Saturday, June 10, 2017

Stubs - Dance, Fools, Dance

Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) Starring Joan Crawford, Lester Vail, Cliff Edwards, William Bakewell, William Holden, Clark Gable. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Screenplay by Aurania Rouverol. Produced by Irving Thalberg (uncredited). Runtime: 80 minutes. U.S.A. Drama

Born Lucille LeSueur, Joan Crawford became a star at MGM in the mid-1920s, almost willing herself to stardom. While a dancer in New York in 1924, LeSueur was dancing in the chorus line in Jacob J. Shubert’s Innocent Eyes, at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. She wanted more work and managed to secure work with singer Harry Richman’s act through Loews Theater publicist Nils Granlund, who also arranged for a screen test that he sent to MGM producer Harry Rapf. On December 24, Rapf notified Granlund that MGM had offered her a contract at $75 a week. She left the day after Christmas from mother’s house in Kansas City and arrived in Culver City on January 1, 1925.

After she would appear in several uncredited parts in several films, Crawford decided to become a star. She danced her way to stardom by attending dances in the afternoon and at night, winning several competitions by dancing the Charleston and the Black Bottom, popular dances at the time. That got her cast in Edmund Goulding's Sally, Irene and Mary (1925), where she got attention from audiences for the first time.

In 1926, she was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars along with Mary Astor, Dolores del Río, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray among others. Despite feeling like Norma Shearer, MGM’s biggest female star and the wife of the studio’s Head of Production, Irving Thalberg, was her nemesis, Crawford became the romantic lead to many of the studio’s male stars, including Ramón Novarro, John Gilbert, William Haines, and Tim McCoy.

She even drew attention from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote of her, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”

In 1929, she married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., despite his parents, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, not approving. It was eight months before the couple was invited to Pickfair, though they would become frequent guests.

Crawford, who was originally from San Antonio, Texas, worked with diction and elocution coaches to rid herself of her accent, helping her to make the transition to sound when it came. She appeared in one of MGM’s first talkies, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), in which she also sang.

A star on the rise, Crawford would appear in three films in 1930 and five films in 1931, including Dance, Fools, Dance, which was her first pairing with an up and coming actor, Clark Gable. Apparently, Crawford had the power at MGM to ask for him as her male lead, even though he received sixth billing in the film. The two would go on to make eight films together, not to mention have a torrid love affair despite they're both being married at the time, but that's really fodder for another blog.

As an example of the turn-around at the Hollywood Dream Factories, Dance, Fools, Dance went in front of the cameras on November 4, 1930, and hit the screens February 21, 1931.

Bonnie (Joan Crawford) and beau Bob (Lester Vail) dance at a party on board a yacht.

The film opens just before the beginning of the Great Depression. Rich kids are frolicking on board a yacht, including Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford). She is accompanied by Robert “Bob” Townsend (Lester Vail), a boy that she is romantically linked to. When she gets bored, Bob suggests everyone go for a swim in their underwear and everyone goes along. Later, she doesn’t turn down his sexual advances, no strings attached. Her brother, Rodney (William Blakewell), enjoys the high-life, but also likes to drink, despite prohibition. He has his own contact with bootleggers, so he’s never without alcohol.

The guests think nothing of stripping down to their underwear to dance.

Despite their carefree lifestyle, their father, Stanley (William Holden), is worried. His unusual presence on the stock exchange floor to check on his investments doesn’t go unnoticed. Neither does his dying of an apparent heart attack during the stock market crash.

Bonnie with her father Stanley (William Holden) shortly before he dies.

His death reveals that not only is he broke, but deep in debt. Everything, including their house and possessions, has to be sold. Bob comes to Bonnie and offers to marry her, but she turns him down.

Instead, she and her brother strike out on their own and get an apartment together. Through her connections, Bonnie lands a job at The New York Star, a daily newspaper, which at the time was uncommon. Her co-workers don’t seem to be bothered by her presence. She is befriended by the paper’s leading reporter, Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards).

Bonnie ends up working at a newspaper next to and befriending the
paper's leading reporter, Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards).

Rodney tells Bonnie that he’s in sales, but doesn’t tell her what he sells. Through his bootlegger connections, he’s found a job working for Jake Luva (Clark Gable) to peddle his liquor to his wealthy friends. But his job duties also include driving and he ends up at the wheel when Jake decides to take care of a rival gang Valentine’s Day Massacre-style. Rodney can’t stomach the sight.

Bonnie's brother Rodney (William Blakewell) gets a job through his
bootleg connections with gangster Jake Luva (Clark Gable).

All the reporters at the Star are sent to investigate the shooting. Bonnie is sent to the morgue to cover that angle, while Bert goes to investigate his underworld connections to see if he can find any leads as to who is behind the massacre. This leads him to the gin joint that serves as Jake’s headquarters, where he happens to talk to Rodney. Acting like he is one of the gang, Bert gets Rodney to say more than he should about the crime.

Over drinks, Bert gets Rodney to talk about his role in a recent gangland hit.

Bert gets along well with the criminal element and is invited by Luva’s right-hand man, Wally (Earl Foxe), to have a few drinks at the bar with him. But it is really a ruse to keep Bert in the bar. Luva has heard about Rodney talking and gives him a hard choice to make good. Either he shoots Bert or Luva will have his men shoot him. They overtake Bert down at the subway entrance. Reluctantly, Rodney shoots the ever-friendly Bert dead.

Rodney is given the choice to kill Bert or be killed for talking to him.

The paper goes into mourning and suspects correctly that Bert’s murder is attributable to Luva’s gang. Bonnie goes in undercover to find out what she can, posing as "Mary Smith" from Kansas City, a dancer. When she makes her debut at the club, some of her old socialite friends, including Bob, are in the audience and horrified by seeing their old friend dancing for a living. Bob comes backstage and tries to take Bonnie away from this existence, but fearing he’ll blow her cover, she sends him away.

Bonnie convinces the paper's editor to let her help with finding Bert's killer.

Later, Luva invites Bonnie back to his place and eventually puts the moves on her, which she rejects. But while she’s there, the phone rings and she answers. Hearing her brother’s voice on the other end leads her to conclude that her brother is more involved with Luva than she had any idea.

Wally (Earl Foxe) and Luva come to Rodney's hideout to kill Bonnie.

She goes to Rodney’s hiding place and tries to convince him to leave with her, but Luva and Wally arrive. They realize that Bonnie is not who she says she is and threaten to kill her, i.e. take her for the proverbial ride. But Rodney intercedes, shooting and killing Wally and Luva, but gets mortally wounded in the process.

Rodney saves her life but ends up dying in Bonnie's arms.

The police bust into the apartment and recognize Luva right off the bat.

Bonnie ends up a hero at the newspaper but decides it is time for her to move on. On her way out, she is confronted by Bob, who has been trying to see her. He asks her again to marry him and she accepts. When they kiss, the newspaper staff is there taking a photo of the event for the society page.

While Crawford is the star of the film and had asked for Gable as her co-star, she was supposedly somewhat intimidated by acting with someone with stage experience. Since so many Hollywood stars had come from Broadway, it is a little hard to believe that she hadn’t worked with someone with that experience before. Gable, who had known Crawford back when they were both uncredited bit players, was supposedly intimidated by her star status. While they must have had chemistry, hence their long-running affair, they don’t really mix well here. A lot of that has to do with the script, there is supposed to be no heat between them on purpose.

Crawford’s Bonnie is definitely a modern woman, partially by choice. Her attitudes about sex out of wedlock seem to be more liberal than we’re used to seeing in Hollywood films post the Code. No strings attached sex wouldn’t be common on screen until the 1960s though one has to imagine not everyone was as chaste as they were made out to be in the movies.

While there were career women, hard news reporters were not usually considered choices back then. But it is circumstances that force her to grow up. And while you can credit Bonnie for making the most out of a bad situation, financial ruin, one gets the idea that if her father hadn’t died, she would have been content to spend her days skinny dipping off the side of yachts. That is why a lot of the film is spent showing her background in order to show how far she comes when the chips are down.

Joan Crawford is less an actress and more of a presence at this point. To those that only know her from the Mildred Pierce era she is a far younger and prettier version here. Soft and easy on the eyes, she has none of the “mannish” features, like thick eyebrows, that she chose as her post-MGM look.  We even get to see her skills as a dancer as she performs twice in the film.

Up and comer Gable is once again cast as the heavy, a part he would play several times before becoming a romantic lead and the King of Hollywood. We’ve seen him before as Nick in Night Nurse (1931), but here there is a little more to his character. Still one-dimensional, there is more meat on the bones and more screen time to go with it. He is not as likable as Luva, but he is not supposed to be. His character, after all, has more in common with Al Capone than Rhett Butler.

But despite his title as King of Hollywood, Gable’s is a star that has seemed to dim over time. With few exceptions, like Gone With the Wind, his films don’t seem to get a lot of attention today. That’s not to say his title wasn’t deserved, just that his films have fallen out of favor. They still talk about Joan Crawford, the recent TV miniseries Feud (2017) about her troubles with Bette Davis on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) being one such example. And one shouldn’t forget Mommie Dearest (1981) either. But the legend of Gable doesn’t get the same treatment.

Just as Gable and Crawford would go on to be big stars, the others in the film didn’t necessarily fare as well. Take William Blakewell, who played Bonnie’s brother Rodney. He had previously appeared in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and would appear in such movies as Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), but would never receive star status.

Likewise, Cliff Edwards, who played jovial reporter Bert Scranton, would never be more than a sidekick. While he never became a star on his own, he still did have a distinguished career. Mostly known for playing supporting roles, Edwards does have the distinction of having a number one hit. He was the first singer to record “Singin’ In the Rain” in 1929. Edwards would later get into voice work. His most memorable and enduring role may have been voicing Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940). It was as Jiminy Cricket he would also record the classic “When You Wish Upon A Star” which maybe his biggest hit of all.

And in the name-sounds-familiar category, the actor in the film, William Holden, who appeared briefly as Bonnie’s father and whose death would plummet her into poverty, is not the William Holden most of us have ever heard of. This William Holden was born in 1862 and would appear in only sixteen films between 1920 and 1932. He would die for real in 1932 at the age of 69. The William Holden we’re all more familiar with, the star of such films as Golden Boy (1939), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) and The Wild Bunch (1969), wouldn’t make his first film until 1938.

Dance, Fools, Dance is a movie that could only have been made during the Great Depression and resonate with its intended audience. While Bonnie’s story is somewhat unique, the fact that the depression caused an upheaval in her life was something most in the movie going public could identify with. The added reference to Capone and the evils of gangland violence were taken from the headlines of the day; the Valentine’s Day Massacre had occurred only two years prior.

While not necessarily a classic of cinema, the film does hit on most of the checkpoints of films from that era. Social relevance, true or nearly true crime and a happy ending, even if some complain the proposal scene and her acceptance of a future of being a housewife seem tacked on. But those were how films from that time ended.

I would recommend the film to anyone interested in early 1930’s Hollywood cinema and anyone who are fans of either Joan Crawford or Clark Gable. While not the best film either star would appear in, it is formative in each of their careers and a time capsule of the era in which it was made.

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