Thursday, April 8, 2010

Keep dancing

Dancing Lady (1933) demonstrates how quickly the film studios--even the lumbering MGM--could align themselves with popular trends during the studio era. With the arrival of synchronized sound, musicals had sprung up like weeds in 1928-29, and by 1931, the public had tired of them, probably because most of them were shoddily thrown together grab-bags. Then in 1933, Warner Bros. released 42nd Street, which had both an engaging story and the incredible surreal and abstract production numbers of Busby Berkeley. Suddenly, musicals were viable again, especially backstage stories, and if one could manage some Berkeley-style showmanship, that was good too. (Incidentally, if you want to see 42nd Street for yourself, here it is:)

By the end of the year MGM had its answer ready, in the form of Dancing Lady, although the differences between it and 42nd Street are instructive. Both are romantic melodramas set against the pressure of opening a new Broadway musical in the depths of the Great Depression. (This much was true to life. New production on Broadway shrunk drastically between 1930 and 1935.) The musical numbers in both films are diagetic, yet they both ignore the limitations of the living stage in favor of a fantastic presentation only possible in films.

But MGM being MGM, the story centers around the ambitious chorus girl (Joan Crawford) instead of on the hard-driving director as in the WB film. The character in the latter has no time for romance, but Gable and Crawford begin their partnership that lasted through eight other films. MGM substitutes Ted Healy for Warner's Ned Sparks, and since Healy had three stooges, they come along, too. Yes, the Three Stooges in their last "A" production. Larry is rather believable as a rehearsal pianist (he was reportedly a good violinist), and Moe and Curly float through the background of the film almost constantly poking and slapping each other. They all demonstrate a rather natural acting technique, easily overlapping dialogue and moving comfortably in and out of scenes. But they are never permitted to complete a set routine.

Instead, Larry gets to mime the piano accompaniment for Fred Astaire's film debut. Astaire is tossed in casually, without introduction, using his own name, as a sort-of "guest star" appearance, first in a brief rehearsal and then in the final sequence of numbers. Not content with that, we get an early glimpse of Nelson Eddy before operetta--in fact, so pre-operetta that he sings the very jazzy "Rhythm of the Age." Not content with that Robert Benchley is running around the margins playing a completely superfluous drunken newsman. One other strange credit on the movie--it is alleged to be based on a novel by James Warner Bellah, known to most film buffs as the writer of the stories on which the John Ford cavalry trilogy was based. This is like finding out that James Ellroy has been punching up the script on Sex in the City.

While Crawford is always believable as some kind of star, she is scarcely plausible as a talented chorus girl promoted to the lead. Her dancing always looked like a cowboy trying to kill cockroaches; the costume designer astutely puts her in a long gown in the finale that masks the awkward jerky movements of her legs. But while she is the film's raison d'etre, she is also its downfall, because the long, dragged-out telling of her romantic ups and downs with lounge lizard Franchot Tone almost drive the film into a ditch. (A pity, because director Robert Z. Leonard has made the first half of the film is very swift and breezy, especially for an MGM product.)

Luckily, she realizes that she really loves showbiz, not Franchot and rejoins the show THE DAY BEFORE THE OPENING, and all is triumphant. (Notice that getting the show rehearsed in time is never discussed in this film, whereas it is one of the central points of 42nd Street.) Because the essential momentum of a backstage story is toward the successful opening night, not toward the successful romance. In fact a lot of backstage musicals were posited on the impossibility of a normal personal life for performers and artists. But MGM wants us to root for the romance, and given that it's with Clark Gable, that's not so bad.

Meanwhile, Gable has been pushing the writers (Sterling Holloway is one of them) to write something modern and up-to-date, and then we find Fred and Joan in lederhosen singing a song about beer. (I can only imagine they were trying to imitate "I Love Louisa" from Astaire's hit show The Bandwagon, the title of which became my favorite Astaire film, 20 years later.) Why is it that Broadway shows in classic Hollywood films are absolutely incomprehensible? You'd think that with only three or four numbers, there could be some sort of consistency to them.

Slight retraction--the strength of the Berkeley films at Warners is that the numbers do seem as if they come from the same show, stylistically if not in a narrative way. But MGM hasn't learned that lesson, and the songs from the show-within-the-show appear to be the first three or four at the top of the stack in the musical building. The one genuine hit, "Everything I Have Is Yours" is sung at a party, not in the show. (Another historical coincidence: the music for this first film by Fred Astaire is by Burton Lane, who wrote the music for Astaire's final musical, Finian's Rainbow. He also wrote the score for the not-bad Astaire vehicle Royal Wedding.)

The imitation Berkeley numbers are actually pretty good imitation Berkeley, except without the implicit "face in the downtrodden crowd" aspect found in the Warners films. (Another random observation--the sound technicians of the day were capable of voice dubbing--Joan's singing voice is thankfully dubbed. Why then are all the chorus girls allowed to record their own weak, wobbly voices for their close-ups? This sort of thing was going on right through the 1940's. Puzzling.)

Clearly MGM was less focused on making a good, coherent engaging film than it was in keeping its production factory going. To that end, it needed to create a Joan Crawford vehicle, whether or not she was suited to the style and subject matter of the film; it needed to work on developing new personalities such as Nelson Eddy and Robert Benchley, even if the film has no real use for them; it must keep existing talent, like Ted Healy and His Stooges busy, even if they can't really contribute. The result is a barely coherent jumble that distracts for 90 minutes but is utterly unmemorable.

Except for one line. Gable orders his assistant, Ted Healy, to fire his inadequate leading lady. Gable: "Send her back to where she came from." Healy: "Oh boss, they closed that place a long time ago." Same goes for musicals like Dancing Lady.

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