Thursday, May 15, 2008

Early Crawford & Gable: "Dance, Fools, Dance"

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Sunday night I’d run Dance, Fools, Dance, a quite entertaining 1931 genre-bender from MGM obviously designed as a vehicle for Joan Crawford — not only is she billed above the title but the name of the film is obviously intended to cue audience memories of her star-making 1928 silent Our Dancing Daughters — and which has made the history books mainly as the first on-screen teaming of her and Clark Gable. Not that it’s much of a teaming; it was only Gable’s second film as an MGM contract player (in his first, The Easiest Way, he’d played a socialite whom the heroine, Constance Bennett, spurned to marry her poor but nice boyfriend) and his first role as a gangster — it’s clear from the way MGM cast him in the first two years or so that they saw Gable largely as their equivalent to Warners’ James Cagney, and only when that clearly didn’t work (as a gangster Gable was effective but not especially distinguished, tending to snarl his lines and portray a stock figure of menace rather than the truly threatening psychopathology Cagney projected in his gangster roles) did they move him into romantic leads. Gable is billed sixth, under such forgotten juveniles as Lester Vail and William Bakewell.

The opening of the film takes place on a yacht, in the middle of a wild party in which Bonnie Jordan (Crawford) and her brother Rodney, a.k.a. “Roddy” (Bakewell) induce the other youthful guests to strip down to their underwear and dive off the yacht into the lake (probably Lake Michigan, since we find out midway through the film that it’s supposed to be taking place in Chicago) while some of the older people at the party tsk-tsk but their father, Stanley Jordan (the elder William Holden — and no relation to the later one, whose real last name was “Beedle”), founder of the Jordan Chemical Company, tells his friends to let the young people enjoy themselves because youth is short enough as it is. Then the 1929 stock market crash happens and the overextended Jordan loses all his money and drops dead of a heart attack on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange — and all of a sudden Bonnie and Roddy have to work for a living.

Judging from the title and Crawford’s reputation as a dancer (already established in the silent era and cemented in early talkies like Hollywood Revue of 1929) one would have thought that she would have found a job dancing in a nightclub or a show. Instead, this film’s writer, Aurania Rouverol (best known because the entire MGM Hardy Family series was based on a play of hers called Skidding, though her play was a courtroom melodrama whose only connection with the later films was that there was a judge in it named Hardy and he had a wife and several kids), has her get a job as a reporter for a local paper, the Star, and though she’s relegated to covering animal shows at first she soon applies Joan Crawford’s incredible determination and drive (she frequently played characters who were as unstoppable in their ambitions as she was for real) allow her to work her way up — as does the mentorship of the paper’s ace gangland reporter, Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards, shorn of his “Ukulele Ike” persona and quite good in a straight dramatic role). Meanwhile, unwilling to take a bank clerk job offered to him by a friend of his father, Roddy has gone to work doing sales for a bootlegger, Wally Baxter (Earle Foxe), who’s part of the organization of gangster/nightclub owner Jake Luva (Clark Gable — you see, we finally got to him!).

Luva, concerned that the high-priced celebrity trade is deserting him for another gang’s products, has the leader and six other members of the rival gang cornered in a garage, where his own gunmen shoot them all (can you say “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”?). Roddy happened to be involved when one of the hit men had Roddy drive him to the site of the mass killing, and in a bar he blabs this to Scranton. When Luva learns that a member of his organization has confessed his role in the massacre — and to a reporter, no less — he orders Roddy to kill Scranton, with two of his other gunmen trained on Roddy so he knows he’ll be killed if he doesn’t follow through. Bonnie, anxious to find out who killed her friend from the paper, infiltrates Luva’s organization, taking a job at his nightclub as a dancer (you see, we finally got to something to justify the film’s title!), where she does a nice dance number to Cornell Smelser’s song “Accordion Joe” with a chorus line of women who, though not at the “Beef Trust” level of heftiness of the dancers in Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause, are certainly far more amply figured than the anorexics who get to work jobs like this today (“They have hips!” my partner Charles exclaimed in surprise).

When she answers the phone in Luva’s private office — where he’s taken her for less than honorable purposes — Bonnie recognizes her brother’s voice and pieces together the whole thing, and in a final shootout Roddy and Luva kill each other, Bonnie gets the scoop of her career but then quits the paper and marries the nice, still-rich young man, Bob Townsend (Lester Vail), who had proposed to her several reels earlier but whom she thought was just offering to marry her out of pity and to keep her from having to live poor. Though the title is a cheat — we see surprisingly little dancing, amateur or professional, and any 1931 moviegoer who went to this thinking it was going to be a sound reworking of Our Dancing Daughters was probably more than a bit disappointed — it’s a movie that smoothly manages its genre transitions from light-hearted youth comedy to proletarian drama to gangster movie to out-and-out melodrama.

Part of the credit goes to director Harry Beaumont, a virtually forgotten figure today even though his film The Broadway Melody was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and according to film historian Richard Barrios he had a lot more clout than many more famous directors were allowed at MGM. The Beaumont films I’ve seen — The Broadway Melody (despite some technical clunkiness), Lord Byron of Broadway (ditto, though on that one he co-directed with future Monogram schlock-meister William Nigh), this one and the 1935 version of Enchanted April — have all been well worth seeing, and each has offered at least one performance of legitimate dramatic intensity. Joan Crawford is quite good in this movie, though one can see the gear-shifts coming when the script requires her to do sudden shifts of emotion (which is quite a lot); she was never the world’s most subtle actress, but she’s more than adequate here (for a part that was, let’s face it, written for her and custom-tailored to play to her strengths and minimize her weaknesses), though the rest of the cast (Gable excepted) is pretty tacky and it’s not at all hard to figure out why Crawford and Gable are the only people here you’ve actually heard of.

Later in 1931 MGM would reshuffle some of the basic plot elements of Dance, Fools, Dance into an even better movie, A Free Soul, based on a story by a better woman writer than Aurania Rouverol (Adela Rogers St. John), directed by a stronger hand than Harry Beaumont’s (Clarence Brown) and with three of the four principals replaced by stronger actors: Norma Shearer as the heroine, Leslie Howard as the nice guy she jilts for gangster Gable (to whom, in this version, she’s genuinely attracted) and Lionel Barrymore as her father, who in A Free Soul doesn’t have to croak of a heart attack until the very end of the movie (a trial sequence in which he, an attorney — as was Adela Rogers St. John’s real father — is defending Howard in court for killing Gable); but this one is still pretty good and eminently watchable.