Dancing Lady (1933)

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  • directed by Robert Z. Leonard
  • starring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Robert Benchley, Fred Astaire, Nelson Eddy, Ted Healy and His Stooges
  • A dancer is torn between a millionaire playboy and her stage manager.

“I’ve got good legs, Mr. Gallagher.”

There were a series of hail mary passes thrown by MGM with the release of Dancing Lady. First, it was a chance to get one of its shining stars Joan Crawford back into the good graces of audiences after a small streak of missteps. Bigger than that, though, it was the studios official bid for a chunk of high-profile, big screen musical extravaganza real estate after Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers had been kaleidoscopically cornering that market for years. So MGM took some faulty parts and a minor script that tells of a scrappy burlesque starlet with big theater dreams and attempted to put together a huge, glitzy, state of the art musical machine.

There were big victories scored with the movie and not just financially. Joan Crawford was perfect in the non-singing and dancing scenes as Janie Barlow and naturally she had plenty of chemistry with Clark Gable, a man she had off and on romantic dealings with for years. Her character’s journey was predictable but Crawford put forth a vulnerable toughness that saved her in my eyes from what could have easily been a movie-ruining lack of command on the stage itself. It was striking to see just how confident her acting was in some scenes contrasted with how detached she became when it came time to sing or dance. There were dozens of people around for every rehearsal of the onscreen production of Dancing Lady, including Gable as the anguished and tough as nails overseer, Patch Gallagher, and yet nobody ever questioned having an oddly uncharismatic singer and dancer at the center of it all. To make matters worse the costumes that Crawford wore while dancing appeared to be extremely ill-fitting and restrictive.

Dancing Lady is best remembered as the gathering spot for an impressive amount of film debuts. The Three Stooges, billed as Ted Healy and His Stooges, introduce themselves to the world as a bunch of goof-off stagehands. In a lot of scenes they can be spotted in the background performing versions of their slapstick irrelevant to the film’s main narrative. Nelson Eddy sings “That’s the Rhythm of the Day” in one of his first-ever appearances after signing with MGM. Blink and you’ll miss a young Eve Arden strolling through one of the audition scenes. Biggest of all though is Fred Astaire, formally introduced by name and dancing in the show’s biggest numbers in his trademark top hat and tails. There is little remarkable about Astaire’s work in this first appearance but even while dumbing down his abilities to meet his partner in the middle, I defy anyone’s eyes to even glance at Crawford while they dance together.

Crawford and Astaire was an unfair partnership to the both of them and it underscores a lot of MGM and David O. Selznick’s misguided intentions in approaching their first big musical production. Most of the performers in Patch Gallagher’s Dancing Lady came across as unnatural performers playing performers. And you can’t just tack a Busby Berkeley-ish sequence onto the end of it and call it a day. Simply put there was too strong a Hollywood mentality on the part of Joan Crawford and the film’s producers to properly sell any authentic Broadway spirit.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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