|Released by MGM | Directed by Harry Beaumont
Run time: 80 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- How to tell this one comes from the flapper era– a dull party is made lively again by someone suggesting: “Okay. Stand up everybody, and off with your clothes!”
- Dad mulls disgustedly, “Sometimes I’m sorry you’re too old to spank!”
- “I believe in trying love out.”
“Yes… on approval.”
- Booze, bootlegging gangsters, and murder play a large part in the proceedings.
Dance, Fools, Dance: Of Rats and Newsmen
“Nothing left but my reputation.”
What do you think of Joan Crawford’s face? This seems like an odd place to start, but its central to this one, which often features the young star in close-up, thinking, worrying, or rejoicing. It’s notable because the way Dance, Fools, Dance is shot– like a number of early talkies, it’s still working on the grammar of the talking picture. That gives the movie a weird edge, with much of it looking like a silent film and Crawford’s face still being the central dramatic focus.
She’s radiant though, which helps a screenplay that’s surprisingly slow paced for such a dopey premise. Bonnie (Crawford) and Bob (Bakewell) are brother and sister socialites, yukking it up. Their father dies right when the crash hits, leaving them penniless. To make ends meet, Bonnie goes into reporting, and her brother tries his hand at being a low level bootlegger. After a St. Valentine’s Day type-massacre, their paths intersect and both end up in the cross hairs of gangster Jake Luva (Gable).
The film’s structure gives Bonnie plenty of time to develop. She’s fiercely loyal, on the outs with a society crowd that shuns her, and cavalier with her body. While Dance, Fools, Dance winks and nods at flapper morality and womanly independence, it’s still for marriage on the straight and narrow as the ultimate goal.
The supporting cast of the film is quite good, with Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards playing Bonnie’s pal who gets gunned down. It’s a mostly comedic sidekick/mentor role, but he also gets a bit to shine as he interrogates the wobbly Bob and then gets snuffed out by the shadowy, gleeful gangsters.
The title does a good job of laying things out. Director Harry Beaumont contrasts the hedonistic society party with the smug complacency of the bankers and the bootleggers too– it’s a movie about hubris, and having to push out of one’s comfort zone to succeed. Everyone is a fool, everyone is dancing wildly, trying to ignore reality as it prays on the weak and the noble with quick finesse.
Even though the film itself is creaky, an undeniable product of its time, it has a real sense of life to it. I like it because Beaumont gives Crawford plenty of room to breathe, decks her out in silver spangles, and lets her hoof it. I like it because the way Gable and Crawford look at each other in their too few scenes. And I like it because it’s a time capsule of a lot of things all crashing together– loud and wild.
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Trivia & Links
- TCMDB details what a crucial time this was in both Gable and Crawford’s career:
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.
- Filmfanatic.org sees this one as one of Crawford’s best early roles, noting:
Crawford is indeed “impressive” here, coming across as both “likable and extremely glamorous” — her character is sexy, savvy, and (unlike her spoiled alcoholic brother) easily able to dismiss her former life of comfort once she realizes how shallow her society “friends” really are; as Peary notes, both she and Gable (whose role is minimal) clearly exhibit the “star quality” that would rocket them to future success. While the storyline itself features a few too many coincidences to be entirely believable, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable snapshot of the Depression era, when countless Americans found themselves scrounging for work, and bootlegging dominated the criminal underworld.
- Mordaunt Hall’s contemporary review is pithy, explaining drolly:
[T]he new picture is a brisk and lively entertainment of its sort, and it brought scattered applause from a thin audience at its first showing yesterday. The scenes of a city room in a metropolitan daily are authentic.