Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell
SUMMARY: During the Depression, Chester Kent (James Cagney) is a Broadway musical director whose career is drying up. His wife has become accustomed to a life of luxury, and when she learns that he has been essentially fired, she leaves him. However, Kent soon hits on an idea: movie theaters have been staging small, short musical numbers called prologues before showing the main attraction. Kent decides to write and rehearse these prologues, then send the performers out on nationwide tours. He is able to convince his business partners to go in with him, and soon Kent has returned to success. Unfortunately, this does not translate to personal money, as all of his profits are rolled back into his business (unbeknownst to him, his business partners are cheating him). Kent works nonstop to constantly produce new, fresh prologues, but has recently faced stiff competition from another company, who seems to have a mole in Kent’s own company. Kent’s life is held together by his secretary Nan (Joan Blondell), who has fallen for Kent — a fact that he is completely oblivious to. Nan is further irritated when her cousin comes to town and immediately ingratiates herself with Kent.
Meanwhile, the company has recently hired Scotty Blair (Dick Powell), the boy toy of a partner’s wife. Blair provides some much-needed star power, and is quickly promoted to a lead role. He in turn begins to fall for Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler), who works for the company as a secretary. Though she is very adept at her job, Bea decides to return to her former career as a dancer, and secures a leading female role in the company. She is initially scornful of Blair, as he is a “kept man”, but after he tells off his benefactor, she warms to him. Back in the office, Nan has discovered that the two other partners are cheating Kent out of his money, and alerts him. He confronts the two partners and quits, but reconsiders after they reveal a potential huge deal. A theater magnate, Mr. Apolinaris, wants to sign an exclusive, wealthy contract with a prologue company, and has narrowed it down to Kent’s and his main competition (the one who keeps stealing ideas). Both companies will stage three prologues on the same night, all at different theaters, and the winner will get the contract. After extracting a promise from his partners, Kent throws himself into creating and rehearsing the prologues, which are due in three days. To keep his ideas from being stolen, he and the entire cast and crew stay at the studio all three days, sleeping and eating there. ON the night of the performances, the first two go off well, with Blair and Bea performing well. A different male lead is scheduled to appear in the final prologue, but refuses to go on after suffering a severe attack of stage fright. With no time to find another lead, Kent himself steps in and performs the role. After the performance, Kent is informed by Apolinaris that he has won the competition; Kent then proposes to Nan.
MY TAKE: James Cagney is way more famous for playing a vicious gangster, but his roots were actually in musical theater (quite the contrast). He shows that off here, and I think it’s a much more entertaining movie than his famous role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s a pretty standard plot, especially the love angles, but the prologue idea is different. The first hour of the movie is really funny, with all of the characters snapping one-liners at each other. The last half-hour is dedicated to the three prologues, which were choreographed by Busby Berkeley. He created some pretty impressive visual effects, but I found myself wondering at the way they fit into the plot. There are several times when the choreography is obviously designed to be viewed from above — a huge group of dancers moves about in geometric patterns, almost like a marching band. It’s really cool, but nobody in a theater would actually be able to see this. All they would see was people milling about. One of the prologues has a huge water set, complete with synchronized swimming in a big pool, which also seems unlikely to happen in real life. It’s impressive, just unrealistic. The ending is a little abrupt, and I wished they could have used some of the humor and wit from the first hour to end the film, but it’s not bad.
P.S. Obviously, this movie was released before the Production Code was enforced — there is no way they would have allowed two unmarried people to be shown in the same bed. Quite scandalous.