Cagney Blogathon: Song and Dance Man

CAG poster

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.

CAG hand

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 into 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.

CAG HAND seek1

CAG HAND seek2

Those restless hands take us right into the demimonde milieu of “Shanghai Lil,” which not only is 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.

CAG pool

“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.

CAG fray

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.

CAG kickturn

CAG grindpose

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.

CAG touch

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:

Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. Oh what a yummy post about a yummy film! I agree that this film is just delicious and so much fun. This one really has it all. In addition to Cagney as a tough guy AND a song and dance man, the rest of cast is just sterling and they work together like a well oiled machine. However, I always wondered how the audience didn’t get soaked during “By a Waterfall”!

    • We’ve found that watching Footlight Parade with a theater audience is one of the best times we’ve had seeing movies. Viewers respond wholeheartedly to its jokes and dance routines (and, of course, everyone roots for Joan Blondell!). It’s a great crowd-watching experience. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment!

  2. John Greco

     /  April 9, 2013

    Terrific job here GOM! Cagney’s dancing was unique for sure. The film is one of Warner’s three great muiscials and while I would probably pick GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 as my favorite WB musical this one has much to recommend including the Busby musical numbers and the great Joan Blondell.

    • The big 3 WB musicals do seem to be 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade (though we would like to add another, Dames, to the list — a very funny send-up of censorship with terrific musical routines). But Cagney’s presence does add something extra to Footlight Parade. Thanks for visiting!

  3. This is a beautiful and tantalizing read. The understanding and appreciation of Cagney’s art is infectious.

  4. Wow. You nailed it. Beautifully written.

  5. Cagney’s dancing in this film is my favorite of his career, and you describe it all in such beautiful detail and with such a knowing eye! I can never get behind the plots of these Busby Berkeley films, but in “Footlight Parade” Cagney is so watchable that i scarcely notice how Ruby Keeler’s popularity has always eluded me.Thanks for the marvelous dissection of Cagney’s art as a dancer!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, we’re really glad you enjoyed what we wrote. Cagney is probably at his most magnetic (and sexy, wow!) in Footlight Parade. As for Keeler, she wasn’t a good dancer but she had a strange, off-key vulnerability that has a peculiar appeal. We always have a split reaction watching her: dismay at her clunky dancing, but a protective feeling because she seems so — well, LOST up there on the screen. (We suspect there’s a connection between these two reactions.)

  6. Kevin Deany

     /  April 9, 2013

    Wow, that was an absolutely fabulous post, one of the best I’ve read. Loved the descriptions of Cagney’s hands – you’re so right about how expressive they are.

    I first saw this one as a grade school lad at a revival house in the 1970s, on a double bill with “Top Hat.” (Pure bliss). As you said, Joan Blondell’s line to Claire Dodd brought the house down as did the Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Eagle symbolism at the end of the “Shanghai Lil” number.

    A wonderful post, and like a favorite movie, one I will be returning to.

    • Footlight Parade is just the best experience when seen with an audience; there’s so much to respond to, and it feels more fun when you’re sharing your reactions with appreciative viewers. (And we can well imagine the bliss of seeing this film with Astaire & Rogers – what a great double feature that must have been!) Thanks so much for your lovely comment and for stopping by.

  7. KimWilson

     /  April 9, 2013

    Very insightful review. I loved this tidbit:”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.” Wonderful review!

  8. What a great post about a film I have not yet seen…but very much want to. While I love Cagney in his gangster roles, I actually just love him period and, thus, want to see as many of his films as I can. He had quite a broad range of talent. I adore his singing and dancing in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and I know that song-and-dance films were his favorite genre, so “Footlight Parade” is an absolute must-see. Your write-up has made that even more clear to me.

    This was a great addition to the blogathon. Oh, and I love the video clips you included.

    • Footlight Parade is a Cagney must (it’s on DVD, part of a Busby Berkeley DVD collection), so we hope you can see it soon. This film shows his range in many aspects, drama, comedy, dancing, even playing the tough guy. It’s one of our absolute favorites of his films. Thanks for commenting!

  9. GOM, a tremendous read–very erudite yet still warm and full of enthusiasm for the subject. I love the way you focus on the kinetic quality of Cagney’s acting and dancing, beginning with the way he uses his hands and proceeding to his whole-body acting/dancing technique. I’m marveling at how you found so much to say on this fairly proscribed (but when discussing Cagney’s acting, absolutely essential) subject without repeating yourself. Among all the great things to like in your post, I especially like the way you explained Cagney’s dancing style in almost anatomical terms and made it so fascinating and so COMPLETELY comprehensible. Abstract subjects like this are for me the devil to attempt to write about and still stay grounded in specifics, and you did a tremendous job of this,

    When I watched this again not too long ago, it struck me that the third whore at the table at the beginning of “Shanghai Lil” is a young Ann Sothern. The other thing that struck me about the number was the way Cagney watched Ruby Keeler’s feet while they’re dancing on the bar top, which you mentioned too. We know, of course, what an obsessive dance rehearser Cagney was. But as I recall, he’s supposed to be substituting for another dancer at the last minute and has never really performed the dance before. I got the impression he was trying to underscore the fact that he had stepped in at the last minute and needed to follow Keeler’s lead to be sure of his moves. If so, it’s another example of how completely thought-out Cagney’s performances were. A much appreciated and truly original contribution to the Cagney blogathon.

    • Thanks so much, Richard, for another great blogathon – Cagney was a great choice! Your appreciation is really gratifying. We’ve watched (and read) a lot on dance, so it’s an interest for our writing (it also takes a lot of DVD rewinding, to get the descriptions exact!). That’s an interesting point on how Cagney watches Keeler during their dance as part of his own characterization, keeping the ‘back story,’ as it were, with him as he performs. And will have to check out that sequence again for Ann Sothern. Thanks again!

  10. One of your best pieces yet, G.O.M. I’m delighted to see you discussing the way Cagney moves and speaks through his hands, something which is so characteristic of him. He often seems to come up with particular hand gestures which bring out the essence of a character – for instance the caress with a clenched fist in both ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Taxi!’ I have read somewhere (possibly in the Patrick McGilligan book on him), that Cagney had studied acting with the hands, working on this together with his wife as this was also an interest of hers, but she felt he put too much emphasis on his hands in ‘Taxi!’ He was also quoted as saying that he naturally grew up using his hands to express himself in New York – and he speaks in sign language in ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. I will be watching out for his hand gestures even more after reading your very stimulating posting, and will also definitely be returning to ‘Footlight Parade’ soon – it’s too long since I saw it!

    • Thanks, Judy – didn’t know about Cagney studying acting with his hands; he seems to use them so naturally, as an extension of all he does. Cagney uses all parts of his body (such as his shoulders, the way he’ll rotate or shrug them for emphasis), he was kinetically aware of his body as an instrument. It’s part of what makes him unique (many screen actors seem to wait for the camera to give them a close-up and not use their bodies at all). Another actor we can think of who used his body in that physical way is John Garfield, who, like Cagney, also grew up on the NYC streets. And hurry and re-watch Footlight Parade soon, it’s a marvelous film!

  11. Passionate, authoritative and engaging read GOM! And certainly as close to definitive on this timeless musical classic as we’re likely to see online! As far as backstage stories, of course, this is one of the best ever made in that department. But this final of the famous Depression era Berkeley musicals gems is an amazing cultural index of the period. My own favorite sequence is “By A Waterfall,” which allows Berkeley to manage a “wet run” for his later Esther Williams spectaculars. It’s an astounding surrealistic kaleidoscope of a sequence, and one of the greatest cinematic passages in the musical genre. Blondell’s wisecracking is a perfect match for Cagney, who again delivers the goods by way of charismatic acting and dancing. Great work here GOM!

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment! The ‘By a Waterfall’ routine is spectacular, with that kind of protean inventiveness that Berkeley displayed at his creative heights; he keeps topping one sequence in it after another, with more and more amazing imagery. You can certainly see here the roots of Million Dollar Mermaid (where Berkeley used water in even more active ways, with its shooting sprays, slides, and fountains). Cagney and Blondell made a great team, and you have to wonder why WB didn’t take advantage of their onscreen chemistry to pair them more often. THanks again for visiting.

  12. What a great blog! Well done!

    • thanks so much – glad you like it!

      • I went home and watched 2 Cagney movies last night, Great guy and The Public Enemy!

      • Oh, Great Guy, that’s not one of his better-known, but he’s great in it!

      • Good ol TCM got me hooked on following actors, once I find an actor I like, I will watch several films by them. In turn I discover lots of lesser known hits. Tonight, I will discover more Cagney, any suggestions?

      • Recommend one of his pre-Code films, “The Mayor of Hell,” about a boys’ reform school, which is gritty and hard-hitting, and has a passionate performance from Cagney. And it’s on DVD. Also a later film of his, “Love Me or Leave Me,” w/Doris Day, in which he plays a VERY nasty gangster. Also on DVD.

  13. “Has anyone written about Cagney’s hands?” – You just did, wow!

    What I love about that little signal with his hands is that I don’t just think, “Okay, the show is saved,” I think, “Hey-ho, that’s Cagney–the show is saved!”

    Wonderful writing and observation of Cagney’s skill, you put so much that we take for granted into words so very well. Thanks for posting it!

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment and for visiting! Cagney was just the compleat actor, using every part of himself to convey his character. And his hands are always ‘in the moment,’ as actors say — he’s always responding with them so viscerally to what’s happening in a scene. No other actor was quite like him!

  14. Terrific film and a nice appreciation for it and Cagney.

  15. I have never thought or written about Jimmy’s hands, but you’re so right! Even in the opening credits for The Public Enemy he shows us his fists, calling the public for a fight.
    This is a wonderful essay. I loved the analysis of Shanghai Lil, a dance number that deserved a lot more attention.
    Oh, and I also always wait for La Mareselleise in Casablanca!
    Greetings and thanks for your kind words!

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment! (And good to know another film fan loves the same thing in Casablanca!) Cagney is such a physical actor, you begin to notice all the details he puts into his performance by using his body, which no doubt comes from his dance training. And Shanghai Lil is a great number. Berkeley always keeps the routine moving, always finds new camera angles from which to show us what’s going on. It’s particularly remarkable in a number like Lil, in which he doesn’t use too much of the overhead camera (except for the sequence with FDR’s face at the end). Thanks again for visiting!

  16. This piece is a gem. Brilliantly written – beautifully written, with so much insight and – passion. Wow. Cagney’s hands. Special movie moments. All in all, a tour-de-force take on “Footlight Parade.” I love it.

    • Thanks SO much for your lovely comment and for visiting! This blogathon has been a terrific experience, with so many great posts and so many new thoughts brought to viewing Cagney and his films. The actor has certainly inspired so many of us!

  17. Splendid review, GOM! As always, I read your prose and wish I was so insightful and imaginative. My favorite line in this post: “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.” That’s a brilliant observation and one I’ve never read about Cagney. Kudos to you.

    • Thanks for your lovely comments, Rick! Always glad when you visit and always glad for your own insights. Part of the fun of blogging is how we can share out thoughts with each other – and there is so much to share and discuss about Cagney!

  18. Loved your post, GOM (and that I learned a new word — metonym!) — I’m not a big fan of musicals, generally speaking, but I would like to see this one, just because of the way you write about it.

    • Thanks so much for your lovely words! We’re very flattered that our post makes you want to see the film, though we feel that Footlight Parade can stand on its own. It’s certainly worth seeing as a great example of a pre-Code movie and for Cagney’s extraordinary talent and screen presence. Even if you’re not fond of musicals, this one is fast, racy fun and is never dull.

  19. Love this film and your write up is excellent. I was nominated Sunday, May 19, for the Super Sweet Bloggers Award and now have nominated you, as one of my “baker’s dozen” of blogs I like to read.

  1. James Cagney Stars in G Men (1935) | Immortal Ephemera
  2. The Mayor of Hell (1933) Review, with James Cagney | Pre-Code.Com

Got a comment? Write it here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: