For a film historian and even for just a film buff, there is almost too much going on in 1933’s Dancing Lady. It’s pre-Code, coming at the end of 1933, which already makes it worthy of special attention, i.e., what are they going to try to get away with? It’s MGM’s answer to the successful Warner Brothers “new musicals” with Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and the kaleidoscopic dance patterns of Busby Berkeley (e.g., 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade). Dancing Lady features Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone as the leads—and this sentence has enough in just those few words to support a documentary. It also features the 3 Stooges (really); Fred Astaire in his first film (yes, really); greats like May Robson, Robert Benchley, Sterling Holloway, a too-short moment of a blonde Eve Arden; and an early blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Nelson Eddy before he teamed up with Jeanette MacDonald.
The first thing you might notice is the gloss. This is a thin story of a young woman who wants to dance, finds a rich supporter who keeps asking her to marry him every 15 minutes, and who finds herself trying not to fall in love with her director. Where to begin? Probably best to begin with Crawford. She is still lovely at this point in her career, with huge eyes and a heavily lipsticked mouth. Her acting still has a bit of humility and eagerness to it, in contrast to later years when she hardened into a near-parody of herself, and her acting became more confident and yet more stylized.
Crawford started her career in “legitimate” films in uncredited roles in 1925. She became a star and something of a “dance sensation” with 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, followed a few years later by Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). She was perhaps the greatest “jazz baby” of her day. Film historian and author Jeanine Basinger is kind in her description of Crawford’s talents: “As a dancer, Crawford was untrained but capable. Her dancing style was unpolished and her tapping is from the Ruby Keeler school [see above], which means hitting the floor hard and giving it all you’ve got.” I would more describe it as party girl dancing, with an emphasis on the Charleston and loose elbows. Basinger would go on to say that Crawford had a “fairly good voice.” I wouldn’t go that far. She has a very limited range, and while she’s not flat pitch-wise, her tone is. What’s funny here is watching her being presented as some kind of musical star, which she most certainly isn’t.
And that brings us to Astaire, who first appears as himself (at that point, a very famous half of a song-and-dance pair on Broadway with his sister), brought on to give poor Crawford some help with her leading musical role. It’s almost embarrassing to watch someone we know will soon become a legend, and who can dance anyone else off the screen, spend even a moment hoping to improve someone with Crawford’s limited terpsichorean gifts. He’s only on for a moment at first, and then it seems he disappears until the end of the film, where, like 42nd Street, the bulk of the musical numbers are presented as the new show opens. Like Gene Kelly, Astaire could dance down to the level of his partner, but it’s rather wild watching the great man do what he could to help his hard-working but only slightly talented partner. But these numbers, as a few others in the film do, borrow some tricks from Busby Berkeley in dazzling patterned overhead shots, and in numbers that literally “took off” from the stage into a purely cinematic space. What these lack is Warner Brothers’ sense of anarchy and surrealism (something MGM knew nothing about). But the lovely, even camerawork and beautiful lighting and set design is all MGM. Some numbers even presage the overwhelming sets and numbers of The Great Ziegfeld (1936). For someone much more familiar with the Warners musicals of that time, and the MGM musicals of the ‘40s, this film is new territory.
The supporting players, too, are dropped in just before reaching their own fame. Seeing the 3 Stooges in a serious high-end musical was unanticipated and almost confusing. Then seeing Nelson Eddy come on as simply “the singer” to help move things along is nearly over the top. Robert Benchley, Stanley Holloway, and Eve Arden would all become bigger films stars in the next few years.
But perhaps the strangest part of the movie experience was the disconnect on the screen (or the actual connection off the screen) among the three leads. Franchot Tone played the rich man in love with Crawford’s character, and it was obvious she could settle for this man and be comfortable. But it wasn’t so much because of any love for Gable’s character as much as the simple fact that she didn’t love Tone’s character. The movie ends with Crawford and Gable in a clinch, as if the movie were a romance, which is primarily is not. What makes this fascinating is that Crawford and Gable apparently had a decades-long affair that, on and off, lasted through their several marriages. Most contend that while this is was the third film they co-starred in, the actual affair began during this film. But Crawford married not Gable but Tone just two years later, with the two divorcing in 1939. So watching the three of them interact, and watching the “chasing” of Crawford by Tone, and the obvious connection with Gable, made this an unusual experience.
A note on Gable: I’ve seen Gable in a lot of films, but I generally see the legend rather than the actor. I thought he was fine in his Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, and I still think—in spite of the Oscar nomination—that he was underrated in Gone with the Wind. But here he was excellent, and a joy to watch. His character certainly had the machismo we expect, and some of the toughness we’ve come to know. But this performance is much more than that, with various layers of humanity, and it’s the best surprise of a film packed with surprises.
I can’t vouch for how entertaining this film would be for someone without a sense of film history. It’s pretty, but the story is hackneyed, Crawford can’t really sing or dance, and the few numbers with Astaire are the only musical entertainment worth one’s time. But for a film historian and anyone who wants to give it a try after reading this article, the film is dizzying.
Next up: My thoughts on the Oscar nominations for this most unusual film year.