Film in Focus
By Ed Garea
Dance, Fools, Dance (MGM, 1931) – Director: Harry Beaumont. Writers: Aurania Rouverol (story & dialogue), Richard Schayer (continuity) & Joan Crawford (contributing writer, uncredited). Stars: Joan Crawford, Lester Vail, Cliff Edwards, William Bakewell, Clark Gable, Earle Foxe, Purnell Pratt, Hale Hamilton, William Holden, Natalie Moorhead, Joan Marsh & Russell Hopton. B&W, 80 minutes.
Dance, Fools, Dance is a solid attempt by MGM to move star Joan Crawford from jazz baby to working girl. In the process the writers adapt an Aesop fable to modern times. Sespite the triteness of the plot, director Beaumont keeps things moving, making for a enjoyable and fast 80 minutes.
Bonnie Jordan (Crawford) and her brother, Rodney (Bakewell) are two spoiled, carefree socialites whose father, Stanley (Holden) is a successful businessman. Bonnie and Rodney spend their nights partying and their days resting from their nights. To give us an idea of just how shallow these two are, we’re offered a breakfast scene were Bonnie lights up. When her father asks her if she has to smoke before they eat, she replies, “I must if I want to keep thin, darling.” We’re also given a glimpse of the parties Bonnie holds aboard her yacht, which seems to be her home away from home. There is a scene when everyone strips down to their underwear and dives into the water. Later, Bonnie’s boyfriend, Bob (Vail) goes to her cabin and proposes marriage, but she tells him that “I believe in trying love out – on approval.”
However, the gravy train is about to derail. The stock market crashes and Stanley dies trying to bail out his financial ship. Bonnie and Rodney are flat broke, forced to auction off the contents of the mansion where they grew up. Rodney becomes bitter over the turn of events, whining about the prospect of having to go to work, but Bonnie is made of stronger stuff, telling her brother, “There no use crying about it. Buck up. Put on your spurs and gauntlets and give the world a battle. Swat ‘em in the eye.” MGM’s advice on how to beat the Depression.
Bob (Vail) shows up with a weak marriage proposal that Bonnie turns down, much to Bob’s relief. No, she has to make it on her own. “I’m going out to get myself a man-sized job. I’m not afraid! You’d be surprised to learn what she can earn when a young girl sets her mind to it.” Rodney, on the other hand, is an idler, one for whom work is as four-letter word. His idea of a full day is to begin drinking at breakfast and languish in an alcoholic haze the rest of the day. He is perfectly content to sit back and let Bonnie be the breadwinner.
Dirt poor, but resourceful and full of pluck, Bonnie soon lands a job as a cub reporter on the New York Star. She soon becomes popular for her hard work and good humor. “You don’t know the thrill of making it on your own,” she tells Rodney. “And I don’t mean by trading on your name and running to parties all the time.”
Rodney tells her he has some big deals of his own on the fire, “and I’ll soon have you running around with the old crowd again.” Bonnie declines his invitation. When he asks why, she tells him: “I used to think anything I did was all right. I was Bonnie Jordan – in society. Society! What is it but a lot of people who are for you when you’re on the up and up, but what would one of them do for you the it came to a showdown? Nothing! It isn’t who you are, Rodney, but what you are that counts!”
What Rodney has neglected to tell her is that he’s fallen in with a gang of bootleggers led by Jake Luva (Gable) and using his name with his society friends to peddle Luva’s hooch.
Meanwhile, Bonnie grows to love her work and is befriended by Bert Scranton (Edwards), the paper’s top reporter. Her hard work is rewarded with an assignment to cover the rackets in a series of stories.
The film’s second act now begins, as Jake’s gang mow down members of a rival gang in a garage, a clear allusion to the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre of a year ago. The scene of the breaking news at the paper’s headquarters is obviously critical of the media frenzy to sell papers: get big stories along with photos, and the more blood and violence, the better.
Rodney is clearly shaken by the turn of events, for he drove the gang’s getaway car. He never thought it would come to this, and while at Jake’s club he spills his soul to a stranger who turns out to be none other than Bert. When Jake finds out, he’s livid and orders Rodney to kill Bert, which Rodney does clearly in order to save his own life.
The police have now ordered a dragnet to find Bert’s killer, but the paper wants to beat them to the punch. Surmising that Luva is behind the hit, Bonnie’s editor sends her out undercover to infiltrate the gang by becoming a dancer at the club. “Nobody knows the Jordan girl is working on our paper – and they’ll never suspect a girl,” he says.
But complications develop when Jake falls for Bonnie. “You’re going to have a little supper with me tonight – up in my room,” he whispers as they dance. “We’ve got to get better acquainted.” She agrees and they smile knowingly.
When Bob recognizes her at the club she tries to throw him off by telling him that, “I’m just a cheap little dancer in a nightclub.”
When she goes up to Jake’s apartment, hoping to get her story, the phone rings. She answers and recognizes the voice of her brother on the other end. Realizing the extent of Rodney’s involvement she sneaks away from Jake’s and confronts her brother, who admits he murdered Bert.
In the third act Jake discovers the truth about Bonnie and threatens to kill her and Rodney. When Rodney arrives a shootout takes place that leaves Jake and his minions dead and Rodney dying in Bonnie’s arms. She calls the paper and delivers the story, revealing the truth. The next day her boss and co-workers try to discourage her from quitting, but she feels that she must. As she walks out, Bob finds her and proposes again. She accepts, and as they kiss, some of her friends on the paper capture the moment for the announcement of their marriage on the society pages.
This is Crawford’s movie and she had solo billing above the title. It’s also notable for moving her beyond the persona of the carefree dancing flapper to the noble working girl – a role she would be famous for playing in the following years.
Crawford even helped with the screenplay when writer Aurania Rouverol ran into difficulty transforming her own story into in screenplay because of the rushed production schedule. Crawford offered to help and, in fact, contributed much of the film’s dialogue.
The plot itself is borrowed from Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” Crawford’s character is the ant, diligent and hard-working. Brother Rodney is the grasshopper, idle and willing to let his sister support both of them. When he does decide to make money he does so by trading on his name and his idling eventually leads to murder.
The film also marked a big step ahead for Gable, and even though he doesn’t appear until 35 minutes into the movie, he received substantial billing. The chemistry between him and Crawford in evident. Watch for the scene in the club where they dance. After Bonnie agrees to visit Jake’s apartment, he goes to kiss her. She turns her face and he kisses her cheek. He tries again with the same result. But the third time he draws her close to him, hip-to-hip, groin-to-groin. It appears that she was not expecting this sort of sexual advance and she tries to conceal a grin of surprise and a look of mild shock. She seems to be glancing toward the director and cameraman, waiting to hear “Cut!” But as nothing was said, when Gable went to plant a big kiss on her she doesn’t turn away.
As with other films about strong women made during this time, having accomplished her goal, Bonnie calls it quits and accepts Bob’s proposal of marriage. A woman can be independent, but not too independent. Ultimately, her place is in the home, raising the children and doing the cooking.
Face it, the story is hokum. But it’s great hokum and there’s not a dull minute to be had, thanks to director Harry Beaumont, who keeps things moving at a lively pace. He even adds a few satirical touches, as in the scene at the stock exchange. As chaos looms all around, Beaumont compares it to a Jazz Age dance sequence. Fools can be found all over. And check out the scene where one of the stocks being pushed is “Consolidated Air.”
Speaking of Jazz Age dancing, the weakest part of the film is where Joan dances in the club. Her dancing is rather klutzy and weak, especially when compared to her earlier silents. She is also learning how to act on film. The film, like other early talkies, is still negotiating the new grammar of sound. There are times when the cast reverted to wild gesturing, but thankfully these are few.
Both Crawford and Gable used the film to develop their screen personas. For Crawford, this means setting her jaw and, as Jay Carr noted in his essay for TCM, “bravely staring off out of the frame, as if her troubles are too cosmic to bear, but she'll bear them anyway.” Her portrayals of hard-working, hard-driving women paid off with huge popularity among female audiences.
For his part Gable concentrated on playing Gable. Instead of molding his personality to the character, he molded the character to his personality, so that no matter who he was playing, he was merely playing an extension of himself. While it paid off with most of his roles, it failed miserably when he tried to transcend his bounds with a character like Parnell. There he was left high and dry, hoisted on his own petard.
The supporting cast does well, especially Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Bert Scranton. William Bakewell is appropriately spineless as brother Rodney, and Bob Vail is decent in a small role, as is William Holden as the Jordan’s doomed father.
Those looking for Pre-Code thrills are bound to be disappointed, because, aside from the opening yacht party, there aren’t many to be had, aside from the brief Gable-Crawford dance sequence.
Dance, Fools, Dance cost MGM $744,000. It grossed $848,000 in the US and Canada and $420,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $524,000. Not bad for 1931. Crawford proved herself a bankable star.