The same year Warner Brothers released 42nd Street (1933), MGM came out with Dancing Lady, a backstage musical complete with a Busby Berkeley style finale. If you had to compare the two, the win would certainly go to 42nd Street, one the great Warner Brothers musicals of all time. However, Dancing Lady is entertaining if not exactly a knockout, and the film can certainly hold its head high. It is just not in the stratosphere of great musicals like its better known counterpart.
The film has a pedigree cast with Joan Crawford, Clark Gableand Franchot Tone in the leading roles. Joan is Janie “Duchess” Barlow, a virtuous downtown Burlesque dancer whose dream is to make it to the big time on Broadway. Slumming one evening with his multiple girlfriends is millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). The Burlesque house is raided that same evening and Janie and the other girls are all hauled off into court. Tod and his entourage decide to go to court for the entertainment value of the proceedings. Once there, Tod suddenly takes a surprising interest in Janie and ends up paying her bail.
Smitten by this ambitious woman who wants to be a dancer more than anything else, he gets her a small part that grows increasingly larger in a new Broadway production he is financing and is being directed by the acerbic Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable). What follows is a love triangle between Crawford, Gable and Tone. Tone loves Crawford, while she clearly is attracted to the tough-talking Gable, who at first dislikes Crawford before falling in love with her.
It is all fairly standard stuff, the kind of film MGM used to put out at a standard rate. The real treat here is the rare opportunity to see Joan Crawford show off her dancing talent in a sound film and also some surprising amounts of skin in a couple of pre-code scenes that take place at the beginning of the film during the raid on the burlesque house. Also a pleasure is the opportunity to see Crawford, in a blonde wig, dance with Fred Astaire during the Bavarian dance number.
This was Gable and Crawford’s first film since they worked together in the 1931 film Possessed, and as usual they sizzle on the screen. Crawford is as beautiful as Gable is macho. Off screen, though, Crawford was into a hot and heavy affair with Tone while Gable–who supposedly was also a bedtime partner of Joan’s–steamed. Gable was sidelined and many of his scenes had to be delayed in filming because of his serious and continuous teeth problems.
Dancing Lady turned out to be a big financial hit during the holiday season despite it going over budget due to Gable’s health problems. The script was by Allen Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson, who used Warners’ big hit 42nd Street as a prototype. The songs were written by, among others, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (Rhythm of the Day), and Burton Lane and Harold Adamson whose songs included “Everything I Have Is Yours”, a major hit in its day.
The film is also filled with quite a few future stars in early screen appearances. Making his film debut was Fred Astaire, which in itself makes this film a must see! Nelson Eddy also appears in what was only his second film. And most surprisingly, The Three Stooges perform some of their classic style slapstick. This film was early in the Stooges’ career and here they were billed as part of the act known as Ted Healy and His Stooges in the opening credits. Healy was a big time vaudevillian with The Stooges as part of his act, as I imagine most Stoogeologists know. Eventually Moe, Larry and Curly would split from Healy and go off on their own and to greater fame. Also look for Eve Arden in a walk on part, Robert Benchley and character actor Sterling Holloway.
John Greco has had a life-long fascination with cinema and photography. Raised in New York City, he is now living in Florida. For more information, visit Twenty Four Frames.