Astaire Reviews with The Designated Dancer #1 Dancing Lady
Here it is. Fred Astaire’s first appearance in the world of film.
“Dancing Lady” was MGM’s response to the wildly successful 42nd street.
We start the film at a burlesque. And our first song “Hold your Man” sung by Winnie Lightner. I’m not gonna lie. There are really no stand out songs in the entirety of this film. And HOLY COW there is Joan Crawford/Janie ‘duchess’ Barlow. And damn. She is gorgeous. The styles of the 20’s and 30’s are fully realized in her and you understand why they work. Previously I had only seen some of her later movies. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her young but wowza. Her face is like nothing you see anymore and her body. Well I’ll stop there. Here ya go.
Anyway so I guess burlesque was illegal at this point so halfway through the performance the cops show up and haul these ladies off. Straight to court? I won’t lie, I don’t remember the 30’s I don’t know how they did things then. But apparently in the middle of the night a judge could drag himself out of bed to sentence/not sentence a bunch of strippers in their stripper garb….never mind strike that, it makes sense now.
The Judge wants to know why Janie has stooped to working in vaudeville. Their encounter goes as follows.
Janie- “If you walked the streets looking for a job and hadn’t eaten in a week you’d do a strip tease too.”
Judge-”You mean to tell me in a city like this burlesque dancing was the only work you could find?”
Janie-”It was the only dancing I could find.”
Judge-”And it had to be dancing?”
Janie-”It had to be dancing.”
Janie-”Because I’m a dancer.”
This about sums up Janie’s attitude throughout the entire movie. But more on that later.
Bail is set for Janie at 30 bucks. Surprise, she has no such monies. Believable so she has an admirer, Franchot Tone/Tod Newton.
Tone and Crawford were apparently seeing each other during the making of “Dancing Lady”, (well let’s be honest, what dude was Crawford not seeing?) and got married in 1935 two years afterwards.
Back to the story, he posts her bail and then treats her to dinner. Are you suspicious? Obviously he has dastardly motives. There could be no other reason for him posting bail for a dancer he admires and giving her something to eat. Maybe he likes her and just wants to do something nice for her? He’s super rich, no skin off his nose, $30 and a bowl of soup? Too easy. Nope, no way. This guy has some evil scheming on the brain. I’m glad you and I see eye to eye on that. Don’t worry, Janie’s on track as well. Instead of thanking him she informs him about eight million times, (not an exaggeration) that she is not going to have sex with him. When he assures her that he has no such notions, she refuses to believe him. He gently puts his hand on hers in an effort to provide comfort, she replies by prying his hand off of hers with a fork. The audacity of that man. Nope that’s not even the worst of it. I know you’re wondering, how in the world could it get worse? When she arrives home she finds a note from him with $50 bucks in it. What’s inside? Demands for frisky sexual escapades?
Don’t say ‘them things’. Don’t say ‘can it’. Don’t say ‘guy’. Don’t buy shoes with ribbons on them. Don’t forget, what’s a striptease on 2nd Avenue is art on Broadway. The $50 is to buy you a dress without a zipper.
Do be honest, yes the note is a little condescending. But heck, it’s 2014. For fifty bucks today you can write me a note along these lines any day. And there’s a little backhanded compliment. He tells her that the dancing she does could be regarded as art. Naw, it’s probably some kind of secret ‘I want sexy time’ coding that we don’t have the ability to decipher yet.
As her roommate Rosette (Winnie Lightner) remarks. “Many a girl has cashed in on a good hearty insult.” Amen my sister, amen.
This note spurs something in Janie. She declares that she is done with stripping errr I mean burlesque. She is going downtown to get some real stage work tomorrow.
Next day she just shows up to a studio. We arrive in time to see a blond burst through the door AND THAT’S EVE ARDEN!!! She has a nice little cameo. I was surprised to see that this is her second credited appearance in film. She auditioned and we get a short little scene with her trying to pull off a southern accent.
Now there’s a sign on the door declaring that this production has enough girls and that they don’t want anymore. Yes but is Janie in your show? No? Then you need one more girl. I can only assume this is the thought process she has going on.
She opens the door, to hell with rules! Signs don’t matter! And then we have NO WAIT STOP! CLARK GABLE!
NO TIME TO PROCESS THERE’S THE THREE STOOGES!
That was an overwhelming four seconds and I don’t know what to do. And isn’t Fred Astaire supposed to be in this film? Well everyone else is so it will fly for now. Clark Gable/Patch Gallagher looks fantastic. It’s the 30’s and he is Clark Gable.
And because I guess this is everyone’s origins of show business we have The Three Stooges as well, not that I am complaining. Well Janie gets kicked out. But not before she finds out who the director is and firmly decides to devote her life to stalking him.
Turkish bath for men only? Janie is there.
Patch’s hairdressing appointment? Janie is there.
He’s getting his shoes shined? Janie is there.
She follows him through all the twists and turns of the day and manages to lose him at a crosswalk. Seriously? A crosswalk. All those places you weren’t supposed to be and you lose him at a crosswalk?!?! She goes home rejected and is greeted by her own personal stalker. And credit where credit is due. In the stalking game it’s Janie-0. Tod-1. Turns out Tod knows Patch’s boss and offers to write a letter of recommendation.
It’s interesting watching how Janie and Tod interact throughout this movie vs. how Janie and Patch interact. Whenever Janie is talking to Tod her brow gets furrowed and she looks so annoyed. Whereas with Patch it’s pure sexual heat oozing from every corner of the room. Personally this seems to be a reflection in my mind of the relationships they had going on outside the movie. Maybe they’re just really good actors? I mean Crawford did go on to marry Franchot in a few years. But in part I think she settled for him. My opinion. Take it or leave it. Even I know enough to leave my own opinions alone…..well sometimes I do.
Next day we see Patch and Bradly Senior arguing about the wardrobe for the production. Bradly Senior is the money behind the madness. Patch declares that he would rather send the girls on naked then see them on stage in the ratty apparel they had at the moment. Bradly Jr, a chunkier version of his pop, wholeheartedly agrees with the whole “Emperor’s New Clothes” scheme. To which Bradly Senior replies, “That’s exactly the kind of thinking that got you kicked out of school?” Ahem, I would like some backstory please.
Well Bradly Senior meets up with Janie with the help of Tod’s money. And he asks her if she can sing and dance. “Of course.” Janie replies. Bradly Jr chimes in to ask the real hard-hitting question, “But Papa, what about her rhythm?” Bradly Senior informs him that rhythm is Patch’s area of expertise. I believe Jr may know a thing or two about rhythm. Remember school? Kicked out? Ok maybe I’m pushing the Jr backstory sidebar a little too hard.
Patch comes face to face with his #1 stalker yet again and has the Stooges give her a tryout. And I love this scene simply for The Three Stooges. They are not running full force here. But they’re still The Three Stooges.
So we see Janie start to dance. Now Crawford’s dancing is judged pretty harshly by most in this film. Aaaannnnnddddd. With good reason. The style to the best of my knowledge looks like hoofing. And Janie seems to operate by two distinct sets of principles which she follows at all times.
-Stomp your feet as loud as you can.
-Look at your feet non-stop. Seriously, never stop looking at your feet. If you ever think maybe you should look up to see where you’re going or whatnot, you my friend are wrong. Look down…..down….at your feet.
Suddenly, Janie realizes she is being given “the brushoff”. Ah no! Time to go all flash dance on this crowd. Break it out Janie! Thank goodness you only have two things to remember.
-Stare at your fucking feet like there is no tomorrow.
For some reason they are now all magically won over. I don’t understand it. Maybe I should try out the two cardinal rules that seem to be working so well for Janie.
After Patch offers her a part she follows him into his office to declare her love for dancing. Now I’m not knocking Crawford’s acting skills. When she talks about how passionately she feels about dancing I believe her. Her dancing is simply not on the same level as her acting and it stands out like a sore thumb.
Tod throws a party for the whole company since Janie refuses to see him alone. Here we get the only decent song of the whole film. “Everything I have is Yours.” Sung by Arthur Jarrett. A fitting song since it seems all Tod wants is Janie and he will do just about anything to get her to spend time with him.
Huho! We catch Bradly Jr at this party in some back room showing some of his famous ‘rhythm’ to a lucky lady. Well he clears the room so Tod can make some rhythm with Janie. And they kiss, but afterwards she immediately declares that it’s time to go home. Why does she have to go home so early? To continue her stalking of Patch. And with good reason. If I knew Clark Gable was going to be anywhere in shorts. I would devote my life to catching those moments as well.
So she somehow wows them into making the whole show about her through her dancing. Now listen, I can believe that she would get cast in a dancing show, But for her dancing to convert EVERYONE into believing that HER DANCING will make this show a hit? Unbuyable. There’s a lot of hatred out there for Joan Crawford’s dancing in this movie. I personally don’t like her dancing at all so all I will do is continue to hate on her dancing as well. I mean if she wanted to act with a side of dancing maybe I could buy it. But she states clearly that DANCING is her whole life, soul, and body whatever. And everyone constantly gushes about how great she is. I don’t see it. And it feels made up, I can feel other people making it up when they say it. Actress? Yes. Singer? I buy it. Burlesque dancer? She’s got the body. Dancer? Not really. The best dancer of all time? Nope, definitely no, decidedly no.
Tod takes Janie out to his house in the country and we get to see Crawford in a bathing suit. So worthwhile, of course. He proposes to her, to which she replies that dancing is her whole life. Tod manages to weasel in there and convince her that if the show is a hit its a hit, but if it’s a flop it’s a sign that she should marry him.
Next day on the way to rehearsals some of the chorus girls are reading about Janie’s romance with Tod in the newspaper. One of the girls’ exasperated exclaims, “What does she do? Hypnotize them?” Aha! We have found the Sherlock of the film. Now maybe I understand. It has nothing to do with her dancing!
It all makes sense now.
Patch has a meeting with the writers and informs them that their work is complete crap. What this play needs is a girl that’s tied to the city, a girl that was born to dance……..I know where this is going.
So Janie gets the starring role in the production. We have The Dancing Lady song. It’s nicely sung but the dancing is still Joan Crawford unfortunately. And I will say one thing, she is consistent. Whatever school of dance she went to must have tattooed the two dancing techniques she has onto her heart.
-Stare at feet
We got some more gossiping in the chorus. All the girls are wondering why Janie just swoops in out of nowhere with her two dance steps and manages to score top billing. “Didn’t you ever hear of ‘poisen’ality.” Well girl in the chorus. ‘Sorcer’ality is more like it
Well this ‘best dancer of all time’ has her first rehearsal. FINALLY! Praise Jesus, in walks Fred Astaire.
He’s oh so pleasant. And they start dancing. Now up until this point if you look past a little bias, I’ve been trying to give Janie’s dancing a chance. But once you see her side by side with Fred Astaire well no. Why does she stare at her feet constantly? I thought maybe it was the style. But GODMATIIT! Astaire isn’t staring at his feet like the answer to all life’s problems is written on there. This dance looks like Fred’s chorography, probably toned down to Crawford’s level. Thirty seconds later “the best dancer of all time who can convert apparently everyone in the world into believing that they should make a show just about her dancing” gets a Charlie horse. Which causes her to pass out, now this is a stretch, however, if I could declare I had a Charlie horse and then have Patch/Clark Gable massaging my calve a minute later on a couch.
Or my armpits?
Well, I would have played my cards exactly the same as you Janie. Clark Gable and Joan Crawford had an on and off again affair for 30+ years. And their chemistry is put to good use in this film. He plays his usual cold standoffish role. And Joan Crawford, well she plays the kind of gal that gets those kinds of guys.
Well she somehow recovers and starts dancing again. Patch receives a telegraph and we soon find out that the funding for the play has fallen through.
He doesn’t have an accent. I just like my villains with a little bit of an accent.
True to word. He whips her off on a pre-marriage trip to Cuba.
When Janie comes back she finds out that Patch has decided to fund the play with his own money. Cue Janie and Patch running into each other at a bar and well…….
Yeah no one else ever had a chance at starring in this show with the type of voodoo she possesses.
Also we find out that Tod purposely unfunded the show so that it had to be canceled and in turn Janie would fulfill her promise and marry him. Time for our big musical ending number.
The music, well I stated at the beginning that the music here is really subpar. This song is titled “The Gangs All Here”. It’s got a nice tune. But it is in no way cohesive with the rest of the movie. “Let’s have pretzels and lets have beer.” On second hand I could use a beer. And fuck, a pretzel wouldn’t be bad at all either.
We start with a bunch of fancifully dressed ladies and gents, singing about beer and pretzels? I’m not sure if I’m missing a joke here. Well enter Janie in a beautiful white dress.
And Fred Astaire, his voice is fine; he has better work ahead of him. His dancing is great. When you see him dancing next to Crawford it’s painful. She has no center of gravity. To be fair, she has to dance next to Astaire. He’s wonderful, light on his feet but no real dancing material to work with. It’s clear they had to keep it simple for Crawford. And you can clearly see her struggling during the dance. To her credit she looks at her feet a whole lot less than the last time her and Astaire danced. Then all of the sudden a small circular section of the stage is floating in the sky? With the two of them on it, at first they are shocked. But quickly decide to keep dancing.
And then they land at a beer festival.
Fine, the song talked about beer, good enough for me I accept it. Not much dance wise in this whole number to be totally honest. So hard to critique from that point.
And that brings us to the end, Crawford and Gable kiss. For some reason her dancing won him over.
The storyline is nothing out of the ordinary. The biggest surprise of the whole movie was The Three Stooges. There’s nothing that really stands out besides Crawford herself. She can act and is so exquisite looking. But it was worth it for the stooges, Crawford, and of course Astaire’s debut.
What a pleasure to see Crawford and Gable together. Gable goes on to do better things, while Crawford carries the movie with a bucket of Charisma.
Supporting Characters: 4/20
The stooges would get a great score had they been utilized. Ted Healy is still unloved by me.
Franchot Tone/Tod Newton. Now to be fair he did commit some villianry with pulling the funding from the play. But overall he was a smiling lovesick buffoon.
Now I’m aware that most of Astaire’s movies don’t have much in the way of a storyline. But the ENTIRE storyline revolves around what a good dancer Janie is, and she simply isn’t.
The music, nothing stood out but the pretzels and beer bit. Dancing, we know where I stand on Crawford. Astaire was nice, but nothing in here was up to par with some of his later work.
Final score: 25
Nowhere to go but up.
This is the precursor to the movie that launched Fred Astaire. His minor supporting role in Dancing Lady landed him another less minor supporting role alongside.
Next up? The movie that started Hollywoods most popular dancing pair.