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A standard backstage saga of an ambitious hoofer who becomes a Broadway star, Dancing Lady (1933) is nevertheless an important film and a cult favorite for reasons which have nothing to do with its story or music. It's a film that came at an important point in the careers of star Joan Crawford and producer David O. Selznick, and gave them both major career boosts. It introduced a stage star named Fred Astaire to the screen. It was the second film for two talented newcomers, Nelson Eddy and Eunice Quedens, who would later be known as Eve Arden. And it was the first time a vaudeville comedy trio known as "The Racketeers" would be billed as "The Three Stooges."
In the early 1930's, Joan Crawford had successfully made a smooth transition from silent-movie jazz baby to queen of the working-girl melodramas. She'd even proved she could act by playing a cynical secretary in Grand Hotel (1932), holding her own with such stellar performers as Lionel and John Barrymore. But then came a few missteps. She asked to be loaned out to United Artists to play Sadie Thompson in Rain (1932). Neither her performance nor the film was successful. Her next film at MGM, Today We Live (1933), also flopped. Crawford badly needed a hit. She appealed to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who made it a priority to make sure her next film would be successful.
Mayer's son-in-law, David O. Selznick, had recently returned from RKO to MGM as vice-president and producer, and Mayer turned Crawford and Dancing Lady over to him. Selznick didn't like musicals, and didn't know much about them. But he needed to prove himself, too. And he knew that 42nd Street (1933), with spectacular numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, had kicked off a string of hugely successful backstage musicals for Warner Brothers. Selznick figured that with MGM's top talent and infinite resources Dancing Lady would easily out-do the Warners' musicals. Selznick commissioned songs by several top-notch musical teams. Art director Merrill Pye came up with some dazzling Art Moderne sets, and Adrian designed lavish costumes.
Crawford had input into casting, and asked for frequent co-star (and occasional off-screen lover) Clark Gable. Gable had health problems early in the production, and it looked as if he might have to be replaced. But having him in Dancing Lady was so important that studio executives agreed to shut down the film until Gable recovered. For the second leading man, Crawford suggested her current boyfriend, Franchot Tone, whom she would marry in 1935. Since Selznick had worked at RKO, he knew that they'd just signed Broadway star Fred Astaire to a contract. He managed to snag Astaire for just two weeks of work prior to the start of his RKO contract. Astaire played himself, and partnered Crawford in the musical numbers. In his first scene, Astaire is introduced to Crawford's character by Gable, who plays the show's director. Astaire would often say "I always thought I had one of the best introductions to the movies anyone could have at that particular time - to have Gable introduce me."
Selznick historian Ronald Haver wrote "Crawford liked to think of herself as a dancer, but everything she did other than ballroom dancing looked exactly like a variation of the Charleston." According to Astaire biographer Bill Adler, Astaire "instinctively did all he could in dancing with Crawford to adapt to her limitations and strengths in dancing, and in the end he makes her look good - better, indeed, than she would have looked in anyone else's hands." Ever the perfectionist, though, Astaire hated how he looked in the film. "Ponderous dancing, grotesque face," he noted.
What Dancing Lady didn't have, though, was a sense of proportion...or Busby Berkeley. All that splendor overwhelmed the slight, familiar story, and the musical numbers seemed heavy-handed, in spite of Astaire's best efforts. Some critics were lukewarm, but the Crawford-Gable chemistry still worked, and depression-weary audiences loved all the glamour and excess. Dancing Lady was such an enormous hit that MGM's sales department used it as a standard for measuring the "100% commercial picture" for years afterward.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Allen Rivkin, P.J. Wolfson, based on a novel by James Warner Bellah
Editor: Margaret Booth
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Merrill Pye
Music: songs by Dorothy Fields & Jimmy McHugh, Harold Adamson & Burton Lane, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Arthur Freed & Nacio Herb Brown
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Janie Barlow), Clark Gable (Patch Gallagher), Franchot Tone (Tod Newton), Fred Astaire (himself), Nelson Eddy (Himself), May Robson (Dolly Todhunter), Eve Arden (Marcia, the "Southern" actress).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
By Margarita Landazuri