I am very excited about writing this post. Why wouldn’t I be? First of all, it moves forward by sixteen years the blog’s first noting of a movie with a scene of a sound movie. Hitherto, it was White Heat, from 1949. But the redoubtable Ben Zimmer pointed me in the direction of these two Warner Brothers pictures from 1933.
And that’s another reason this post blows my wig. (Trying to throw in some thirties slang here.) It deals with my favorite period from my favorite studio. One picture, Footlight Parade, is in my favorite genre, musicals, and I have a history with the other one. When I was in college lo these many years ago, one of the high points of junior year was when the film society screened Wild Boys of the Road (admittedly, I didn’t get out much). And I’m please to say that the movie — available for rental on Amazon Prime or Apple TV — holds up like aces.
As for that question of firsts, it’s a tight race. Footlight opened October 21, 1933, and Wild Boys on October 7, so the latter gets the nod. This is a little confusing since Footlight is the very movie that’s seen in Wild Boys, but Warners obviously had the print and probably saw the opportunity for some cross-promotion for an upcoming title.
And that’s not all when it comes to promotion. Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman, opens up at a high-school dance where the music includes “We’re in the Money,” “Shadow Waltz,” and “Pettin’ in the Park” — all Harry Warren/Al Dubin tunes from the Warners musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street.
Pretty soon the Depression — and I can’t think of a film that confronts it more starkly and strikingly — forces the families of Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) into hard times, and forces to boys to ride the rails in search of work. Wellman follows their journey, including some truly shocking episodes, in almost documentary style. Along the way, the boys befriend a wild girl of the road, Sally, played by Dorothy Coonan, whom Wellman would marry the following year. (She was nineteen at the time of filming, older than she looked.) Coonan’s background was in musicals, and when the group lands in New York, Sally turns out to have some terpsiochorean skills that come in handy. And the song she’s hoofing to? “42nd Street,” from the 1933 Warners musical of the same name.
Meanwhile, Eddie has found a way to make even easier money. A couple of well-dressed guys say they’ll give him five bucks for delivering an envelope to the ticket-taker at at a movie theater across the street. (After he gives her the envelope, he starts whistling “Shadow Waltz.”)
In the scene from Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade that’s playing, Broadway director Chester Kent (James Cagney) is talking to his two financial backers, played by Guy Kibbee (the bald one) and Arthur Hohl.
In Footlight Parade itself, the movie-in-movie scene comes earlier, near the start of the picture. Cagney and his assistant (Gordon Westcott) are on their way to see Kibbee and Hohl for a meeting. And don’t miss, at the start of the clip, that kinetic Cagney walk.
The film on the screen is The Telegraph Trail, a Warners “oater” from earlier in ’33. (The posters outside advertise Slaves of the Desert, but there is no such movie.) And yes, you’re right, that’s young John Wayne kissing the girl in the final scene. His sidekick, seen earlier, is Frank McHugh, who’s also in Footlight Parade. The picture doesn’t come across as the kind of thing that would put an entire art form out of business, and in fact it was a B picture, one of many Wayne churned out every year at that point in his career. Probably, this was a joke on Bacon’s part.
Another joke, and another bit of Warner Brothers cross-promotion, comes in a scene where Cagney, having worked all night, is having breakfast with his secretary (Joan Blondell, wonderful as always). There on the table, big as life, is half a grapefruit. It’s clearly (to me, anyway) a nod to the famous scene in another Warners picture, Public enemy, where Cagney shoved that very same citrus fruit into the kisser of Mae Clarke.