Footlight Parade

Still from the scene ‘By a Waterfall’ from the movie Footlight Parade (1933) by Busby Berkeley
© Warner Brothers

Set in the world of musicals, the film Footlight Parade (1933) easily incorporates song and dance numbers into its plot. The By a Waterfall routine begins as a stage duet sung by Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell against a scenic backdrop. The beau then falls asleep and dreams of his beloved as a water nymph. Berkeley frequently used dreams as a means to open up the theatrical stage into a spatially independent cinematic setting that allowed the chorus girls’ dances to take place in any kind of surroundings. In By a Waterfall, the girls play nymphs dancing a water ballet, initially at a waterfall and subsequently in an art deco swimming pool, in which they eventually form a human fountain. Berkeley adapts his characteristic camera angles to each particular setting. The Tunnel of Love tracking shot through the dancers’ legs, for example, is taken underwater. Berkeley’s trademark top shot, or direct overhead camera angle, is used to film the dancers in the swimming pool. As a result, their combined movements look like abstract, geometric, or floral ornaments in dance, similar to the lines and shapes featured in Oskar Fischinger’s Studien (GER 1929–1934). The ornamental impression is emphasized through the use of lighting cues that first depict the dancers’ bodies in black on a white ground and then in white on a black ground. The dancers never become entirely abstract forms, however, for the ornamentation is repeatedly interrupted by shots of individual faces. The setting eventually returns to the couple’s duet on stage. Berkeley’s water dance is a purely cinematic creation. The different sections of the choreography were assembled in post-production, and numerous cuts offer different perspectives, with Berkeley always seeking to edit and synchronize the movements to the rhythm of the music – for example, when the dancers raise and lower their arms in synchrony with distinctive chords.