Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Limping Lady

I bought Dancing Lady on DVD recently and used a clip for the most recent Name that Movie contest, correctly guessed by Bill R. of The Kind of Face You Hate. I posted a still from it a few months ago here on Cinema Styles and wrote: "Although it has quite an impressive cast (Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, May Robson, Robert Benchley and, yes, the Three Stooges) Dancing Lady (1933) is mainly remembered as the film debut of one Fred Astaire, playing himself, a dancer on Broadway, doing a single number with Joan. Less than one month later, he would have a significant supporting role in Flying Down to Rio where he would team for the first time with Ginger Rogers." Well now I know why it's primarily remembered for Astaire's debut. There's not much else about it worth remembering.

Dancing Lady is a pretty mediocre romp about dancing queen Janie Barlow, played by Joan Crawford, fighting for respectability in the dancing world. It's directed by Robert Z. Leonard who displays no feel for snappy dialogue at all. And I mean none. There's plenty of snappy dialogue in the script but instead of having it move at a quick clip like Hawks or La Cava, it just hangs there with each actor waiting three or four beats before and after every line. The story itself isn't sturdy enough to hang even a straw hat on and what little story there is is made less interesting by the fact that Joan Crawford... how to put this... well, she just isn't any good. Coming a year after giving a wonderful supporting performance in Grand Hotel and a few years before other great performances in The Women and Mildred Pierce here she seems lost. Her delivery is so flat you feel a real empathy for Franchot Tone and Clark Gable for having to play up against such a dreadful partner (on and off screen - for both of them). But then you realize they're no great shakes either. Tone's got smug down pat but it gets tiresome and Gable blusters and blusters but to no effect. Then it hits you: It's the director and the script, not the actors. It's the director because of the pacing of the dialogue referred to earlier. And it's the script because all those quips don't add up to anything. And so the actors have nothing to build on. They're just delivering a series of disconnected lines until the curtain comes down.

Where director Leonard shows his skill is with the camera. Dancing Lady looks fantastic. Leonard gets great shots of his stars, knowing when to go straightforward with a fully lit two shot and when to bring in the dramatic lighting for a pensive shot of Crawford gazing out the window in silhouette. It looks great and visually holds your interest. It's one of the principle reasons Leonard got the directing job for The Great Ziegfeld three years later. But lighting and art direction seemed to be Leonard's only interests which may explain why Buster Keaton is rumored to have taken over much of the direction from him for In the Good Old Summertime years later in 1949 (and one look at the umbrella fiasco when Judy Garland and Van Johnson first meet will tell you right away that Keaton was at the helm). Leonard just doesn't seem too concerned with his actors.

In the end, none of it matters because once we get to the big finale all is forgiven. Not because it's so good, but because it's so bad. Clark Gable plays Patch Gallagher (no, he doesn't smash watermelons), the producer/director of the Broadway show that will star Barlow in all of her dancing glory. In a big dramatic moment, he throws out everything rehearsed so far and tells his backers it's got to be a show about a working class girl scraping her way to the top. Janie Barlow understands that life. She can play the part of this burlesque girl reaching for respectability. Okay, fine. But then we see the show and it has nothing to do with that. Nothing. I'm not kidding. I'm not exagerrating in any way. Not even slightly. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. After the huge dramatic scene where the audience is informed this is going to be the story of a girl from the streets clawing her way to the top, we get an opening number about beer (yes, beer) with Fred Astaire and then a number about everybody going modern and then a bunch of women on a merry-go-round. And then... that's it. Huh? But no matter, the bizarre ending still works. Visually it looks terrific if musically it could use a lot of help. I've included two clips below, the merry-go-round finale, to provide you with meaningless eye-candy until our star rides in on her own painted pony at the end and then the best moment in the movie, the performing of The Gang's All Here. Wow, it's bad! Leonard, or somebody, had the idea to have a different showgirl each sing one line from the song. It's clear no one bothered to synch the song for them to listen to and make sure they all sung it in the same tempo. Or, hell, the same anything. Each showgirl is clearly trying to make an impression by doing her one line in a special, unique way and the result is unharmonious, discombobulated and (well, for me and my wife at least) a little on the hilarious side. I could give you my own breakdown of what I think each showgirl was striving for with their "moment" but I'd rather you enjoy it yourself. I think my favorite is the fourth one who says "let's have beer" so non-chalantly that if you don't have the volume turned up to eleven you won't even hear her. It's like she swallowed a healthy dose of valium just before the shoot.

In a strange way I almost kind of recommend Dancing Lady as an example of how well musicals like The Gay Divorcee and Gold Diggers of 1933 succeeded. Dancing Lady plays like a movie that thinks it's easy to do this kind of thing. Just get some stars, a few witty lines and a big finale and you're good to go. But it's not that easy. The Gay Divorcee and Gold Diggers of 1933 make it look easy, sure, but Dancing Lady shows just how easy it is to fool yourself into thinking otherwise.




One last bonus item. A great still found in the archives. It's from the salute to beer number "Go Bavarian" with Fred Astaire.