities and cultures in these foreign ports, making Shanghai all the more alluring to a hometown audience. I've always been a fan of the long tracking shot, which is uncommon to see these days, save for some directors today who always like to include them - namely Martin Scorsese and Joe Wright. It requires a lot of preparation and coordination for everyone on and off the set, and when done correctly, is a beautiful thing to watch.
On a story level, "Shanghai Lil" gives us a look at relationships between U.S. soldiers and Asian women before Broadway's South Pacific and Miss Saigon ever tackled the subject. I'm sure it - like Miss Saigon - had its roots in Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which also looks at the American/Asian relationship. One of the lyrics in "Shanghai Lil" even refers to her as "you little devil, you're just a butterfly." "Shanghai Lil" still remains my favorite, as it blends hopefulness and optimistic patriotism together to create a fun musical number that unites Cagney & Keeler as Bill & Lil. South Pacific and Miss Saigon, while better in characterization (Joe/Liat and Chris/Kim, respectively), are rather depressing stories by their end. That's not to say that depressing is bad, especially as both musicals are among Broadway's best. On a personal level, I like to leave a musical feeling happy.
The predecessors to Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Nathan Adrian
"Water Babies" definitely leaves viewers happy. Perhaps too happy. Nothing of consequence happens in this short, as it functions more as a "day in the life" narrative, not unlike the 1863 Charles Kingsley story it's adapted from. The entire short is an overindulgence of cute, which may turn some viewers away. After all, dentists warn you to not have too many sweets, which this short delivers in spades. But that's where some of the charm lies. We see a civilization which does not need conflict. They are never angry, never hateful. These water babies are pure innocence, something that is sometimes lost in the modern world. By no means is this the greatest Silly Symphonies, but it does rank high - at least for me.
My only complaint for this short may have to be the music. While it complements the animation nicely, it is played at a key or two higher than I'd like. This is likely done to give it a music box quality. However, that doesn't mean it sounds pretty. It's mostly strings, and when strings reach such high notes, they aren't always easy on the ears. Adding a piccolo or two, maybe even a Irish tin whistle, could have helped better convey the innocence the cartoon is going for.
"Water Babies" would later be followed up with "Merbabies," a 1938 Silly Symphony that turns the water sprites into baby merpeople. It follows the same structure as "Water Babies," but was actually farmed out to Harman & Ising's animation studio. Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising had previously worked for Disney on the Alice shorts and Oswald, and so their own style took its cue from what they developed at Disney. "Merbabies" thus becomes a unique entry in the Disney shorts: it's Disney by name and distribution, but non-Disney in production, yet its look is easily noticeable as the Disney style.
Footlight Parade is only available on DVD, and only in box sets. The film was among five featured in 2006's "The Busby Berkeley Collection," released by Warner Bros. and featuring 1933's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, 1934's Dames, and 1935's Gold Diggers of 1935. In 2010, Warner combined that box set with the four-film Volume Two (released in 2008, containing Gold Diggers of 1937, Hollywood Hotel, Varsity Show, and Gold Diggers in Paris) in "The Busby Berkeley 9-Film Collection." A third collection, "TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Busby Berkeley Musicals" included Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, Dames, and Gold Diggers of 1937.
Though not covered here, The Public Enemy was released to DVD in 2005, also by Warner Bros., as both an individual release and in "Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection, Volume One," which also included 1931's Little Caesar, 1936's The Petrified Forest, 1938's Angels with Dirty Faces, 1939's The Roaring Twenties, and 1949's White Heat. Warner would later re-release the film in 2010 in "TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era," which included The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, The Roaring Twenties, and 1931's Smart Money.
"Water Babies" is only available in 2001's "Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies." Frustratingly, the short isn't actually listed on its disc menu. To access it, you'll have to highlight the wooden sword held by the Robber Kitten on Page 2 of the "Fables and Fairy Tales" category, where it'll be preceded by a TV excerpt with Walt Disney. Or, you can hit "Play All" and wait for it to show up. Its sister short, "Merbabies," can be found in 2006's "Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies," as well as the DVD for The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea.