Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.
1 hr. 41 mins. Comedy, Drama, Musical, Romance 1933 7.5 stars
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Cast: James Cagney - Chester Kent
Joan Blondell - Nan Prescott
Ruby Keeler - Bea Thorn
Dick Powell - Scotty Blair
Frank McHugh - Francis
Guy Kibbee - Silas Gould
Ruth Donnelly - Mrs. Harriet Gould
Hugh Herbert - Bowers
Billy Barty - Mouse/Little Boy
Claire Dodd - Vivian Rich
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie
Performing "Sittin' on a Backyard Fence" Number in Cat Costumes
Synopsis Part I
The movie starts with the premise that ‘talkies’ are replacing silent films and other forms of stage entertainment. Chester Kent is a man who puts on stage performances which is one of these entertainment forms that is destined for obscurity. He begins to develop ideas for small acts that are called ‘prologues’ which are designed to put stage acting in front of an audience before a movie begins. Chester is an idea man who is focused constantly on new themes for his prologues, a very driven man, and a partner in a theater production company. This company has hundreds of actors and dancers employed and they begin to do a business nationwide. A competitor named Gladstone, however, appears to be stealing his ideas for prologue themes.
An up and coming singer joins the company, Scotty Blair, and he is promoted quickly to a high position because he has a good voice and because he is friendly with Harriet Gould, the wife of one of the owners, Silas Gould. Scotty’s voice and acting ability justify his employment and he is able to perform in their featured numbers.
Bea Thorn one of the secretaries has caught the eye of Scotty, but his advances are rebuffed at first. But as the movie progresses so does their romance.
Another budding romance is in the heart of Nan Prescott who is Chester’s secretary. She is interested in Chester, but he seems to be oblivious to her interest. An acquaintance of Nan comes to town, Vivian, who stays with Nan for a while, but is not very welcome. Vivian and Nan have a type of animosity from some previous association and Vivian tries to steal Chester away from Nan. In the end she is unsuccessful, but her presence causes a great deal of trouble for both Chester and Nan. As it turns out Chester is not free anyway. He had a wife who walked out on him in an earlier scene to get a divorce from him but never obtained it. Half way through the movie she returns – now that Chester has earned a lot of money. Though they can’t stand each other she wants some of Chester’s money to proceed with the divorce. This sets Nan to work wrangling money out of the owners, Gould and Zimmer. You see they had been holding out on Chester, telling him that they were putting all their profits back into the business as well as Chester’s profits. In fact they were keeping all the profits for themselves. Nan got wind of this and ran right to Silas Gould demanding that he pay Chester.
Chester and Nan
Synopsis Part II
Thompson, one of the crew, was the one who was running to Gladstone, the competitor, with every one of Chester’s ideas. When Thompson’s duplicity was discovered he was immediately fired. But Thompson was dating one of the chorus girls, Gracie, who continued to feed him information about all the ideas that Chester came up with. Chester does not know how his ideas are still getting to Gladstone. Knowing that there was still a leak in his organization Chester orders all the doors shut and locked for three days with near continuous rehearsals for all the singers and dancers.
Although he was very strict about locking everyone in when Chester learned that his partners had been holding out on him he quit, walked out the door into an uncertain future. While out on the street he saw kids playing around a fire hydrant and that gave him the sensational idea for a new prologue – a human waterfall. He rushed back to the studio and started rehearsal right away.
A rich man who owned a chain of theaters named Apolinaris was considering whether to hire Chester’s outfit or Gladstone to create prologues for all his theaters. He told Chester that if he could create and stage three prologues for him in three days and if he was impressed he’d award the contract to Chester.
The night finally came when Chester would show Apolinaris his prologues. It was impressing to see his troupe of hundreds performing and dashing to three theaters in rapid succession.
They performed their three prologues wonderfully. They performed “Honeymoon Hotel”, “By a Waterfall” and “Shanghai Lil”. Each performance was remarkable in its content and execution. The work paid off; Apolinaris was impressed and awarded the contract to Chester.
In fact due to a drunken lead actor on the final prologue Chester himself took that role at the last minute and the number, “Shanghai Lil” and did very well. This brought about a happy ending.
Analysis Part I
Like the last movie I reviewed, “Gold Diggers of 1933” the movie is a backstage musical and like “Gold Diggers of 1933” it can be neatly divided into two parts. One part is the plot itself and the other part is the series of three prologues which are performed at the end of this movie. Like the aforementioned movie the choreography is done by Busby Berkeley and he does even more daring and spectacular routines. This is a high energy movie with plenty of fast and loud talking by James Cagney. That style evokes stress in the audience and in such a method one can feel the tension that the character feels as he is under tremendous pressure to produce several prologues in a short period of time, all with the competition stealing his ideas and in many cases beating him to the stage. James Cagney’s Chester Kent has several additional stressors such as being financially cheated by his partners - though naively, he doesn’t know this for the first half of the movie. Another stressor is his ex-wife, or at least he thought she was his ex and that fact presents problems.
The mournful refrain of “It can’t be done,” by Francis, the dance instructor portrayed perfectly by Frank McHugh echoes our sentiments as Chester drives his dance troupe to do the impossible.
There is an interesting dynamic to the relationship between Nan and Vivian. They have a history, an unpleasant one but we are never told what it was. Nevertheless Nan is gracious to provide a place to stay when Vivian first comes to town. That graciousness is returned by Vivian’s stealing Chester away from Nan. This shows the audience the real character of Vivian and we see what it is about Vivian that causes Nan to cringe. We may not know their history but we see their present and it’s not pretty.
Several themes run in between the lines of this movie. One is the theme of perseverance. Chester is determined to come out on top even though he is surrounded by stressors and nay-sayers. Nothing is able to stand in the way of this determined man, even though he is told over and over again that it can’t be done. Chester even fights with his lead actor just before the “Shanghai Lil” number because that actor was drunk and unable to perform. Chester dismisses this bad actor and plays the part himself.
Another similar theme is that just because something seems impossible doesn’t mean it is. It is Chester that is the driving force of determination, but it is the dance troupe that is coached by him to pull off these 3 prologues, it’s a team effort. What had been deemed impossible was merely just difficult.
Another theme is romance. There are two romances running through this movie. One was the romance between Dick Powell’s character (Scotty) and Ruby Keeler’s character (Bea). Hollywood used this couple in several movies, each time to the audience’s delight. In reality Dick Powell would in a few years marry Joan Blondell; and Ruby Keeler was already married to the much older Al Jolson.
The other romance was between Chester and Nan. While Nan made her feelings obvious it took the entire movie until Chester realized her affections for him even through the tumultuous scenes where Chester and Vivian were an item – briefly. Hollywood paired James Cagney and Joan Blondell together on other occasions as well, but in real life, as mentioned before, Joan Blondell married Dick Powell and James Cagney married a woman named Frances who was not an actress.
"By a Waterfall" Number Being Performed
Analysis Part II
The movie also shows the dog eat dog nature of the theater business during a time of great change. The competition was tough and those producers had to hustle to get their product to the audience before the other guy. This dynamic is portrayed by the movie through the aforementioned sense of stress.
The musical numbers of this show are astounding. The main musical thrust in the movie comes in the presentation of the three prologues, but also worth mentioning is an earlier number, “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence”. It features dancers dressed in cat costumes. It is the first full dance number in the movie for Ruby Keeler, though she shows her tap ability earlier on in a demonstration or audition sort of scene. The number also features Billy Barty as a mouse.
The finale is a trio of song and dance numbers, prologues, which in the plots are designed to impress theater owner Apolinaris. But they also provide the main impression for the audience.
“Honeymoon Hotel” shows the eagerness of grooms and the bashfulness of brides in a hotel meant exclusively for honeymooners. In the hotel there is a child, played by Billy Barty, doing impish pranks on the guests.
“By a Waterfall” is the second of these three finale numbers and appeals to me as the best I’ve seen in any movie. It’s Busby Berkeley at his best. It is referred to as the human waterfall or the human fountain in trailers and write-ups. As it sounds it features water all throughout the number and is an early precursor to synchronized swimming. The song is one of the loveliest I know.
The third number is “Shanghai Lil” about a sailor who has come back from being away to look for his love, Shanghai Lil. It features a barroom brawl, images of the US military stationed in Asia with patriotic martial music and the great dancing of James Cagney and Ruby Keeler. “Shanghai Lil” is less dramatic than the penultimate number, “By a Waterfall”, but makes a better finale due to its patriotic flavor.