Joan Blondell's Chicken Chop Suey
I was reading an interview with Buck Henry and he was talking about movies, or scenes of movies, he carries in his head. Footlight Parade is one I've been carrying in my head for like 40 years now. I remember watching it on TV as a kid, and later seeing on the big screen at the Castro Theater in San Francisco whenever they showed it (at least once a year) in the late 70's & early 80's (which often led to visits afterwards to Sam Wo's for noodles). I think Joan Blondell may have been the first movie star crush I ever had. How could you not?
So, somehow August has become a movie musical double bill. That wasn't planned, but it happened. I think seeing a bunch of girls in a giant swimming pool while it's 190* here in Austin was soul quenching, and as for The Harder They Come, well, the impetus was that it's too hot to cook indoors (though for class we cooked the meal inside). Two very different films, both with great music, though.
Footlight Parade is rentable from NetFlix, and is available for purchase through Amazon.
"People ain't payin' for shows no more. Talkin' pictures, that's what they want."
Busby Berkeley, whose name would become synonymous with the musical picture, acknowledged he “never took a dancing lesson in my life.” In fact, there's not a lot of dancing in any of his movies, what we see are elaborately staged production numbers – there's swimming, there's singing, there's people marching, but not a lot of dancing.
He was "born in a trunk," as they say in the business. His mother was a stage and silent-film actress. Buzz, as he was known by, was acting by the age of five. After fighting in WWI, he stumbled into becoming a dance director, then made his way to Hollywood, first working on dance routines for Eddie Cantor movies where his genius for big production numbers quickly became evident. He jumped ship while still under contract at Goldwyn Pictures over to the Warner Brothers after being loaned out to make 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 for the latter. His first film under his new deal with Warners would be Footlight Parade.
It supposedly all started when Berkeley was coming out of the premiere of Gold Diggers of 1933 with Jack Warner, and Sid Grauman, owner of the famed Chinese Theater in Hollywood, asked him: "'Buzz, how are you going to top 'Shadow Waltz' and 'My Forgotten Man' [the show stoppers of that film]?' What are you going to do for your next picture?" Berkeley recalled, "Something instantly came to my mind, something I hadn't thought of till that moment, and I told him, 'Sid, I can see a big waterfall coming down through the rocks, with girls sliding down the rapids into a huge Ziegfeldian pool with 24 gold springboards and a gold fountain telescoping into the air...!'" Jack Warner, fearing the expense of such a thing, waved it off. They all had a big laugh. But then, according to Berkeley, "When it came time to devise things for Footlight Parade I mentioned it to Jack Warner, who blanched at the probable cost, but our pictures had been doing so well financially he had pretty well agreed to let me do whatever I wanted."
The story, written by Manuel Seff and James Seymour (the latter having co-written both 42nd Street & Goldiggers of 1933) would be another backstage tale like those two previous Warner musicals. The character Jimmy Cagney would play, Chester Kent, was based on Chester Hale, a famed stage producer and choreographer of the time. The idea of a factory-like outfit for producing movie prologues was based on Fanchon & Marco, a brother/sister team who, as Hale does in the film, struggled at the onset of the Depression by staging roadshows of their musical dance prologues to play in theaters around the country to keep afloat (in the 1940's they owned movie theaters, including El Capitan theater across the street from Grauman's Chinese). In fact, the film's working title was at first Prologue, then later changed to Footlight Parade.
Everyone was excited about reteaming Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell for their third picture together. But then Powell caught pneumonia and Stanley Smith, an actor whose career never really took off after a promising start, was announced as Keeler's romantic and singing partner. But rather rapidly Warners realized that audiences didn't want to see Keeler with anyone but Powell. And so they shot around Powell until he was back on his feet.
But the big deal in this picture, the thing that everyone - studio, audiences, and critics alike - were all focused on was that James Cagney, an actor known to all on screen as a tough guy gangster type, was going to be singing and dancing. Mind you, regardless of the fact that Cagney spent over 20 years working the Vaudeville circuit as a hoofer, comedian, and sometimes singer (he'd also been an amateur boxer at one point), people were piqued and pensive as to what to expect from this character departure. Since arriving in Hollywood, Cagney had done 13 pictures in three years, almost all as a tough guy.
“Footlight Parade was one of those fluffy musical incredibilities, pure fantasy all the way, but it gave the song-and-dance people a chance to be employed," Cagney reminisced. “It brings to mind a question frequently asked of me: Did my [short] height ever give me trouble with leading ladies? Only with one – Claire Dodd in Footlight Parade. She was the tallest of all the ladies I've ever worked with – a tall, handsome gal – and in shots opposite her, they had to slip a two-inch apple box under me.... [A]s for Dick Powell – people never realized what a good voice that boy had, and a lot of nice things to go with it. I was terribly fond of this nice, nice guy all the years I knew him."
It's interesting to note that Dick Powell changed his career in the exact opposite direction, forsaking musicals in lieu of tough guy dramatic characters, like in Cry Danger and Murder, My Sweet. Powell, who continued to have a long career, acting and producing, well into the 1960's in movies, radio, and television, was a very modest fellow and never thought as highly of his early pictures as his fans, or Cagney, did. “I was never much of a singer," he once said. "As for my dancing, I couldn’t raise a foot. If I were a Bing Crosby or a Fred Astaire, I wouldn’t have minded musicals, maybe. But you know how long second-rate talent – I’m speaking of my singing and dancing – lasts with the movie-going public.” Powell would do ten musical pictures with Cagney's old stage pal Joan Blondell, and then marry her in 1936 (though at the time of Footlight Parade, Blondell was married to the film's cinematographer, George Barnes).
You see, Cagney and Blondell were starring on Broadway in 1929 in the drama Penny Arcade. "[I]t opened on Broadway the night of the [stock market] crash of 1929. So the play didn't run but Cagney and I got wonderful notices," recalled Blondell. "Al Jolson saw us playing in it, bought it, and sold it to Warners with the stipulation that they take us." Jolson had just made fortunes for the Warner Brothers with the The Jazz Singer - the first feature-length talking picture - so he had that kind of clout. The play became the movie Sinners' Holiday in 1930. "That's how it started. We made five pictures in a row but were were first teamed on Broadway," Blondell said. "The films we used to have to make," she sighed, "Cagney said that I must be the most sophisticated virgin the city had ever seen!"
Now Jolson was all interconnected with Footlight Parade even though he wasn't directly involved. First, you've got the Cagney and Blondell connection. Director Lloyd Bacon had helmed Jolson's second talkie, The Singing Fool, as well as later films Say it with Songs and Wonder Bar. But his biggest connection was that he was married to Ruby Keeler (though they divorced under not-the-best of terms in 1940).
But before all that, Keeler had become huge star while still a teen thanks to "Flo" Ziegfeld (who also served as inspiration for Cagney's Chester Hale character) who was infatuated with her. Jolson fell for her too. She married Jolson, age 46, in 1928, having just turned 18. For a few years she stayed home, but it wasn't for her and went back to performing on stage. 42nd Street was her first big movie role in beginning of 1933, and by year's end had also starred in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade.
"I met Buzz for the first time when I was brought from New York to Hollywood in 1932 to appear in 42nd Street," she wrote. "Until then movie musicals had not been particularly impressive.... [Buzz] was wild and daring and made his own rules, and in doing so he made music."
"He was very pleasant to work with, but he'd never take no for an answer," Keeler said in an interview. "And I never knew when I was on the set if I was going to be coming out of the floor, or the ceiling, or what.... In his mind's eye, he could see all the moves. When you were doing them, you had no idea how they'd look on screen. All you knew was that you were doing six steps to the right and six forward."
Blondell was another of those "born in a trunk," and had the second longest career of all the other actors in Footlight Parade. She was in over 50 pictures in her first ten years in Hollywood. She continued to work over the next decades both in movies and regularly on television. In 1967, she grabbed a Golden Globe for her work in The Cincinnati Kid, she was in John Cassavetes' Opening Night in 1977, and her last two pictures were released after her death in 1979, Grease and The Champ.
But the actor with the longest career of those in this film is someone I will never live down for almost shortening (no pun intended)! Two of the dance sequences, "Sittin' on a Backyard Fence" (as the mouse) and "Honeymoon Hotel" (as the little kid), feature the uncredited Billy Barty, whom I almost ran over while bicycling around North Hollywood about a quarter century ago. He was stepping out of his car and, well, I didn't see him. Thankfully, I veered in time, he hollered at me, but he also continued making films until he passed on in 2000.
Now for a few bits of trivia: Some places on the interwebs note that actor John Garfield had a small part in Footlight Parade, but apparently that is incorrect, according to a TCM documentary. However, John Wayne is in the movie... actually in the movie within the movie. When Cagney is taken inside a movie theater to see people watching a talking movie, the film playing is The Telegraph Trail starring The Duke. (Going deeper on that trivial bit, Frank McHugh, who plays the sneezing dance director in Footlight Parade, also co-starred in The Telegraph Trail.) Also appearing in the "Shanghai Lil," number were then unknowns Hedy Lamarr and Ann Southern.
To finish here, I think Joan Blondell said it best, "I'm glad I was part of the 30's, the Depression years. People needed to laugh, to be released from despair. They needed ot forget fear even for a few hours; they needed to sway, to hum, to gaze as the sort of things Berkeley did. I contributed. Isn't that terrific!"
BACKGROUND & CONTEXT:
When watching a number like "By a Waterfall," you find yourself mesmerized and amazed at the scale of the production. You can barely try to imagine what it must have taken to create it... at least for me it's that way. So, let's take a look backstage, eh?
As I mentioned above, the idea for the sequence came spouting out of Busby Berkeley's head at a moment's notice. But once he got the green light from Jack Warner, here's what happened.
“With the technicians," recalled Berkeley, "I designed the pool and made caverns underneath it with thick plates of glass that I could shoot the camera through. It was the first time an aquacade had been done on the screen.... I designed a special bathing costume with rubber head pieces looking like hair that ran down across the girls’ bodies to give a semi-nude effect. We rehearsed it for two weeks and shot it in six days. It was my toughest number to film, because of the camera set-ups underwater, above water, and for the high shots, plus the physical stress and strain of the girls in the water.”
"The mountain wilderness and the pool covered almost an entire sound stage. The pool measured 80'x40', and while the number was being shot we pumped 20,000 gallons of water a minute over the falls and into the pool," he said. "People were constantly visiting the set to see if what they had heard was true. What with all the water pumps, the hydraulic lifts, and the dozens of workmen, someone said the set looked like the engine room of an ocean liner.”
The pool reportedly cost $38,000 in Depression era dollars. "We sort of let ourselves go crazy over that number," Berkeley noted.
He hired 200 chorines to be in it. According to his biographer, Jeffrey Spivak, "In the first two days of rehearsal, before the Berkeley girls entered the pool, they studiously watched Buzz at the blackboard, where, like a football coach, he white-chalked the patters and movements the girls would undertake in the pool. Before they could don their swimsuits, Buzz had the wardrobe department drag out ever smock they could find. The girls wore the smocks while Buzz, wooden pointer in hand, referenced the circular chalk marks. By his order, Buzz kept the stage doors closed. The girls knew he did it on their behalf [because guys were constantly trying to grab a peek at them]. They worked long hours in the pool with no labor laws to protect them. Sometimes they broke for dinner. It was often six hours between calls to the set."
Berkeley told reporters when the film was released: "[A]ll the girls had to be able to swim. I expected that probably 15 or 20 of them would have to fade out and be replaced. Not a bit of it. Every single one of these girls could swim well, not like Eleanor Holm of course, but they could take care of themselves in the water. They teach it in the schools nowadays and it's a good thing, especially when you're staging a number like the one I was worrying about. We spent a whole week shooting that one number. The girls were in the water for most of each day. When it was all over none of us thought we would ever want to go swimming again."
But that's what was told to the press. Let's say the last part of the paragraph was correct. The first? Well, according to some of those girls....
"I remember almost drowning!" exclaimed Gwen Seeger. "We had to dive and come up smiling and our mouths would get full of water! We were spouting around like whales! We were water-logged at the end of the day – we were there for hours and hours."
"For weeks, we, the swimmers, had been sliding, diving, swimming to music, and gravely endangering life and limb," remembered Cynthia Lindsay. "[W]e, the divers in rhinestone-studded suits (or rather, three carefully placed rhinestone patches), diving from the 10-foot boards into 3-1/2 feet of water (because the circle of girls into which we dived had to be able to stand on the floor of the pool with their shoulders above the water to form the patterns of the design).... In the process, noses, and, almost backs were broken, faces were scraped to the bone. (Rhinestones are like cheese graters. I had the whole rear end of my suit stripped off; girls were taken to the emergency hospitals; we worked frequently from seven in the morning to three-thirty the next, and had to return at eleven once again.)"
"Why there were so many times when many girls couldn't go into the water," because they were having their periods, recalled Lois Lindsay. "And this got to be a thing. Some of them played that to the hilt, so the number would go overtime and we'd have to work extra days. It got to the point where they would have a roll-call every day, and the Assistant Director would keep track of the dating system so he would know if some girls hadn't gone in 28 days before. And there was one girl, we finally all ganged up on her because she'd managed to keep out of the water so much. We threw her in!"
Now poor little Ruby Keeler, couldn't swim. She remembered when she first arrived and saw the humongous set. "Oh, Buzz, it's wonderful. What do I do?" He told her to get in the water. She responded, "Buzz, I'm not a swimmer. I hate being under the water. I can't dive."
"You'll be able to do it. Get in the water with the kids, get used to it,” he said. “Yeah, but after that, what do I do?” asked Ruby. “For the first show you'll go down to the other end of the pool and do a porpoise dive.” Ruby gave him a blank expression. “You dip your hands and you dive then you swim underwater to this end of the pool with your eyes open because there's a window here with a camera. You have to time it so when you pop out of the water you're smiling.” And she did, sort of....
"I clearly remember the close-up of Ruby trying to smile into the camera with the smile of rigor mortis as she passed the camera window - Ruby couldn't swim at all and was terrified of the water," said Cynthia Lindsay. "Two of my friends [who were also in that number] were Marjorie and Gertrude Keeler, Ruby's sisters. They couldn't swim, either, but they could stand in the water and kick."
But Lindsay then echoed what all those who worked for Berkeley seem to have said: "Despite the fact that there was no Screen Actors Guild at the time and that we were being paid $7.50 a day, with no overtime for those 3:30 mornings, I never had a better time and never had better friends."
The following is nearly all facts and quotes gleaned from Andrew Coe's amazing incredibly in-depth, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.
Less than a year after the Revolutionary War ended, America sent its first trade mission to China. In 1784, The Empress of China left the port of New York, and after 15 months, having sold its cargo of silver and ginseng, returned with silks, porcelain, and, of course, tea (that's what we were all up in arms about, remember?). For over 60 years trading continued, but neither party was very much interested in the other, beyond some Western missionaries trying to Jesus-size the Easterners. But then in 1848, Chinese citizens began to hear tell of a place where gold flowed like cheap jiu, and that piqued their interest. The Gold Rush was turning a tiny hamlet named Yerba Buena into San Francisco. The Chinese called it ""Gam Saan," which translates to "Gold Mountain."
According to Coe, "Most of the Chinese who disembarked [in San Francisco] in 1849, however, were not contract laborers but merchants and adventurers who had purchased their own passage." And what these first Chinese immigrants figured out real quickly was something perhaps even more valuable than gold - that it took three or more months (it would be 20 years before the Transcontinental Railroad would open) to get any supplies from Boston or New York. And in less than half that time, they could deliver everything from shoes to lumber to sheets and pillowcases from China. And so it was that by 1850, 4000 Chinese were living in California; and by 1852, there were almost 20,000. And included in that population were now farmers, fishermen, and anyone else looking to start a new life in a new world. Chinese laundries became the place to get your clothes washed, and Chinese cooks figured out how to cook Western style food and opened restaurants serving both, catering to both Eastern and Western diners. These restaurants were, yes, All-You-Can Eat buffets (for one buck).
Meanwhile, a small community of Chinese found their way to the Lower East Side of New York. They didn't attract as much attention as they did out west, since the city was experiencing its first mass European immigration with all their strange customs and food preferences. But most New Yorkers avoided the Chinese restaurants cropping up in what would become the city's Chinatown, except on a dare. But that soon changed.
As Coe points out in his book, the 1880's was the height of The Gilded Age, when mega-rich New York industrialists lived according to the rules of "high society" which meant a diet of mostly French food and steaks from Delmonico's. (It was also a time which saw a huge backlash of racism against Asians - see the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). But there was also a yin to this New York capitalist yang, and they called themselves Bohemians. "Any good mixer of convivial habits considers he has a right to be called a Bohemian. But that is not a valid claim. There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism. The first is devotion or addiction to one or more of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty," explained poet George Sterling at the time. And so these poverty stricken nonconformists eventually discovered the wonders of Chinese food which pleased them both in its exoticism and low cost.
Coe also notes that by the 1890's, a dish called "chop soly" or "chow-chop-sui" was "the only dish most white Americans had tasted, [and] had become emblematic of Chinese food as a whole." This flies in the face of the many cute legends that are all over the interwebs about "the birth of chop suey." Even Gourmet magazine dishes up one typical version of one myth. (More legends can be found at Snopes.)
The name, Coe explains, "is more accurately transcribed as 'za sui' (Mandarin) or 'shap sui' (Cantonese). 'Shap' means mixed or blended together; 'sui' means bits or small fragments. Read together, the most common translation is 'odds and end.'... [W]hen this dish is 'chow,' that means it's fried."
Wong Chin Foo, founder of New York's first Chinese newspaper, described it in 1883 as a dish that "each cook has his own recipe" for. Its characteristic ingredients, he wrote, included, "pork, bacon, chickens, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, onions and pepper." Journalist Allan Forman said of his first time having "chow-chop-suey" in 1886, "Notwithstanding its mysterious nature, it is very good and has formed the basis of many a good Chinese dinner I have eaten since." Within a few years, wherever there were Chinese restaurants in metropolitan areas, that's where you'd find your Bohemians hanging out.
Then, in 1896, a big deal Chinese statesman came to New York, and the hoity-toity, and the hoi polloi, all went cuckoo for chop suey. But, as Coe writes, "[a]s cooks catered to the more conservative tastes of the uptown diners, chop suey, the dish of odds and ends, lost all of its earthy and mysterious ingredients, and became a bland stew of some readily identifiable meat or seafood with a melange of bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, onions, and water chestnuts."
In 1925, the New York Times declared that "[Chop Suey] has become a staple. It is vigorously vying with sandwiches and salad as the sometime nourishment of the young women typists and telephonists.... To them the [Chinatown] district is not an intriguing bit of transplanted Orient. It is simply a good place to eat." And for dinner and entertainment, there were Chinese restaurant/nightclubs now too.
Now back in 1920, two men, one Korean, the other a white grocery store owner, started La Choy foods in Detroit, Michigan. By the 1960's, they were a suburban housewife's favorite canned Chinese meal... that "swings American!"
"Chinese-American cuisine adapted again after 1965, when a new law loosened restrictions on immigrants from Asia. Spicier dishes like Sichuan chicken and Hunan pork, from northern China, started to push chop suey off the menu," wrote Nancy Shute in the US News & World Report.
The Royal Alberta (Canada) Museum celebrated (PDF) for their 2010 exhibit Chop Suey: On the Prairies, that today, "[t]here are more Chinese restaurants in North America than there are fast food outlets combined. They range in size and grandeur from upscale banquet halls serving over 500 people to family-run, hole-in-the-wall cafés where the parents cook and serve while the children do homework or clean vegetables in the corner. Chinese restaurants have become so much a part of our landscape that it is hard to imagine a time when they were considered exotic."
Now there is something else completely different called "American Chop Suey," which I just don't have time to get into, but it's basically mac 'n' cheese with a Greek meat sauce (see post on Texas Wieners).
I thought this was a nice synergy to have found Joan Blondell's chop suey recipe, as it pairs well with the "Shanghai Lil" sequence. Granted, the sequence has been pointed out as a classic example of Hollywood-Chinese racism. And yes, Ruby Keeler portrays a Chinese prostitute, BUT the story here is that James Cagney's soldier is so in love her that he's "searching high... and searching low" for her and ends with him smuggling her back to America with him to make her an honest woman. Who knows? Maybe Lil opened a Chinese restaurant when she got there?
And since I just spent the last couple of days compiling a database of all the celebrity recipes I've accumulated so far, let me note that, so far, I also have a Howard Duff and a Buster Keaton chop suey recipe. Maybe one day we'll have a chop suey taste-off???
In her biography by Matthew Kennedy, noted: "The press coverage on Joan focused on the trivial - her diet, hobbies, likes and dislikes.... It was in print that Joan hated pickled beets, planes, spiders, and answering phones, and that she liked motorboating, cider, pajamas, soda pop, swimming, tennis, hiking, hamburger and chop suey."
Now Blondell's version of this classic is very much of its time. Yes, there's soy sauce in the recipe, but American housewives of the time would be lucky if their market carried even that, forget oyster sauce or sesame oil. Other than making it more authentic to what you can get in Chinese restaurants even today with the marinade and sauce, I left her recipe pretty much alone. Feel free to make this with shrimp, or pork, beef, or tofu. If you want to throw in some bok choy, mushrooms, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots - these are all typical ingredients in a typical chop suey recipe. I will go on record and say that this is not a bad standard to have in your repertoire. It's not at all like what I remember being served as a kid (usually over La Choy Crispy Noodles), the dish Coe says evolved into a "bland stew." I gobbled up what I made. It may lack heat and spice, but definitely not flavor. As always... cook, watch, eat, and enjoy!
Joan Blondell's Chicken Chop Suey
adapted from her recipe
Click for Printer-Friendly Version
1 pound boneless/skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs, (pounded 1/4" thick, if needed) then sliced into 2" strips
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 celery ribs, cut 1-inch diagonally
1 green and/or red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 small onion, halved then cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 pound bean sprouts, rinsed & drained
1/4 cup toasted almonds
1/2 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
Toss chicken in marinade and let sit for 15 minutes.
Prepare the sauce mix. Reserve.
Heat wok to high. Add 1 tablespoon oil and stir-fry celery, onion, and bell pepper for about 3 minutes. Remove and reserve in a bowl.
Add 1 tablespoon oil, then add the chicken with the marinade and let cook left alone for about 1 minute, then stir-fry until chicken is almost cooked through. Add back the cooked vegetables, the bean sprouts, then the chicken broth, lower heat to simmer, stir and allow to reduce, about 3 minutes.
Finally, add the sauce mix and stir, allowing to thicken for about 2 minutes. Top with toasted almonds, and serve immediately with boiled rice.
TCM's Footlight Parade Page
TCM's Busby Berkeley Bio
Footlight Parade, by Barbara Bernstein @ The Self-Referential Movie Site
Songwriter Harry Warren Fan Site
Footlight Parade DVD
TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection DVD Box Set: Busby Berkeley (Dames / Gold Diggers of 1937 / Footlight Parade / 42nd Street)
Lullaby Of Broadway: The Best Of Busby Berkeley At Warner Bros.: Motion Picture Soundtrack Anthology CD/MP3 Download
A History of Movie Musicals (Gotta Sing Gotta Dance), by John Kobal
Warner Brothers Directors: The hard-boiled, the comic, and the weepers, by William R. Meyer
The Genius of Busby Berkeley, by Bob Pike & Dave Martin
Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley (Screen Classics), by Jeffrey Spivak
The Busby Berkeley Book by Tony Thomas and Jim Terry
Ruby Keeler: A Photographic Biography, by Nancy Marlow-Trump
Cagney, by James Cagney
Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes (Hollywood Legends), by Matthew Kennedy
Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt A.K.A. Boris Karloff, by Cynthia Lindsay
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, by Richard Barrios
The Rough Guide to Film Musicals (Rough Guide Reference)
Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, by Andrew Coe