Sunday, May 10, 2015

Dancing Lady (MGM, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got off early enough so we could go out for dinner 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 1936 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


Charles and I watched the 1933 film Dancing Lady, a big-budget (they spent almost $1 million on it, a lot of money in 1933) MGM attempt at a knock-off of Warner Bros.’ 42nd Street and, at least to me, a better movie than the one they were ripping off. It’s basically the same story — a tough-minded Broadway choreographer plucks an unknown out of the chorus and makes her an overnight star in a big show he has to finance himself after his backer abruptly pulls out — but it’s got some interesting wrinkles that make it considerably tougher and less sentimental than its model (not the way you usually expect a comparison between a Warner Bros. and an MGM film to work). Dancing Lady was more or less produced by David O. Selznick — one of only two musicals he ever made (the other, two years later, was Reckless, also at MGM) — during the unhappy two years he spent as an MGM unit producer between his abrupt resignation as studio head of RKO (where he greenlighted King Kong and signed Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and his formation, with backer John Hay Whitney, of the independent Selznick International studio. The reason those years were unhappy was that he had married Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene, and the joke around town was that was the only reason he’d got the job: his situation was described in a pun on the title of Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel, “The Son-in-Law Also Rises.” John W. Considine, who’d come from First National to United Artists to MGM and was described by people who knew him (including writer Anita Loos) as one of the most tasteless producers in Hollywood, was credited as “associate producer” probably because he knew more about making musicals than Selznick did. As a source for the story, MGM bought the rights to a novel by, of all people, James Warner Bellah, whose best-known movie credit is supplying the story for the John Wayne-John Ford cavalry epic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon 16 years later — hardly the sort of writer one expects to see on a major musical. They assigned Allen Rivkin and P. J. Wolfson to write it and came up with a plot that, if they’d been interested in continuing a series the way Warners was doing with the Gold Diggers movies, they could well have called Broadway Melody of 1933 since it has much the same mix of characters, situations and veiled but still unmistakable sexual politics.

The film opens with millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) taking his current date “slumming” to a burlesque house, where a chorus line is performing a raucous number called “Hey! Young Fella” (also heard on the last session guitarist Eddie Lang ever recorded, a marvelous February 28, 1933 jazz date with Joe Venuti and Jimmy Dorsey that also produced “Raggin’ the Scale,” “Jigsaw Puzzle Blues” and “Pink Elephants”), following which Winnie Lightner, a surprising name to see on the cast because she was usually associated with Warners, coming on and doing a rather decorous striptease to the song “Hold Your Man” (actually written as the title song of a previous MGM movie from 1932 starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, their most underrated collaboration). Then the police come and raid the theatre, busting all the chorus girls and not even giving them the opportunity to change into street clothes. Our Heroine, Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford), whom we first saw standing next to Rosette LaRue (Lightner) as she did her big number, is sentenced to a $30 fine or 30 days in jail. She has no money, but Tod is sufficiently “taken” with her (as Franchot Tone was in real life; they married shortly after this film was completed) that he not only pays her fine but starts dating her. Janie Barlow is a much more complicated character than Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), her equivalent in 42nd Street (at least the one in the film; according to Richard Barrios, in Bradford Ropes’ book on which 42nd Street was based Peggy Sawyer was a forerunner of Eve Harrington, all smiles and seeming innocence before she makes it big and all scheming and diva-dom afterwards); while Rosie, her roommate, urges her to get out of the dancing racket and snag Tod while he’s still available and interested in her, all Janie wants is to dance, and she’ll do that wherever she can — even in burlesque. Her interest in dance leads her to stalk super-choreographer Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) until he agrees to audition her — though, unbeknownst to either of them, Janie finally lands her audition through the good graces of Tod, who buys an interest in the show from backer Jasper Bradley (Grant Mitchell), who got into show business via the interest of his incompetent doofus son Jasper Bradley, Jr. (Maynard Holmes in the kind of part that would later become Grady Sutton’s specialty), who majored in drama in college and apparently learned nothing from the experience. Tod tells Bradley, Sr. he’s got a girl he’s interested in, and Gallagher, assuming he’s going to be auditioning some rich guy’s no-talent girlfriend, instructs his assistant Ted (Ted Healy) to have his rehearsal pianist (Larry Fine) and his stagehands Moe and Joe Howard to sabotage the audition and give her the brush-off. In case those names sound familiar, they’re the Three Stooges — they were originally billed as “Ted Healy and His Stooges” and made a number of films for MGM, some shorts (including a few experimental ones in color) and also brief appearances in features like this one. Then Healy decided he didn’t need them anymore, fired them and stayed at MGM as a character actor until his death in 1937 — and the Stooges were picked up by Columbia and enlisted for the 23-year series of shorts that were later sold to TV in the 1950’s and are the basis of their enduring fame. Healy and the Stooges do their best to screw up Janie’s audition, but Healy notices that she has real talent and insists on giving her another chance, this time with Gallagher watching.

Gallagher signs her up for the chorus and says that if she works out well he’ll give her a featured spot in the show, and on that basis she endures the insanely exhausting rehearsal schedule he puts her and the other chorines through. At the same time Gallagher is especially rough on choristers who stay out all night, drink and come in for rehearsal the next day the worse for wear. He’s also rough on the star of his show, Vivian Warner (Gloria Foy), who midway through rehearsals he decides is inadequate for the lead; and on the writer, Pinky (Sterling Holloway), whom he accuses of writing a show stuck in the 19th century. He wants to revamp the production so it’s the story of a woman who comes to New York with nothing but a determination to make good as a dancer — and you don’t need two guesses whom he wants to cast in the lead of that version. Rehearsals continue and Crawford gets to do a big run-through of one of the big numbers with Fred Astaire (in his first film, wearing a thin moustache, almost unrecognizable and displaying almost none of the personality he would rise to stardom with in the upcoming series with Ginger Rogers at RKO) before she gets a sprain and has to stop. Gallagher massages her and she enjoys his physical attentions, but in the meantime she’s still been seeing Tod and she’s spent a weekend at his parents’ home, hanging out with his nearly deaf maternal grandmother Dolly Todhunter (the always delightful character actress May Robson) and swimming in a pool so full of aquatic statuary, including great columns of fake coral, it looks like the sort of thing MGM’s set designers were constructing for Esther Williams’ big numbers 15 years later. Janie makes the mistake of telling Tod that if her show is a flop she’ll marry him, while if it’s a hit she’ll continue her career — and Tod gets the Bradleys to pull their money out of the show and close it down, then takes Janie to Cuba on a pre-marital vacation (where their nightclub jaunts look like stock footage left over from MGM’s Cuban Love Song with Lawrence Tibbett two years earlier and the song we get on the soundtrack is Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney”). Patch is furious with Janie and Tod for pulling the plug on his show and costing 100 people real or potential jobs (he’s especially angry that, at Tod’s insistence, Janie was being paid for rehearsals while none of the other cast members were), so he decides to finance the show himself and re-recruits Vivian Warner for the lead — only when she walks on the eve of the opening Janie nobly volunteers to step in in her stead, pointing out that she rehearsed enough of the show she knows all the routines. Accordingly Janie does the show, it’s a success and, even though Tod is now willing to let her continue working even if she marries him, but instead she decides to stay not only with show business but with the man who can partner her both personally and professionally, and the final scene is the expected clinch between Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.

Dancing Lady is probably more remembered today for the big guest stars it helped introduce, Fred Astaire (in his first film) and Nelson Eddy (in his second, after Broadway to Hollywood). It has one major flaw in common with 42nd Street: all the big production numbers are back-loaded onto the end of the film instead of being interspersed throughout, and of the four songs we see performed at the end of the film Astaire is in the first two, “Heigh-Ho, the Gang’s All Here” and “Let’s Go Bavarian.” Both songs are about beer — I’m not making this up, you know — and though Astaire shows up in his trademark top hat, white tie and tails (it would not be until The Sky’s the Limit, made in 1943, that he’d make a film in which he didn’t dress that way in at least one scene) and he and Crawford partner each other acceptably, they’re both tapping and they don’t get the chance to do a romantic dance together. (Ask virtually any film buff who was Astaire’s first female dancing partner on screen and they’ll probably guess Ginger Rogers; it was actually Joan Crawford!) Midway through the “Heigh-Ho” number the round carpet Astaire and Crawford are standing (and occasionally dancing) on suddenly takes off and flies (though magic carpets had been a staple on screen at least until the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. vehicle The Thief of Baghdad from 1923), making a bee-line to Germany for the “Let’s Go Bavarian” number, also about beer — obviously songwriters Burton Lane and Harold Adamson were trying to duplicate the success of the “beer song” “I Love Louisa” from the last Fred and Adele Astaire stage musical, The Band Wagon (1930). Then the scene shifts to a 19th century garden park and the stentorian voice of Nelson Eddy informing us that that sort of thing is hopelessly out of date and the choristers need to get with it and adopt the “Rhythm of the Day” — which they do by going through a magic archway that converts them from the 19th century to 1933, change their horse-drawn carriages to cars and, in one audacious gag that marks Dancing Lady as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era, a man in a full suit of armor goes through the archway and emerges as a prissy handkerchief-waving queen. The scene shifts to a giant merry-go-round in which the central hub is ringed with giant mirrors, as if director Robert Z. Leonard (usually a hack, but here he gets some quite interesting and occasionally almost proto-noir compositions) and choreographers Sammy Lee and an uncredited Eddie Prinz had decided to go Busby Berkeley one better: instead of arranging chorines into a kaleidoscope pattern and filming them from above, they’d build a real kaleidoscope on their set. Eventually the number ends with a brief paean to Joan Crawford’s dancing skills set to a title song we’ve previously heard very little of, though this being MGM instead of fading out on the end of the number it ends with a wrap-up of the romantic intrigues and the big Crawford-Gable clinch.

Dancing Lady was made while Crawford was already one of MGM’s biggest stars and Gable was still on his way up — that’s why the first title card says “Joan Crawford and Clark Gable,” the second has the name of the film and the third offers the miscellaneous cast members: Franchot Tone, May Robson, Winnie Lightner, Fred Astaire (playing a character called “Fred Astaire” — in his next film, Flying Down to Rio, he would be “Fred Ayres”) and Robert Benchley (considerably thinner and less avuncular than he would be in his later MGM shorts, playing a gossip columnist who’s pissing Gallagher off by dropping hints of the real relationship between Tod and Janie and how it allegedly got Janie the big part in the new show). Charles seemed surprised that Crawford was considered a bigger star than Gable in 1933 — but she was; it would be with the smash success of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1934 (a “punishment” loanout Louis B. Mayer arranged with Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures) that Gable would make the final leap from star to superstar. Astaire comes across surprisingly weakly in a role that didn’t give him much of a chance to shine — after watching Dancing Lady one can more readily understand the reaction of the Paramount talent scout who wrote off Astaire with the immortal words, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little” (just as listening to the Beatles’ January 1, 1962 audition tape for Decca Records makes the Decca executives who didn’t sign them seem less dumb — when I got the bootleg album containing them my then-girlfriend and I both had the same reaction: we looked at each other and said, “If this is what we’d had to go on, we wouldn’t have signed them either!”) — and as I noted the last time we watched Dancing Lady, Nelson Eddy would have been a lot more suitable for a song that flashed back from 1933 to the 19th century and emphasized the commonality of music and dance through the years rather than one that was supposed to epitomize the progress that had been made in those fields since then. If Eddy had to be in this film, they should have given him the lovely Lane-Adamson ballad “Everything I Have Is Yours,” sung about midway through the film by pathetic Irish-tenor wanna-be Art Jarrett in one of those weird period vocals that makes it sound like he’s trying to sing while being strangled. “Everything I Have Is Yours” is the only song from Dancing Lady that became a standard, though it would have to wait over a decade — after the rediscovery of the 1931 song “As Time Goes By” following its use as the theme song in Casablanca, quite a few 1940’s singers started raiding the stage and film musicals of a decade earlier for suitable material; usually the rediscoveries were done by Frank Sinatra, but “Everything I Have Is Yours” got brought back to the public consciousness in the mid-1940’s by two great African-American singers, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan. — 5/10/15

[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.