You know the drill. In the throes of the Depression, the idle rich fritter their wealth away at such social events as striptease and then attend the ensuing night court until they get bored with the whole affair. Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is one of their ilk, but he’s more engaged than others thanks to the pretty girl on the other side of the courtroom.
Down-on-her-luck Janie Barlow (an effulgent Joan Crawford) is a casualty of a police raid undertaken on the saucy dancing joint she’s been working at. Beyond being smitten, Tone (Crawford’s real-life husband for a time), is invested in helping give her a leg up, ulterior motives notwithstanding.
If it’s not obvious already, Dancing Lady has a premise to rival Warner Bros’ superlative successes with risque backstage, rags-to-riches musicals like 42nd Street. So, while the plot is nothing special, it somehow taps into Crawford’s innate sense of ambition as an actress.
There’s a feeling she’s not entirely acting a part; she’s driven to make it to the top. It’s this impetus that leads her to stick to “thousand-to-one-shots” over any man — even Park Avenue know-it-alls swimming in cash. She’s going to make it of her own accord. She’s going uptown toward the art world.
The script purposefully bears down on the vernacular to differentiate the patricians from the plebians and with it Janie’s attempts to make something of herself — first, through improved diction and then a newly cultivated wardrobe.
Without knowing it, she’s probably aspiring to the entertainment funded by such nincompoops as Mr. Bradley and his roly-poly walking gag of a son Junior. They are a father and son comic echo chamber if you will, and they also hold the purse strings for one of the industry’s latest productions.
It’s not altogether glamourous stuff but Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) and his taskmaster-like regimen, turning chorus girls into a full-fledged production, is the “big time” for someone like Janie. The only problem is getting an audition. The head honcho has his right-hand man Steve (Ted Healy) run interference for him — it didn’t go so well for a wisecracking Eve Arden. Still, the “Dutchess” is an assiduous gal if there ever was one.
Director Robert Z Leonard is evidently enamored with his whip pans, but he does evoke pace rather well, especially when Crawford tries furiously to catch up with Gable as he streaks down the sidewalk. While it’s a cliched rom-com montage that would be recycled time-and-time again, it still stands out within the context of the film. The leads don’t speak a word to one another for several minutes at least.
In what feels like a non-sequitur, the Three Stooges make a lightning-quick cameo. Well, they actually show up twice, posing as stagehands. It’s true they feel completely at odds with Joan Crawford’s story arc, but it’s delightful to see them, even momentarily, as she continues her ascension. This is only to be surpassed by the appearance of Fred Astaire! (And I nearly forgot to mention Nelson Eddy, so there you go).
Tone continues to go to great lengths to win her affections, secretly bankrolling her star vehicle, dancing and dining her, and flaunting his swimming pools. When all else fails, he resorts to taking her to Cuba, conveniently far away from the other man in her life and the career she’s chosen.
The red-hot sparks are given a literal gymnasium to work themselves out in — positively buzzing between Crawford and Gable — as they get in their morning exercise to keep their svelte dancing figure and brawny physique respectively. It goes unspoken, but an unwritten rule of storytelling tips us off that antagonism usually denotes love. They have copious amounts ready-made to dish out at one another.
Unfortunately, by this point, the story gets less and less interesting by the minute as it continues to sink into the preconceived notions of the genre. In other words, what we suspect to be derivative proves itself to be precisely that. It speaks to the charisma of the stars who make the well-trod paces watchable, even engaging, and there are a few momentary delights around the fringes.
The final extravaganza is a not-too-veiled Busby Berkeley knockoff infatuated with beer. The surreal foray that follows offers up a luxuriant carousel of beauties and giant fan blades strapped with women — not to mention the surreal moment when a host of old maids go behind a curtain only to be dismantled to come out as gorgeous dancing ladies.
With Fred Astaire showcased prominently alongside Joan in a very fluffy ensemble, it felt strangely out of place. Astaire and Rogers had yet to be placed together and it’s true their trajectories could have been so much different. I don’t know a thimbleful about dancing, but at the very least, Crawford has an earnestness on taps. Though, she’s not quite Ginger Rogers either. No one ever said she was.
With Tone’s gigolo scorned and “The Duchess” going in to check on her dejected “Duke” after their stunning success, there’s a sense the working-class heroes are being reunited in a triumphant victory for all the blue-collar folks in the audience. In other words, it’s not just Depression-era pap, there’s this genuine element of wish fulfillment.
The movie is gracious enough to supply one last obligatory scene between Crawford and Gable for contemporary audiences. Because there are a lot of distractions (and some unique surprises like Astaire), but the romantic chemistry is present and delivered on a silver platter with the kiss that the whole movie’s been culminating to. Surprising, I know. What’s the axiom? Give the people what they want? Dancing Lady is case and point.