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.