Dancing Lady (1933)
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Cast: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone
Synopsis: An attractive dancer is rescued from jail by a rich man, who helps her to have her first big opportunity at a musical play on Broadway.
There probably wasn’t much new about the storyline of Dancing Lady even back in 1933, when the musical genre was only a few years old, but its story is told with such polished confidence and energy that it kids you into believing you’re watching something fresh. Its stars were attractive and still relatively early into their careers, and director Robert Z. Leonard surrounded them with glamour, while Oliver T. Marsh’s camera seemed incapable of remaining more than a few inches away from them, as if it was entranced by their physical perfection.
Joan Crawford is Janie Barlow, a working class girl earning a crust in burlesque with her friend Rosette (Winnie Lightner). She never looked more beautiful than she does here, her features still adorned with the soft pliability of youth. It wouldn’t be long before that luminous beauty would subtly harden into a clench-jawed distortion which, while still beautiful, lost all traces of its former vulnerability. Here, she still looks like a fresh young girl.
After the show at which she performs is raided by the cops and she receives a note from wealthy but shallow playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) criticising the way she talks and dresses, Janie decides to give up burlesque and pursue a career on Broadway. She sets her sights on a part in a show being managed by Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable), even though all the parts have been filled. However, despite following Gallagher with all the determination of an obsessively determined — and possibly dangerous — stalker, she finds it impossible to even get to see him. When Newton learns of this he uses his influence to get her an audition and a part in the show in order to further their relationship.
The ploy works in both regards. Janie is so grateful to Newton that, despite obvious reservations, she agrees to marry him, and she also wins a part in the show. Her relationship with Patch is initially a little one-sided thanks to his perpetually angry demeanour, but you can sense that, under the surface, he’s finding it hard not to think about her, and there’s never really any doubt about how things are going to turn out. That doesn’t stop Dancing Lady from being an enjoyable movie, though, filled with typical MGM quality both in terms of production values and script. The cast is also something of a one-off with a whole host of famous names popping up at unexpected moments.
Fred Astaire, in his movie debut, plays himself as the leading man of the big show. Apart from one big dance number in which he and Crawford dance upon a flying carpet Astaire only has about thirty seconds screen time, but it’s a memorable debut nonetheless. While watching him and Crawford dancing together can’t quite be compared to watching an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, the disparity between their respective dancing skills is painfully apparent. Crawford was a hoofer with a limited repertoire who could just about get by when dancing alone, but partnered with someone of Astaire’s quality really shows up her shortcomings. Also making brief appearances are operatic singing star Nelson Eddy, the largely forgotten singing star Art Jarrett, Walt Disney voice artist Sterling Holloway, and — almost unbelievably — The Three Stooges.
Dancing Lady focuses more on its storyline than dance numbers, with the staging of the show serving as a sub-plot for the menage-a-trois between Crawford, Gable and Tone (who would become Crawford’s second husband in 1935), and is probably the stronger movie because of it. Fans of this kind of movie won’t need any encouragement to seek it out, while those normally turned off by old-fashioned musicals might find this a more palatable mix of comedy, drama and music.
(Reviewed 15th July 2013)