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Several of Barbara Stanwyck's early films seem to follow a popular formula that MGM would mimic on a bigger budget for Joan Crawford. At the center would be a resourceful, working class girl living by her wits and trying to improve her lot in life while struggling to maintain a respectable reputation despite lecherous employers, predatory married men, class conscious in-laws, malicious gossips, jealous coworkers or police harassment. Ten Cents a Dance (1931) is a typical example of the type of genre film Stanwyck made during her first years in Hollywood after a highly successful stage career in New York City. She had followed her husband actor Frank Fay to the West Coast when he signed with Warner Bros. and was soon offered non-exclusive film contracts herself at the same studio and Columbia Pictures. Harry Cohn, the chief mogul of Columbia, touted Stanwyck as his own discovery after her breakthrough success in his studio's Ladies of Leisure (1930) for director Frank Capra and offered her a three-picture deal.
Ten Cents a Dance was the second picture of the deal (the first, Illicit , was made on loan out to Warner Bros.) and cast Stanwyck as Barbara O'Neill, a streetwise taxi dancer who has become bored with her work at a tawdry nightclub even though she is the most popular girl on the floor. She is pursued by a wealthy tycoon, Bradley Carlton (Ricardo Cortez), who wants to shower her with expensive gifts but she keeps him at arm's length with her virtue intact. Instead, her heart belongs to Eddie Miller (Monroe Owsley), a boarder in her rooming house who has fallen on hard times. We can tell from the get-go that Barbara's affections are misplaced and that Eddie is a no-good bum but that doesn't stop Barbara from marrying the jerk and suffering the consequences. Eddie can't find work but forbids Barbara to return to taxi dancing so she uses her influence to find him office work at Bradley Carlton's company. Soon bad investments made on the advice of "friends" and gambling debts drive Eddie to embezzle money from Carlton and when confronted tries to blackmail the executive on accusations of infidelity with his wife. Meanwhile, Barbara has left Eddie and returned to work at the dancehall but her days as a working girl are numbered and the film has a predictably happy fadeout.
For a movie made during the Pre-Code era, Ten Cents a Dance is not as racy as some of its contemporaries such as 1933's Baby Face (which also starred Stanwyck), but it is fairly obvious that the dancehall is little better than a brothel, attracting sex-hungry men and underage employees. The first half of the film is lively and reflects the restless energy of its urban settings with Stanwyck, chewing gum, and delivering plenty of cynical wisecracks. For such a shrewd, experienced operator, Barbara's inability to see through the untrustworthy Eddie is the major flaw of the film but even if the second half collapses under the weight of too many melodramatic clichs, some of the dialogue remains snappy and smart.
The tone is set in the opening sequence when two sailors wander into the dancehall and wander over to Stanwyck and her female companion, asking, "What's a guy gotta do to dance with you girls?" to which Barbara responds without missing a beat, "All you need is a ticket and some courage." Later, when Carlton, pays a return visit to the club and questions her choice of employment, asking "What are you doing? Writing a book?", she dismisses the question with "Listen, I'm here because my brains are in my feet."
The domestic squabbles between Barbara and Eddie carry more of a punch since they reflect the desperation of the Depression era. After their electricity is cut off, Eddie remarks bitterly, "Maybe it's better we don't have any lights around here. It hides all the ugly things." In another scene, he enters the room and sniffs the air disagreeably, "What is that?" "Corned beef and cabbage," Barbara replies merrily as he dashes her happy mood with the response, "Smell of cheap cooking." One of the best exchanges occurs toward the end when Barbara asks Carlton for a $5,000 loan that she promises to pay back. "At ten cents a dance? That's 10,000 dances!" he exclaims incredulously.
Ten Cents a Dance is unique in that it is one of a handful of films directed by Lionel Barrymore who was going through a career slump at the time in regards to film acting. Harry Cohn felt Barrymore's strength was directing (he had been nominated for a Best Director Oscar® for Madame X in 1930) and assigned him to Ten Cents a Dance. Under his direction, Stanwyck experienced some difficulties during filming, such as fracturing her pelvis and being partially paralyzed for several hours. After a two day hospital stay, she returned to work, displaying her usual no-nonsense professional work ethic.
Unfortunately, Barrymore also experienced some health issues during the film due to his inflammatory rheumatism. According to the biography, The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davis, "Heavy medication dulled his pain and his direction. "You'd start a scene and took around and find he'd fallen asleep," leading man Ricardo Cortez states. "He tried his best," recalls Barbara Stanwyck, "As a performer, you just had to try harder." At the Hollywood preview, somebody transposed the reels and the picture was run off backward. Rumors circulated that Barrymore had lost his wits. Eventually, hung together correctly, Ten Cents a Dance became a personal success for Columbia's new star."
"The experience discouraged me," Lionel confessed, and he once more considered the inevitable alternative: the "family curse," he called it, acting."
Barrymore would go on to work on one more film as director - Guilty Hands  - but would be replaced by W.S. Van Dyke and receive no screen credit. Luckily, his film career as a character actor took off the same year when he was nominated and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for A Free Soul.
Producers: Harry Cohn, Frank Fouce
Director: Lionel Barrymore
Screenplay: Jo Swerling; Dorothy Howell (continuity)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller, Gilbert Warrenton
Art Direction: Edward C. Jewell
Film Editing: Arthur Huffsmith
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Barbara O'Neill), Ricardo Cortez (Bradley Carlton), Monroe Owsley (Eddie Miller), Sally Blane (Molly), Blanche Friderici (Mrs. Blanchard), Phyllis Crane (Eunice), Olive Tell (Mrs. Carlton), Victor Potel (Smith, a sailor), Al Hill (Jones, a sailor), Jack Byron (Leo).
by Jeff Stafford
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davis (Crown Publishers)
The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters (Alfred A. Knopf)
The Barrymores by Hollis Alpert (Dial Press)
Stanwyck by Axel Madsen (HarperCollins)