Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Say, who the heck is Shanghai Lil?

I've been vaguely thinking about starting a blog for a while now, but didn't really have anything momentous enough for that all-important First Post. Until recently, when I came across The Greatest Thing Ever. That's a deliberately vague and far-reaching description - of all the things that ever were, this is the greatest.

So what is this momentous Thing, you ask? It's a ten minute musical number from Busby Berkeley's 1933 feature Footlight Parade. The beauty of the backstage musical is your ridiculous musical numbers don't have to have anything to do with the central storyline, so Berkeley wasn't limited by the need to actually, y'know, make sense.

"Shanghai Lil" certainly shows that making sense doesn't always need to be a priority. It has everything, and then some. For starters, James Cagney getting drunk and brawling, and singing and tapdancing all in one number is awesome enough. Then there's the opium den full of zonked hookers, and a row of more alert hookers complaining to their johns a
bout Shanghai Lil - "That Oriental dame is detrimental to our industry" - before the aforementioned brawl (started when Cagney decks a sailor for saying "She's every sailor's pal, she's anybody's gal," and from which Cagney emerges in a sailor suit). Turns out Shanghai Lil was hiding in a box in the corner the whole time - and also that she's clearly a Caucasian actress in whiteface and a black bob. Swept into Cagney's arms, she sings, "I love you velly much a long time; I think that you no love me still." Fortunately, it's scientifically proven that tapdancing on a bar redeems any amount of racial stereotyping, 'cos that's what happens next.

Just when you think it couldn't get any better, an entire army joins the fray, marching in formation and waving their guns around to form kaleidoscopic patterns. And just when you think it couldn't get any more betterer, the soldiers are joined by a crowd of girls in coolie hats, and together they hold up placards (a la an audience at a sports game) to form a picture of the American flag... and then flip them over to display President Roosevelt! Then they march-dance around a bit more to form the logo of the NRA (not the Nuts With Guns Club, sadly, but Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration).

You can watch "Shanghai Lil" below, and there's plenty more Berkeley clips on Youtube (although it really loses something on a tiny or really grainy Youtube screen).