Pouncing Lady

So, here’s the set-up: Clark Gable has fallen asleep, drunk, in a nightclub. He awakens, woozily, to see the kindly countenance of —

AAAAAAAAAHHH! Shit! Get it away from me!

This is DANCING LADY, from an unimaginable bygone age when M.G.M. didn’t know how to make musicals. So they borrow Fred Astaire from R.K.O., concoct some faux-Busby Berkeley visuals in the manner of Warners, and apply them both to a backstage story likewise lifted from Warners.

The reckless randomness of the musical numbers actually make you appreciate Busby Berkeley for his LOGIC.

Robert Z. Leonard directs, showing a lack of aptitude for framing dance that basically sinks the terpsichorean aspects of the production, but on the plus side we have Slavko Vorkapich on montage, linking nearly every sequence with peppy visual effects, swish-pans and wipes. “A wipe up Joan’s legs!” exclaimed Fiona. “They probably needed it,” I rejoindered. We decided that Slavko was the film’s true auteur.

Clark Gable, whom I regard as kind of a nightmare from which the world has finally awoken, is actually pretty good as the brusque and rowdy musical director. Franchot Tone is the Other Man, in the film and in real life: Joan was bigamously engaged to both Tone and Tom Neal, who beat the crap out of Tone when he found out. Ted Healy, he of the Stooges, gives the best performance, hovering in some strange hinterland between dyspepsia, blind panic and incipient homosexuality. He’s a fascinating case study in something-or-other.

Incidentally, why, in these putting-on-a-show things, does the show never have a graspable plot? Gable is supposed to be staging a musical epic on the Spanish-American War (co-written by a hissily “artistic” Sterling Holloway), but rejects the old-hat concept for something “modern”, concerning factory girls and city life — but what we see in the end is Fred and Joan on a flying carpet, landing in Bavaria and drinking beer. WTF?

“Here in Bavaria / They take good care o’ ya.”

And at last I find something Joan Crawford can’t do. I was a little wary of her for years, then finally gave in. I had assumed that, given her air of terrifyingly sincere, demented fakeyness (especially in interviews — ugh, creepy!) she wouldn’t be able to convince or move me in drama, but she proved me wrong. I still felt I would never find her actually sympathetic, but then found I did. I was positive she wouldn’t be able to do comedy, but in SUSAN AND GOD she manages it, and seems to be parodying herself (fakey, humourless and egomaniacal), with too much skill for it to be entirely unconscious.

But. She. Can’t. Dance.

I know she WAS a dancer, but now that I’ve seen her effortful, heavy, gangling perambulations in this movie I know they mean that the way they say “Oh, but Richard Gere was a chorus boy for years,” as if that proved the silhouetted figure glimpsed in two-second shots in CHICAGO was (a) Gere and (b) dancing in a way that we could actually SEE. I mean, Joan Crawford dances better than I do, but so do Robby the Robot, Herbert Marshall and Manoel de Oliveira.

People who dance better than Joan: Lionel Barrymore, Donovan’s Brain, and Baragon.

Still, she’s pretty awesome at everything else.

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9 Responses to “Pouncing Lady”

  1. Well Ruby Keeler couldn’t dance either — and she was a star. Ruby of course had Jolie on her side (that’s Jolie as in Al Jolson — not Angelina) and a certain naive charm. Joan was many things, but naive or charming were never two of them.

    Glad you’ve seen Susan and God, which is one of Mr. Cukor’s most interesting efforts of that period of his career. Gertrude Lawrence did the part on stage, and on screen Joan is really really good. Her unsympathetic nature makes for perfect casting.

    I’ve never been able to “get” Gable either. At his best (Red Dust, China Doll, GWTW, Mogambo, The Misfits) he projects a kind of phony ineffectual hail-fellow-well-met-ness. But that’s thanks to getting propped up by superior leading ladies like Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh and Marilyn.
    Recent comparasions of George Clooney to Gable are rather insulting to Clooney, who has all the charm Gable lacks and then some.
    He’s also very smart and there’s somebody home. It’s a semingly winning combination. But it’s also too hip for the house — which is why Leatherheads (a perfectly nice little commercial romantic comedy) failed to “open.”

    Frankly I think his sexual ease frightens people.

  2. Clooney has all the charm Gable lacks, and all the teeth too.

    Actually, worth mentioning that Gable’s drunken breakdown in The Misfits is a powerful and revelatory bit of work (I don’t much like the film) if one can tear ones eyes away from the sight of Monroe spilling out of her dress.

  3. Not to mention Monty Clift at his most abject.

    I like The Misfits enormously. It’s Beat the Devil‘s Evil Twin, and looks forward to Warhol’s romps with their All-Neurotic Casts — particularly Beauty #2 and Imitation of Christ.

  4. I agree, much prefer Clooney to Gable but at the same time think Gable was perfectly suited to the films he was in. Clooney would just have been too big to convince in a film like GWTW or The Tall Men (or It Happened One Night) – you need someone who can make an impression playing to type but who won’t overpower the film with their sensibility. I think the problem with Leatherheads seems to be that Clooney overpowers the light weight period romantic comedy fluff by his simple presence (Don’t know if that made much sense!)

    Though I’ve not yet seen The Misfits – something I keep meaning to do but can’t seem yet to bring myself to watch! I might have to force myself to sit down with it during my next holidays!

  5. I haven’t spent a lot of time following Gable, but there *are* a few of the performances that I like. The one in “Idiot’s Delight,” f’rinstance, in *spite* of the presence of Norma Shearer. I dearly love Borzage’s ever-odd “Strange Cargo” — how can you not love a film featuring Peter Lorre as “Monsieur Pig”? — so I’ll give the endorsement to his performance there.

    But have any of you seen Wellman’s pre-Code “Night Nurse”? He’s a sexy villain and full of threat. Haven’t seen it in years, but remember being very pleased with him. The character’s a chauffeur, and I think somebody (Kael?) described him as being dressed in a uniform tight as a condom …

  6. And again, who makes Night Nurse work? The woman — in this case the great Barbara Stanwyck.

  7. And don’t let’s forget, while we’re talking about that film’s women, the ever-essential Joan Blondell.

  8. Night Nurse is a hoot. Again, precode Warners, the studio who knew best how to take advantage of the climate of the times. Precode Paramount is saucy, but Warners have a kind of good-hearted wallow in sleaze approach that I find tremendously charming.
    Blondell is a goddess.

    I like Strange Cargo a lot, it’s maybe Borzage’s weirdest take on religious ideas in all his work. Gable works fine in it. I can’t muster strong opinions about his work in Gone With the Wind because I don’t enjoy the film, really.

    Something I forgot to mention about Dancing Lady: Franchot Tone introduces his sister at one point. She has a couple of lines, then disappears, having nothing to do with the plot. So this must be the most obvious instance I can think of of somebody in a film clearly because they were sleeping with somebody at the top. Actually, most of Florine McKinney’s roles seem to be of this kind, though she did work her way up to the occasional lead.

    Raoul Walsh and Errol Flynn would get girls this way — if they saw a starlet, one would say to the other, “Wouldn’t she be perfect for the role of the sister?” on the basis that, if there wasn’t a sister in the script, one could easily be added later…

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