Monday, April 29, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: DANCING LADY (1933)

There's something of a kitchen sink feeling about Dancing Lady (1933) that is bound to pique the interest of any classic film fan. You want Busby Berkeley style musical numbers with lots of skin? Done. How about Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone in a steamy love triangle? Yes, you can have that, too. But wait, you say you want more? How about the official screen debut of Fred Astaire? Dancing Lady has that covered, as well. Just for kicks, it also throws in the Three Stooges yukking it up, Nelson Eddy singing, Sterling Holloway pitching a fit, and Eve Arden and Lynn Bari making early uncredited appearances. If it's not the best of the 1930s musicals (and it's definitely not), all of these goodies at least make Dancing Lady one of the most jam-packed, and certainly entertaining enough to be worth watching.

Joan Crawford stars as Janie Barlow, an aspiring dancer who gets a lucky break when a wealthy admirer named Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) helps her escape the burlesque shows for more legitimate theater. Tod has plans to make Janie the star of his bedroom as well as the stage, but Janie's gratitude only goes so far, especially after she meets Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable), a temperamental director who realizes that Janie has real talent. Tod ups the ante by proposing marriage, but Janie feels torn between her dreams of stardom, her feelings for Patch, and her opportunity to trade everything else for a life of leisure as Mrs. Tod Newton.

The story works well enough as a romantic drama, although Franchot Tone's character is rather hard to pin down; should we think he's a manipulative heel or a smitten guy just trying to get the girl by any means necessary? The real chemistry is clearly between Crawford and Gable, but there's still enough heat coming off of Crawford and Tone to keep things up in the air. In real life, Crawford carried on affairs with both Gable and Tone, and she actually married Tone in 1935 (they would divorce in 1939). Crawford is at her best in passionate clinches with both of her leading men, but her brief scenes with Astaire reveal the limitations of her abilities. He floats away, while she stomps out a hoofer's heavy beats, leaving the audience wondering exactly what kind of talent the show's managers think they see in her.

In keeping with its kitchen sink ambitions, Dancing Lady throws in musical numbers and comedy in more or less equal amounts with its drama. Imitating the successful 42nd Street (1933), which had come out earlier the same year, the movie offers a lot of chorus girls in weirdly suggestive outfits doing some very improbable dance routines, and this is certainly entertaining in its own way, although the choreography is not as eye-popping as that done by Busby Berkeley. Equally weird, and perhaps more entertaining, are the scenes featuring Ted Healy and the Stooges, especially the "brush-off" segment with the Stooges wrecking Janie's audition. Janie's sidekick, Rosette (Winnie Lightner), also provides some memorable laughs, as does May Robson as Tod's mostly deaf grandmother. Eve Arden and Lynn Bari appear only briefly, although Arden does get a few good lines. Sterling Holloway enjoys a more noteworthy role in which he huffs and puffs in vain at Clark Gable's Patch.

If you want to see more films directed by Robert Z. Leonard, try The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and In the Good Old Summertime (1949). For other Joan Crawford films with Clark Gable, see Possessed (1931), Love on the Run (1936), and Strange Cargo (1940). Franchot Tone earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), in which Gable also stars, but you can also catch him with Jean Harlow in The Girl from Missouri (1934) and with Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935). If you can't get enough of the early 1930s musical style, move on to 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933).