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Before the mustache was incorporated into his screen persona, before he told Scarlett O'Hara that frankly he didn't give a damn, before he became the king of Hollywood he-men, Clark Gable was just another actor struggling for a toehold in the film biz. Between 1924 and 1930, he appeared in bit parts (mostly uncredited) in 13 films. In 1930, as a character named Killer Mears, he caught the film industry's attention in a Los Angeles stage production of The Last Mile. MGM put him under contract and he never looked back. In 1931 alone, audiences saw him in 13 films, including two with Joan Crawford. In Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Gable was billed sixth. By the time he ended the year opposite Crawford in Possessed (1931), he was billed second, right below Crawford, who had preceded him to stardom. They were to make eight films together, more than Gable made with any other co-star.
Crawford wrote that she was intimidated at the idea of acting opposite Gable because he had stage experience, and she didn't. But they got on, becoming friends after exchanging reminiscences of their respective unhappy childhoods and notes on their respective unhappy marriages. By the time they filmed Possessed, their off-camera affair was an open secret. Their chemistry was noted at the outset in Dance, Fools, Dance. As a Chicago bootlegger named Jake Luva, who doesn't appear until 35 minutes into the 80-minute film, he invites her to his apartment above his nightclub and asks her if she's going to be nice to him. For reasons of her own, Crawford's character says yes. When he goes to kiss her the first time, she turns her face and he kisses a cheek. Another try, another cheek kiss. The third time, she doesn't turn away. The long, juicy kiss on the lips has, for want of a better word, voltage.
During that busy year of 1931 - his single most prolific -- Gable often was cast as heavies. In A Free Soul (1931), he shoves Norma Shearer. In Night Nurse (1931), he plays a nasty chauffeur who starves two little girls and socks Barbara Stanwyck. In Dance, Fools, Dance, Gable's Jake Luva would have gunned down Crawford's impoverished socialite, Bonnie Jordan, working as an undercover reporter if the script hadn't dictated otherwise. His stock in trade became - and remained - his ability to make rugged masculinity seem to come naturally to him. There's also the matter of screen presence. That's there, too, in Dance, Fools, Dance. It had to be for each to hold the screen as equals. Like Gable's, Crawford's brand of acting was un-nuanced. Each, in their respective ways, seemed a force of nature - her wide-set eyes and wide, screen-eating smile were made for film.
Dance, Fools, Dance spends considerable time setting up the back story of Bonnie and her weakling brother Rodney (William Bakewell), cleaned out when their rich father is ruined in the stock market crash and dies of a heart attack. Rodney, wimp that he is, whines about having to work. Bonnie rolls up her sleeves and moves on. He's given ungainful employment by his bootlegger, and the latter's boss (Gable). She gets a job as a reporter and, after proving herself, is given an assignment -- go undercover as a cabaret dancer and bring down the public enemy behind a thinly-veiled St. Valentine's Day Massacre. It was a natural for Crawford, who began her career as a dancer and whose initial screen persona was as a flapper. To get the goods against Gable's Jake, she gets a job in his club. Her high spirits catch his eye (it couldn't be her dancing - surprisingly klutzy for a woman whose forte had been high-energy modern women).
What Bonnie doesn't know is that her shiftless brother also works for Jake and was one of the smoking guns in the garage massacre. She puts things together, with the aid of the street-smart reporter at the desk next to hers (round-faced, button-eyed Cliff Edwards, who appeared in as many movies in sidekick roles as he made popular song hits as Ukulele Ike). From there, it's only a few hops, skips and jumps until the tough and not-so-tough guys shoot it out indoors in their hats and overcoats and Bonnie, through her tears, phones the story in to her paper. The gunfight looks pretty hokey. Crawford projects more toughness than any of them when a rich boyfriend, condescendingly proposing when she turns poor, is one-upped by Crawford, who remains composed enough to dismiss him first, saying "I can still pick my own men." All the more reason to frown at the film's cop-out ending.
Crawford's way of playing emotion usually involves setting her jaw and bravely staring off out of the frame, as if her troubles are too cosmic to bear, but she'll bear them anyway. It was no small source of her popularity with women audiences that she often played hard-working, hard-driving women. Gable's long suit, on the other hand, was to never seem as if he was acting. He essentially unrolled his high-testosterone performances, varying little but the pitch and volume. This is not intended condescendingly. With acting, simpler is usually better, and Gable embodied this supremely, never showing much patience for theories of acting.
It would also be a mistake to condescend to Dance, Fools, Dance. Not so much for its pre-Code naughtiness. We've all seen seamier stuff since. Some of the partying is quaint - idle rich partygoers going for a moonlight swim over the side of a yacht in their undies. But a scene in which Bonnie and a lover agree to spend the night together, no strings attached, has a matter-of- fact sophistication that didn't reappear in Hollywood films for decades. Director Harry Beaumont keeps it boiling along crisply, with a light hand. There even are a few drolly satirical touches. A scene in the chaotic stock exchange aping a peppy Jazz Age dance sequence makes clear that there are fools to be found off the dance floor as well as on. One of the stocks being touted by the rich codgers around a card table is called "Consolidated Air." And let's close with a few Gable-centric ironies. He fought being cast in It Happened One Night (1934), which won him an Oscar®. He was lukewarm about filming Gone With the Wind (1939). His string of '30s successes was marred by losing out to Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan movies. Still, not a bad career for a guy Daryl F. Zanuck rejected for Scarface (1932), saying, "His ears are too big."
By Jay Carr