Saturday, January 11, 2014

Dancing Lady (MGM, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As part of Turner Classic Movies’ current “Star of the Month” tribute to Joan Crawford, they showed her fascinating 1933 musical Dancing Lady last Wednesday, January 8. Here are my comments on it from the last time I saw the film:

Anyway, Charles and I got off early enough so we could go out for dinner (at the Bombay Express) and then repair to his place for a very interesting 1933 musical: Dancing Lady, produced by David O. Selznick at MGM, directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, with supporting appearances by Franchot Tone, May Robson, Fred Astaire (in his film debut), Nelson Eddy (in his second film), Robert Benchley, Ted Healy and the Three Stooges. (Fred Astaire, the epitome of movie class; and the Three Stooges, the epitome of movie classlessness; in the same film — the mind reels.) A fairly obvious knockoff of 42nd Street, Dancing Lady is based on a novel by James Warner Bellah — usually known as a Western writer (the most famous movie based on anything he wrote is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, second in the so-called “Cavalry Trilogy” — even though the stories were completely independent — directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne) and in some respects is even better than its Warners model. It helps that Joan Crawford is a much better actress than Ruby Keeler, and the screenwriters (Allen Rivkin and P. J. Wolfson) actually gave her a character with some dramatic definition and emotional complexity (even though she was just a singing-and-dancing version of the character she was playing in most of her dramatic films in the early 1930’s: the shopgirl determined to raise her economic position without letting herself become a rich man’s mistress, and ultimately succeeding in getting a nice man to fall genuinely and respectably in love with her). In this film, Crawford is the Ruby Keeler equivalent (though she gets the lead in the musical show not because the star breaks her leg, but because she gets fired) and Gable is the Warner Baxter equivalent — the tough, no-nonsense director who’s determined to whittle Crawford down to size. The clash of their attitudes is the most entertaining thing about this movie — certainly more entertaining than the big production numbers, which are obviously attempts to imitate Busby Berkeley but make the same error just about everyone else who tried to duplicate Berkeley fell into: lack of continuity. What Arlene Croce wrote about Dave Gould’s staging of the big production numbers in the first two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcée, also applies to the numbers created for Sammy Lee’s and Edward Prinz’ work here:

Gould’s staging of the dances has a theme-and-variations plot but no continuity within the dance structure. He merely cuts, dissolves or flash-pans from one formation to the next, and [Hermes] Pan’s ensembles in “The Piccolino” [from Top Hat] follow the same procedure. There was no excitement in the permutations to compare with the unfolding logic — or the surrealistic illogic — of Busby Berkeley’s numbers at Warners (cf. the inexorable “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935).

Croce also notes about Astaire’s film debut in Dancing Lady:

His role in Dancing Lady is a bit — a prestigious bit, but a bit. We wait an eternity for him to appear, and when he does — as himself (Gable, a director holding a rehearsal, calls out, “Oh, Fred, will you come here, please?”[1]) — he has two lines and then partners Joan Crawford in a run-through of her big number. After a few seconds, Joan gets a muscle cramp and Fred disappears until the end of the picture. The number is then seen. Actually it is four numbers run together and Astaire appears in two of them: “Heigh-Ho, the Gang’s All Here,” an old Burton Lane-Harold Adamson song here given the white-tie-and-tails treatment, and “Let’s Go Bavarian,” which Lane and Adamson almost certainly dashed off with Astaire in mind, since it’s an obvious pastiche of “I Love Louisa” from his show The Band Wagon. He doesn’t get to do a solo and all too evidently was written into the picture at the last minute.

What saves Dancing Lady are, surprisingly, the plot and dramatic performances rather than the numbers. Crawford actually turns in quite a remarkable performance, capturing the character’s desperation, commitment to her craft, unwillingness to depend on anyone else and basic morality, even though at the beginning of the movie she’s making her living as a stripper in a burlesque house that’s raided. And, though James Robert Parish (in the Gable-Crawford chapter in Hollywood’s Great Love Teams) said he thought Gable was miscast and “seemed very awkward and ill at ease,” I actually found his performance quite credible — one of his better ones from the period (and by then he had grown the famous moustache that did so much to give his face some character), ably capturing both the director’s perfectionism and his attitude. With Franchot Tone as his rich rival for Crawford’s affections, Gable wins out because he can match Crawford attitude to attitude — and though they end up in a clinch at the fadeout it’s clear that for her, his attraction is primarily professional and only secondarily romantic or sexual. The film also benefits from nice supporting performances from Benchley (as a gossip columnist), Robson (as Tone’s grandmother) and Eve Arden (unbilled, as the star Crawford replaces), and the Three Stooges appear doing the same act they would do for the next three decades — though Larry Fine also has a non-Stooge role in the film as Gable’s rehearsal pianist.

As for Astaire, as Croce noted above he’s barely in the film; in “Heigh-Ho, the Gang’s All Here” he does an embryonic version of an Astaire-Rogers routine (and Crawford gets to do her best dancing in the film, ably keeping up with him), following which they step onto a circular rug in the middle of the set and keep up their dance routine as the rug takes off and flies, transporting them to Germany for the Bavarian number (and when they alight both of them have mysteriously changed costumes — Astaire had on lederhosen and Crawford has not only exchanged her evening gown for a dirndl, she’s grown a long, blonde, pig-tailed wig!). The other numbers — a snatch of the title song as a tag for the whole film and an elaborate production called “That’s the Rhythm of the Day” (sung by Nelson Eddy, who was not exactly the right person to bring jazz to the 18th century, as the number shows him doing — “If anything, it should have been the other way around!” Charles commented — if they had to have Eddy in this film, they should have given him the beautiful Lane-Adamson ballad, “Everything I Have Is Yours” — marvelously revived by Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan a decade and a half later — which instead went to a nerdy Irish tenor named Art Jarrett, with sotto voce scat-vocal asides from Crawford) — are equally over the top; the highlight of “Rhythm” is an enormous merry-go-round set with mirrors on the hub which turn the whole set into a gigantic kaleidoscope. (One can readily imagine Prinz and Lee conferring about this number: “Well, Busby Berkeley arranges his chorus girls to look like they’re part of a kaleidoscope — we’ll turn our whole set into a real kaleidoscope!”) In all of this, however, Joan Crawford acquits herself quite well; she sings acceptably (about as well as Ruby Keeler ever did, and considerably better than she had in Hollywood Revue of 1929), she dances quite well and it remains a real mystery why Crawford didn’t make another musical until Torch Song 20 years later! (Crawford was set for the 1935 MGM film Reckless, but at the last minute, for reasons that remain mysterious and inexplicable, she was replaced by Jean Harlow — who couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance and required both voice and body doubles for a role Crawford could have played quite capably on her own.) — 5//26/98

[1] — It startled Charles that they didn’t even bother to come up with a character name for him — he merely played a dancer in Gable’s show named “Fred Astaire”! And in his next film, Flying Down to Rio, he was called “Fred Ayres,” a name kept deliberately close to his own.