There’s one moment in 1933’s Footlight Parade that we always wait for, and that’s a shot of James Cagney’s hand. It’s right where the “Shanghai Lil” musical number begins, when a body tumbles down a flight of stairs onto the stage. There’s a scream; the music stops, the spectators stare, and the conductor pauses, arms suspended in the air like a coat hanger. Then there’s a close-up of one pale, tense hand—slapping the step, then angrily waving, as if flinging a scoop of dirt at us. And everyone breathes again. The conductor smiles, the music starts, and the show goes on.
We’ve seen this movie—how many times? We recall seeing it at the dear old Regency revival house, way back in the days when New York still bristled with revival movie theaters like a well-used rug with cat fur; and watched it even further back, on late-night TV, before cable or even Betamaxes existed. And we still wait for that one moment. All classic-film fans must have movie moments that they wait for, the bit that sums up all you love about a film. We have one in Casablanca, when Paul Henried steps in front of the orchestra and calls for for “La Marseillaise” (and the suspense, as all the players glance at Humphrey Bogart, who responds with one tiny nod); and another in The Adventures of Robin Hood, when Ian Hunter steps out of his robe to reveal himself as King Richard and, as Korngold’s music majestically slows and the camera pulls back, all the Merry Men drop to their knees—a moment so simple yet beautiful, it never fails to bring tears to our eyes.
There are many such moments we love in Footlight Parade. Such as the bit with the hefty soprano dreamily inhaling perfume to get into her “singing mood” (“Never mind the smell, honey,” says Cagney, “Sing.”). Or Herman Bing rrrolling off the list of cat-themed song titles, wringing out every last guttural R-sound he can find (“Poo-Zee Kat Poo-Zee Kat WheRRRe Haf You Bin?”). Or when Joan Blondell delivers a well-aimed foot into Claire Dodd’s haughty derriere and snaps, “As long as they have sidewalks, you’ve got a job!” (revival-house audiences whoop with delight at that one). But the moment with that hand. It rivets our eyes. It’s like Mae Marsh’s twisting hands in Intolerance, so much tension hangs on that moment, we can’t help thinking, “what happens next?” The whole movie stops and fixates right on that hand, that hand is Cagney, all of him squeezed into this small, quivering bundle of energy onscreen. That’s when you understand the cinematic power of the close-up, how it functions as dramatic metonym, compressing int0 one object a vast world of meaning. Film can give us the prose of blunt experience (which early audiences grasped when viewing a rushing train onscreen), but it can also give the poetry of suggestive symbol, when the concrete ascends to the metaphysical.
Such as Cagney’s hand. We know the hand is Cagney’s—no one else in the history of the world moved like that—but the film teases us with it. The camera stays on that hand, following its progress across a stage saloon-cum-brothel, as it searches among the prostitutes for a loved-and-lost Chinese trollop—prodding, poking, stroking, and beating an agitated tattoo, like a hopped-up snare drummer, against a whore’s arm. Has anyone written about Cagney’s hands? He could express more with them than any number of actors could do with bodies, faces, voices, and eyes combined, and that’s just two appendages with eight digits and two thumbs, so you can imagine what the rest of Cagney, the whole package, could do. Next to Chaplin, Cagney had the greatest hands in the movies. If there’s a difference, it may be that Chaplin’s hands move with a delicately choreographed grace, redolent of the grave, wistful sentimentality of 19th-century ballet. They trace lacy patterns or form fleet images, such as the rose twirled out of air in Limelight; you sense there the faint, far-off brush of Taglioni’s slipper. But Cagney’s hands evoke the hurry and tumult of modern life. They’re charged with the rough city streets of his Yorkville boyhood, they strum, tap, flicker, clench, and punch the air as if it were solid matter. In a great bit in Hard to Handle, Cagney whispers in Ruth Donnelly’s ear and you can follow what he’s saying via his hand, smacking, chopping, and jabbing in space like semaphore gone berserk.
Those restless hands take us right into the demimonde milieu of “Shanghai Lil,” which not is only the best number in Footlight Parade but one of the all-time great Busby Berkeley routines. We rank it up there with “42nd Street,” “Forgotten Man,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” and “Lullaby of Broadway.” Viewers today think of Berkeley as camp. His routines are Girls; lots (LOTS) of girls, flashing their smiles, breasts, and pre-Code thighs at the camera as they shift and dissolve into kaleidoscopic patterns of circles, spirals, and squares that must have come out of an opium pipe. The number preceding “Shanghai Lil,” the dizzying “By A Waterfall” routine, is exactly that: a chorus of wet young beauties splashing, paddling, and diving, at what looks like an Art Deco pool party on hallucigens at the Playboy Mansion. This is Berkeley for the tired businessman, the one telling his wife he’s watching it only for the aesthetics.
“Shanghai Lil” has the girls (lined up in gauzy torpor in an opium den), but it has another, less remarked quality of Berkeley’s: that fierce, hard, Depression-bred melancholy, displayed in the faces and bodies of the despairing marchers of “Forgotten Man” or the road-to-hell partyers of “Lullaby of Broadway.” Berkeley had an eye for his era, and he caught the mood of the early 1930s in his best routines. There’s nothing glamorous or Playboy-fantasy-like about the whores in “Shanghai Lil”; their faces are overpainted, their mouths and eyes pulled tight, as if fighting back feeling. The slog of hard times has wearied them down to their bones, and any pool parties they go to are strictly behind the eight ball.
And Cagney sets that scene for us, reflecting it like a prism against harsh light. This bar is not just in Shanghai but at the end of the world, Cagney staggering through it like an alky homing in on his next drink. He also sings the title song, a lament by a heartbroken gob for the missing Lil, in a quavery, off-pitch baritone, and it fits the mood exactly. This is a guy carrying an armful of torches. But he’s not sappy about it. When some lug insults Lil’s honor, Cagney flies up and socks him. A fight starts, and from an overhead shot we see Cagney diving into the fray like a bi-plane into a dogfight, and you see the proverbial Cagney tough guy but you also see what makes this tough guy different. He’s a bruiser who moves like a dancer. Cagney learned boxing and dancing when young, and he combined both these disciplines in his art. He always moves from his center, which is the source, the foundation, the starting point, of all movement, whether dance or athletics. Good dancers don’t just move arms and legs, they anchor motion in their core, deep in the solar plexus and lower back. The motion impulse should spring out from there, like branches from a tree trunk, and travel through the body the way a fire lights a fuse. When Cagney swings a punch, his hand flies through space, flung by his arm, impelled by his shoulder and upper back, and propelled by his ENTIRE body, right down to his legs and feet. He gives the motion follow-through, slashing through space like a scimitar.
You see this same core motion impulse in Cagney in his staged dancing. Cagney wasn’t a polished technician, like Gene Kelly (he was basically self-taught). But he had what every dancer needs, an innate sense of rhythm. (You have to be born with that; it can’t be taught, for love or money.) And he’s sure of his balance; he’ll kick up one leg while standing on only the ball of the supporting foot, so that he’s cantilevered off his center, and then he’ll whip the leg down and into the turn, and the motion is smooth and controlled and all of a piece, with no break in his rhythm. And note his phrasing; he brings the emphasis down (with his shoulders, raising and then forcefully lowering them) before kicking up, using opposing forces for momentum. Or when he demonstrates how to move like a cat, he again emphasizes the down before the up motion: grinding the ball of the foot into the floor and then releasing the tension in a boneless flow of movement through hip, knee, ankle, and instep; and finishing by leaping back to pose with his torso arched in a parenthetical curve. The effect is like the end of a jammed spring suddenly sprung loose.
Cagney does his serpentine leg movements again during his “Shanghai Lil” tap dance with Ruby Keeler, his hips and knees rippling like ribbons off a spool. He and Keeler dance side by side in a move-and-match pas de deux, he demonstrating a step, she countering with another. What he also does here is use his gaze to ‘direct’ the action. He looks from himself to Keeler (who, as usual, is looking down at her feet), so that you follow the dance by following him. He works it in quite naturally, but we wondered if this could have stemmed from his days as a dance teacher directing pupils (he once ran his own school)? If Cagney always seems so kinetically grounded onscreen, perhaps it’s because he really seems to have absorbed everything, every motion, he did in his life, searing it into ligament, bone, and muscle, and then distilling it into his performing. That’s his essence as an actor; the totality of his self is rooted in his body and finds expression there.
Cagney had danced early in vaudeville, and starting in films he danced a small bit in Taxi!, against another ex-hoofer turned tough guy, George Raft (and then there’s his brief, spirited prance across a dance floor in Other Men’s Women, which is so startling, and so exhilarating to watch, it leaves you sitting up and begging for more; 5:40 mark). But Footlight Parade was his first, full-fledged musical, where he plays a real song-n-dance man (which is how he always thought of himself). Dance is in everything he does in the film, its kinetic impulse always finishing up in a flourish with his hands. He chops the air at Hugh Herbert’s face (reminding us of the tough guy); he pokes Guy Kibbee in the belly and then pats his bald head (twice); and he affectionately taps or holds people’s faces—Keeler’s, Frank McHugh’s, and Blondell’s, his greatest screen partner, who always responds with a thrill of suppressed yearning. More than any other performer, Cagney needed to touch people, to reach out and make a swift, primal connection through common flesh. Maybe that’s what makes him seem so much more solid and three-dimensional than any other film actor. He’s always aware of everyone and everything else in the frame. Space, for his dancer’s body, is meant to be crossed, linked, and shared. And whenever he does so, he seems to cross a greater space, to reach out and touch us—giving us so many more moments to wait for, remember, and love.
This post is part of the Cagney Blogathon, running from April 8-12, 2013, and focusing on James Cagney and his films. It’s hosted by The Movie Projector, one of our favorite blogs (it’s on our sidebar, so from there you can always jump to its site whenever you’re visiting us). Please click here for blogathon information and for a list of all the great blogs that are participating.
BONUS CLIP: Here’s the first half of the “Shanghai Lil” number, featuring a line-up of drunks, pimps, addicts, johns, and whores — quite pre-Code: