Thursday, March 16, 2017

Joan is Broke

In Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) lives a carefree and spendthrift life.  She spends her days sleeping and her nights drinking and dancing.  But her happy-go-lucky lifestyle end when her father dies amid the 1929 Stockmarket Crash.  With the Crash goes all their money and their friends, leaving Bonnie and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) to fend for themselves in the real world of work.  Bonnie sells their house and all their belongings, finds a comfortable apartment for herself and her brother, and gets a job writing for a newspaper.  Bonnie finds her new life refreshing and stimulating, but Rodney wants nothing more than to drink and loaf, so he decides to fast track to wealth by working as a bootlegger for the ruthless gang chief Jake Luva (Clark Gable).

The title of this picture really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, quite frankly, and I find no reference that there was any thought to another one.  The authors of  Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk & William Schoell refer to the title as "a clumsy attempt at irony;" that is certainly one theory. We see some ballroom dancing at the beginning of the picture; then later, Bonnie works in a nightclub.  Ms. Crawford performs one dance routine, but it is rather awkward and heavy footed, reminiscent of her dancing style in Untamed. Regardless of the dancing (for this really is a gangster film, not a musical), Ms. Crawford is engaging and enjoyable as a young woman eager to make her own way in the world.  She makes the transition from spoiled heiress to working girl seem almost effortless.  One scene in particular makes the transition believable.  As Bonnie and Rodney are forced to sell their possessions, Bonnie watches as her supposed friends ridicule her poverty, and giggle about bidding on her possessions.  Bonnie face is composed, but determined - without a word, Crawford shows us a woman who has just discovered the worth of these worthless individuals
Cliff Edwards plays ace reporter Bert Scranton beautifully.  The one person on the paper who goes out of his way to assist Bonnie in her efforts to excel, their relationship becomes one of teacher and student.  Bert never abuses his position with her, never demeans her.  Their friendship is just that - it never becomes sexualized.  As a result, in just a few brief scenes, we come to like and admire Bert, making his untimely end even more shocking.

Mr. Edwards was better known when the film was released as "Ukulele Ike."  He was a singer and had a big hit in 1929 with Singin' in the Rain.  But today, he is best remembered as the singing and speaking voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940).  He was successful on both Broadway (appearing with the Astaires in Lady Be Good (1924) and as a recording artist, and it was his prowess on the ukelele that made it a popular instrument.  During the 30s and early 40s, he was very busy on film, usually in supporting parts (as here, and in another Crawford film, Montana Moon).  He also had a successful career on radio, both as a guest singer and on his own show, The Cliff Edwards Show.  He segued into television, where he hosted his own show, and was a guest on The Mickey Mouse Club and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  However, years of heavy spending, multiple alimony payments (to three ex-wives), and alcoholism took their toll.  He died in 1971, without a cent to his name.  The Actor's Fund (which had helped support him in his illness), the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, and Walt Disney Productions (which during his life time gave him voice work) all paid for his burial.
Which brings us to Clark Gable.  As this TCM article and New York Times review demonstrate, even before Gable was The King of Hollywood, he was a notable presence in film.  Quite frankly, when he is in the scene, you can't take your eyes off him. And when he is with Crawford, the chemistry is palpable.  The Times review singles him out for "a vivid and authentic bit of acting."  This was his first role opposite Crawford; they would eventually appear in eight films together.  In this one, he was billed sixth (she, of course, got top billing).  By the end of the 1931, he was getting second billing just below Crawford.  What started as a friendship on this picture would develop into an outright love affair, and you can see it beginning in this film, especially when they kiss.  One scene between them is particularly interesting.  Bonnie sits at Jake's piano, playing the "Moonlight Sonata" that previously had been played for him by his moll, Della (Natalie Moorhead), but while Della plays it straight, Bonnie plays a jazzy version.

One is really sorry that Jake is such a creep - he is much more attractive than Robert Townsend (Lester Vail), Bonnie's lover at the opening of the film (oh, yes - this is a pre-code film.  Bonnie and Bob clearly spend the night together).  Bob is also a bit of a creep, rejecting Bonnie when her wealth is gone, but the character goes through an epiphany when he watches the demeaning manners of their mutual friends towards Bonnie.  Ultimately, Bob is still not all that attractive, but he does make himself into a better man. 
We were all amused to see Bonnie (in 1931) with a hand-held hair dryer.  THAT was the ultimate in wealth, in our opinion!  In the end, we all agreed this is a worthy film for any Crawford fan, especially because of the Gable connection.  We'll leave you with this early (and very pre-code scene) of party guests stripping to their skivvies for a moonlight swim.  

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