James Cagney’s Mass-Produced Theatre

James Cagney...while Ruby Keeler takes notes. Image:
James Cagney and Ruby Keeler doing glamorous theatre work. Image: The Toast

Modern movie audiences are getting ripped off.

Get this: In cinema’s earlier days, audiences were presented with live musical performances, known as prologues, before the feature film. So, instead of the in-theatre advertising we endure today, audiences enjoyed genuine musical theatre that introduced the film.

According to Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol. I, prologues were meant to add hype to a feature film, especially if the it didn’t contain an “A List” celebrity. These prologues played in movie theatres all over the U.S.

The most industrious producers of prologues were Fanchon and Marco, who created prologues each week from 1923-1934. “Their success was due to talent, organization and branding their product” (Vaudeville, p. 368).

The delightful 1933 musical, Footlight Parade, looks at the business of grinding out weekly prologues, by a team who may have been modelled on Fanchon and Marco. This film gives “a sense of the energy and personnel required to maintain such a schedule” (Vaudeville, p. 369).

Footlight Parade stars James Cagney as an out-of-work theatre producer who sees lucrative opportunities in movie prologues. The trick to making money, says Cagney, is the ol’ Economies of Scale routine, i.e. increased output of a product.

“When you put on one prologue, it’s too expensive,” he explains, “but when the same prologue plays 25, 50, 100 houses, it doesn’t cost a cent more. Get it? … The same scenery, same costumes, put ’em on once and they stay put on. … It’s a cinch because you can give [theatre operators] swell prologues cheaper than they can put ’em on themselves.”

Cagney, who was a “song-and-dance man” before he became famous as a movie gangster, is dazzling as a driven producer who’s never heard of the word “can’t”. For example, when he learns that some of the chorus girls in Philadelphia married tenors and are planning to quit the act, Cagney immediately asks if the tenors are any good – then adds them to the show.

Cagney develops a prologue about cats. Image:
Cagney develops a prologue about cats. Image: Almost Famous Cats

We feel this film is required viewing. Besides the stunning Busby Berkeley numbers, the script has snappy, fast-paced dialogue. In one scene, Cagney is in a meeting with his secretary (Joan Blondell) and his newly-appointed manager+fiancé (Claire Dodd). Dodd, a woman with suspicious motives, complains about the gruelling work schedule.

Dodd: “It’s like being in jail!”
Cagney: “Sorry, dear. You’d better get used to it.”
Blondell: “She is used to it.”

The supporting characters alone are worth the price of admission. Frank McHugh is hilarious as the pessimistic, cigar-chewing dance director. Ruth Donnelly provides a bit of camp as the executive producer’s wife, a meddling older woman who finds handsome young men and offers them roles in the prologues. Then there’s Hugh Herbert, the prissy in-house censor who spouts regulations about what can’t be done in 39 states.

The most dynamic character of the bunch is Cagney himself, an ambitious man who drives his performers in pursuit of brilliance. He appreciates the artistic qualities of his product, but only as far as it sets his company apart from his competitors.

Joan Blondell ... Image:
The long-suffering Joan Blondell coaches Cagney. Image: Keen Delage (Flickr)

Cagney’s prologue system is a true manufacturing process. He develops the ideas, which are given to songwriters, dancers and costume/set designers for further development, before the completed shows are shipped all over the country. When parts malfunction or become too worn, no problem! He can replace them with newer pieces, and have them ready to deliver tomorrow.

It’s theatre as an assembly line, much like the Hollywood studio system itself.

If you haven’t yet seen James Cagney in a musical, or if you are interested in the prologue “era”, we insist you see Footlight Parade. It’ll give you something to think about the next time you’re in a movie theatre, sitting through endless advertising.

Footlight Parade: starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Written by Manuel Seff & James Seymour. Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1933, B&W, 104 mins.

This post is part of the Backstage Blogathon hosted by Movies, Silently and Sister Celluloid. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.




    • “Energy” is right! The first time I saw this movie, I think I had to re-wind the beginning a couple of times before I used used to the frantic pace.

      Isn’t McHugh great? He is such a prissy treat in this film.


  1. Footlight Parade is indeed a great film. I enjoy Cagney’s song and dance style–he was a one of a kind performer. And Busby Berkeley was an amazing coordinator of screen visuals who went far beyond mere choreography to produce some amazing things. I agree that today’s film-goers are being ripped off. Those days of the theatrical extravaganza experience of escapist immersion were amazing though maybe audiences today would be too jaded to appreciate it and too lacking in patience.

    I still remember going to see double features with cartoons, shorts, and newsreels. Sometimes we’d even get live acts. This was in the 50’s and 60’s. Nothing like the era prior to that, but still better than the commercial blitz we get at the movies in our era.

    I posted about two films for the Blogathon on my two currently active blogs. My film picks also reference the days of vaudeville. Hope you’ll stop by.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out
    Wrote By Rote

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe you’re right – maybe modern audiences would be too impatient and jaded to appreciate live musical performances before the movie.

      I would love to go to a double feature and see the cartoons and newsreels you describe. And live acts, too? That would be terrific fun!


  2. Footlight Parade is a strong contender for my favourite Cagney film – he has such charisma and is so dynamic. Sometimes watching this film just makes me dizzy – in the best way, the choreography is wonderful. Perhaps it’s because I’m from the UK, but I’ve always loved the strong sense of ‘Americana’ that’s threaded through it, I guess that’s ’30s patriotism for you!
    (Aside: my favourite line is from Blondell: “I know Miss Bit– I mean, Miss Rich.” CHEEKY!)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ha ha – yes, I know what you mean by this film making a person dizzy. It’s like climbing into a ride at the fairgrounds, the type where the operator yells, “Do ya wanna go FASTER?” So much fun!

      Now that you mention it, it might be one of my fave James Cagney films, too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The first time I saw James Cagney in a musical, I was astounded. I had only seen him in gangster or war films, and I could not believe what a talented dancer he is. He’s so light on his feet and makes it look so easy!


  3. I haven’t seen too many Cagney films to date, and I know that’s a big gap that needs filled. You’ve made this sound like a really worthwhile film. I don’t think many modern folks would want to sit through a prologue, sadly.


    • You’re probably right about today’s audiences not wanting to bother with prologues. 😦 As for this film, if you have a chance to see it, you must! It’s an interesting look at cinema in the late 1920s, but the script and fast pacing also make this film a Climb In & Hang On ride.


  4. This sounds not only like a film with swift and hilarious dialogue delivered by great actors, ( you know I love Joan Blondell) but I’ve recently grown to appreciate the diverse talents of Cagney He’s great as a fiery unruly gangster but he’s wonderful at delivering seamless comedy too! And the story seems like one that would be fascinating to watch as he churns out these prologues. I’m putting it on the list! I love the gif with the cat too! This seems like an essential contribution to the backstage blogathon indeed.


  5. Love this film and the idea of prologues–those were the days! You can almost feel Cagney’s comfort in films that allow him to return to his days of dancing.
    Side note: I’m a sucker for cats. In love with the Cagney and the kitty gif–nice find! 😉


  6. After reading your post, I really want to rewatch Footlight Parade. The idea of musical prologues before movies should have stayed until today, because some trailers are just awful (I went ot a film festival last year, three films in a week. Before all of them I had to see a trailer for the new Terminator movie). And it’s also cool because movie stars came from prologue dancers and chorus girls – like Myrna Loy!
    Thanks for the kind comment!


    • Le, are you saying the Terminator movie trailer wasn’t the highlight of your film festival? 😉

      Yes, prologues are an interesting part of cinema history, aren’t they? You raise a good point – perhaps I should do a follow-up post on the movie stars who started in prologues (or chorus lines).


  7. No need to insist. When you mentioned Cagney in his song and dance days with Busby Berkely numbers, I was sold. And that was before I read the rest of the cast. Joan Blondell & Ruby Keeler??? C’mon! This is certainly a must see. Thanks, Ruth, for the heads up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This film is one of my faves. To me, it’s another example of the quality Warner Bros. was churning out in the early 1930s.

      And you’re right about the cast – everyone here is on top of his/her game. And the Busby Berkeley numbers…they deserve a post on their own.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ooooh, I just love James Cagney. Had did he not die of exhaustion in the 1930’s, especially after this film? I’m a sucker for Berkeley’s early output, Gold Diggers of 1933 being the best in my opinion, and this movie is no exception. Blondell’s zingers are priceless and the film’s extravagant prologues at the end are jaw-dropping. Marvelous post!


  9. So sad we don’t have “prologues” anymore! I discovered James Cagney quite recently and I have to say I absolutely adore him. I haven’t seen this film yet, but definitely have to. A great read as always!


  10. I absolutely love this film, and was lucky enough to see it at the BFI in London a while back. The dance numbers are fantastic on the big screen and, also, this is the only time so far that I’ve been lucky enough to see Cagney at the cinema rather than on TV.

    Really enjoyed your piece and thanks for the interesting background about these prologues. I’d be interested to see what any of the real-life ones were like, if any were ever filmed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, what a treat it would be to see one of those “real” prologues from back in the day.

      So you got to see this on the big screen?! Wonderful! If it ever comes our way I’m dropping EVERYTHING to see it!


  11. I didn’t know about the prologues. You are right. We have been getting ripped off! What fun that would be to see before a movie. This sounds like an amazing film with a lot to offer. Thanks a lot, Ruth, for clueing us in on prologues and the movie!

    Liked by 1 person

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