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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Doctor Bull (1933)

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  • directed by John Ford
  • starring Will Rogers, Vera Allen, Marian Nixon, Howard Lally, Andy Devine, Rochelle Hudson, Elizabeth Patterson
  • Dr. George Bull, a no-nonsense country health officer who has served his community for decades, fights small-town prejudice and provincialism.

“Yes, sir…if I just had some house slippers now, I’d be right at home.”

Somehow I had been oblivious to the existence of circus performer, vaudeville and silent film star, radio man, lecturer, humorist, goodwill ambassador, philosopher, Beverly Hills mayor, and one-time presidential candidate Will Rogers, and consider me surprised if I come across anybody who packed more living into life between the years of 1910 and 1935. Doctor Bull along with Henry King’s State Fair this same year kicked off the final phase of Rogers’ career as a good-natured, simple, and wit-smart kind of leading man.

Rogers hand selected his personal favorite director, John Ford, to take the reins on Doctor Bull, along with Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend in the following years. Speaking of the former, though I’m sure this applies to the next two, they were intended most of all as a showcase for Rogers’ extremely popular persona. In his performances, columns, and various other outlets the man did more than most in shepherding the public and culture through the epic shifts of the 20s and 30s. He could connect on a “those were the good old days level,” while also maintaining a progressive edge that said, folks, there’s nothing much terrible about all the NEW that’s been goin’ on.

That’s more or less the entire plot of Doctor Bull. Everything is a scandal in the small town of New Winton, be it a widow being pursued by a new man or a couple of sarcastic quips thrown around to lighten the mood of a sudden death or medical emergency. George Bull is at the center of all of it. He has the manner and appearance of a closed-minded yokel but none of the ignorance and humorlessness. Bull takes his healing and life-saving duties seriously, but is equally at home blowing off appointments to relax with his girl, the widow Cardmaker, or throw back some drinks with the guys. Professionally he is caring and thorough but his background is in “treatin’ cows, not folks.” It reminded me of an old grade-school nurse of mine. Headache? Let’s take your temperature. Sprained ankle? Let’s get that temperature. Hangnail? Let’s take your temperature. For all of Bull’s eccentricities (telling a group of mourners at a graveyard, “why all the tears, did one escape?”), he got the job done, sacrificed himself often, and had New Winton and its people deep in his mind, heart, and soul.

Dr. Bull’s appointment book provides the blueprint for most of the film—a baby delivery here, some vaccinations for schoolchildren there, and then there are the major cases that weigh on him emotionally, such as curing his receptionist’s husband of his paralysis. Little by little as he bounces around helping, the overarching theme of Bull’s struggles with the townspeople and the outright war within himself concerning his limitations begins to take shape.

It was a simple story, but a very pleasant and comfortable one. Kind of an off-brand task for the usually more commanding John Ford, but I’m sure not an unwelcome one to work with the top-grossing star in Hollywood during the peak years of the Great Depression. Ford provided the perfect small town atmosphere and I particularly loved his shot introducing the town of New Winton, with the stationary camera panning widely from one edge of town to the left, arriving all the way right to the church at the other end. With the exception of slight choices by Ford and some truly funny moments arising from Elizabeth Patterson’s outrage and Andy Devine’s persistence, the film’s success relied mainly on the likeability factor of Will Rogers and hey now that was just alright wit’ me.

The Invisible Man (1933)

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  • directed by James Whale
  • starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor
  • A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so he becomes murderously insane.

“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and rape, and kill.”

After finishing my third James Whale film in a few short weeks, it’s become quite clear that he was a master of balancing many different tones throughout his films. In The Invisible Man, a concept itself that is by nature kind of silly, Whale heightens the humor with the help of Una O’Connor’s hilarious and loud performance in the first half and with plenty of effects-laden visual gags all throughout. The levity is seamlessly tempered with just enough romance, just enough action, nearly flawless effects work, moments of pathos, and a shocking rampage in the conclusion that results in a body count of more than 150. It all amounts to a movie, like Whale’s The Old Dark House and Frankenstein, which is always interesting, completely confident, and endlessly entertaining. As good as Whale was, a lot of the credit for the effectiveness of this film goes to a very real and carefully crafted performance from Claude Rains. To be so commanding while being heard but not seen, the opposite of a silent film actor at a time when studios were still finding their footing in a sound universe, is an impressive feat.

If I had one tiny gripe (it would be a larger gripe in a film that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy on the whole but I cut this one slack), it would be the too-sudden swings in Griffin’s intentions and attitude. One minute his priority is achieving peace and quiet to reverse his invisibility, something that should be fairly easy in his hidden state, and the next minute he’s welcoming a manhunt by needlessly killing a police officer. One minute he’s showing a soft side and promising Flora that he will soon return to her a normal man, and the next he is toying around with train tracks to send a hundred people careening off a cliff (great scene nonetheless). I never got a handle on what he was aiming to accomplish at any given point, but now that I think about it, maybe that is the nature of insanity as laid out by Whale and writer H.G. Wells.

Another great scene featured Griffin first explaining his condition to his would-be partner Kemp and it was a speech that in any movie like this I will always expect to be a bare-minimum, plot-driven explanation to keep the audience up to speed. Instead, probably thanks to Wells’ words, there was great poetry in Rains’ delivery as he said, “the food is visible in me until it is digested. I can only work on fine, clear days. If I work in the rain, the water can be seen on my head and shoulders. In a fog you can see me like a bubble. In smoky cities the soot settles on me until you can see a dark outline. You must always be near at hand to wipe off my feet. It is difficult at first to walk down stairs. We are so accustomed to watching our feet.” Great symmetry, too, that it was the watching of his feet that ultimately led to his capture and death.