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The Joan Crawford Blogathon: «Dancing Lady» (1933)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Dancing Lady (1933) tells the story of Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford), a young dancer who is reduced to stripping in a burlesque show. Arrested for indecent exposure, she is bailed out by millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), who was attracted to her while slumming at the theatre with his society pals. When Janie tries to get a part in a Broadway musical, Tod intercedes with director Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) to get her the job: he will put his money into the show, if Janie is given a part in the chorus. Even though he needs the money, Patch is resistant, until he sees Janie dance and realizes her talent.

Soon, Tod proposes to Janie and she accepts, but only if the show fails. Meanwhile, Patch has realized that neither his show nor his star, Vivian Warner (Gloria Foy), is right, so he gives Janie the lead in the new version. Although Patch and Janie are attracted to each other, she decides to go away with Tod when he secretly withdraws his backing and rehearsals stop. While they are away, Patch uses his own money to finance the show. When Janie returns and discovers Tod's deception, she begs Patch to take her back. On opening night, Janie is a big hit in her numbers with Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (as themselves), and Tod realizes that Broadway, not Park Avenue should be Janie's address. Patch and Janie also realize that they are more than star and director.

Janie "Duchess" Barlow: I'm like that guy throwing quarters in the slot machine. I keep on trying.

In the early 1930s, Joan Crawford had successfully made a transition from silent-film flapper girl to queen of the working-girl melodramas. She had even proved that she could act by playing a cynical secretary in Edmund Goulding's Best Picture winner Grand Hotel (1932), holding her own opposite such accomplished performers as John and Lionel Barrymore. However, her next film, the South Seas drama Rain (1932) made on loan-out to United Artists did not appeal to Depression-era audiences, who were caught off guard by Crawford's unglamorous role. Back at her home studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she did not fare any better, with Today We Live (1933) becoming her second critical and commercial failure in a row. In serious need of a hit, Crawford went to studio chief Louis B. Mayer and begged for "a good role in a good picture."

As it hapenned, MGM owned the screen rights to a novel by James Warner Bellah that had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post between April and June 1932, entitled Dancing Lady. Published in book form by Farrar & Reinhart that same year, the book told the story of a burlesque dancer who rises to respectability, wealth and fame, with predictable romantic complications before the happy ending. The studio believed that Dancing Lady was the perfect vehicle for Crawford, but she was hesitant at first. She finally accepted the assignment after Mayer invited her to participate in the story's development from page to screen. At the same time, Mayer's son-in-law David O. Selznick returned from RKO to MGM and was put in charge of the production of Dancing Lady. Selznick had no great fondness for musicals, but he believed that with the right guidance Metro could be as successful in the genre as Warner Bros., which had just released the very lucrative extravaganzas 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). 

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford
Crawford was allowed input into casting and she requested that Clark Gable be signed as her leading man. The only child of a oil-well driller, Gable first became interested in acting after seeing the play The Bird of Paradise at the age of 17. He toured with several second-rate stock companies for a few years, before arriving in Hollywood in 1924. Gable soon found work as an extra in such acclaimed silent films as The Merry Widow (1925) and Ben-Bur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) both of which also featured Crawford — but offers for major roles were not forthcoming. Consequently, he returned to the stage and received stellar reviews for his performance in the Los Angeles production of The Last Mile, which earned him a contract with MGM in 1930. Making his talking picture debut in The Painted Desert (1931), Gable finally achieved widespread recognition after appearing opposite Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul (1931). His pairing with Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932) and Hold Your Man (1933) had made him one of MGM's most profitable male stars at the time.

For the second leading man, Crawford suggested her current boyfriend, Franchot Tone, who had played her brother in the aforementioned Today We Live. Born into a wealthy and socially prominent New York family, Tone gave up the family business after graduating from Cornell University to pursue an acting career in the theatre. He landed his first important Broadway role in Katharine Cornell's 1929 production of The Age of Innocence, two years before becoming a founding member of the famed Group Theatre, together with such illustrious figures as Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg and Clifford Odets. Soon, however, he left the Group and New York to accept a long-term film contract at MGM in Hollywood. Tone's screen debut was made on loan-out to Paramount Pictures in The Wiser Sex (1932), starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas. 

Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford
Crawford and Gable had become romantically involved while working together on Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), Laughing Sinners (1931) and Possessed (1931). At that time, they were both married Crawford to actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., her co-star in Our Modern Maidens (1929), and Gable to Texas socialite Maria Langham. Despite Mayer's objections, they sworn that they would get married as soon as they were able. When Crawford divorced Fairbanks, however, Gable shied away from breaking his marriage to Langham and their off-screen relationship ended.

Tone later claimed that when he saw Crawford, it was love at first sight. They married in 1935 and appeared together in five more pictures: Sadie McKee (1934), No More Ladies (1935), The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), Love on the Run (1936) which also starred Gable and The Bride Wore Red (1937). Before and during their marriage, Crawford worked to promote her husband's Hollywood career, but Tone was ultimately not interested in being a movie star. After Tone reportedly began drinking and became physically abusive, Crawford filed for divorce, which became final in 1939.

One of Selznick's last deals at RKO had been to sign acclaimed dancer and stage star Fred Astaire to a film contract. He arranged to borrow Astaire for just two weeks of work on Dancing Lady, where he made his screen debut as himself (as did another stage performer, singer Nelson Eddy). In a Columbia University oral interview, however, Astaire claimed, "Joan Crawford asked if I could go over and do a number with her in Dancing Lady, which followed on the heels of the Busby Berkeley film musicals. I thought it would be a good idea to get a little film experience before I did this other picture." The "other picture" was Flying Down to Rio (1933), which marked the beginning of a highly successful partnership between Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In his first scene in Dancing Lady, 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."

Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford
To helm Dancing Lady, the studio chose Robert Z. Leonard, one of MGM's most reliable contract directors as well as the most senior. Nicknamed "Pop," Leonard began his career in the motion picture industry in 1907 by getting paid $7.50 for riding a horse on a steep hill in a short produced by Selig Polyscope. He continued working as an actor until making his directorial debut with Judge Not; or the Woman of Mona Diggings (1915), which he also produced and co-wrote. In 1924, he joined the newly established Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he went on to direct such pictures as The Divorcee (1930) which earned him an Academy Award nomination Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall (1931) and Strange Interlude (1932), both of which co-starred Gable.

Soon after filming started in late June 1933, Gable became ill with a strange infection, which forced him to stay at home for a few days. When he returned to work, he collapsed on the set and had to be hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy. There were complications and his recovery eventually kept him away from the studio until the end of August. During this period, MGM considered replacing with him with either William Gargan or Lee Tracy, but ultimately decided to retain Gable and put the production on hold until he was fully recuperated. Apparently, Mayer was so annoyed over Gable's lenghty illness that he "punished" him by sending him to Poverty Row to make It Happened One Night (1934) for Frank Capra at Columbia Pictures. As it happened, the film was a massive success and earned Gable his only Academy Award for Best Actor.

Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable
on the set of Dancing Lady
Making Dancing Lady proved a challenge for Crawford. "I've never worked harder than on Dancing Lady," she later said. "I was knocking myself out to dance as well as the chorus girls." While doing a scene in which her character collapses because of a leg cramp, Crawford fell awkwardly and badly sprained her ankle. Despite the pain and discomfort, she returned to the studio right after receiving medical assistance and worked for seven hours, doing close-ups for a major dance number that now had to focus on her face instead of her feet. A week later, however, she was forced to withdraw for several days and again shooting was interrupted when she learned that she had sustained a hairline fracture. "I am holding up production with a sprained ankle," Crawford wrote to a friend in New York. "It's the same one I've broken three times and it's painful as the very devil." In the end, Dancing Lady, which was planned to take only four weeks to film, required more than four months to finish, finally wrapping in early October 1933.

Dancing Lady opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on November 24, 1933 and was an immediate success among audiences and critics alike. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote, "This film tale [...] is more entertaining than the general run of behind the scenes conflicts because of the efficient work of the players. [...] The dancing of Fred Astaire and Miss Crawford is most graceful and charming. The photographic effects of their scenes are an impressive achievement." TIME magazine was particularly impressed by Gable, enthusing, "Perhaps it should have been called 'Dancing Man' to introduce the new Clark Gable." The film earned $1,490,000 in the United States and Canada and $916,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $744,000. Due to its popularity, Dancing Lady was used by MGM's sales department as a standard for measuring the "100% commercial picture" for years afterward. Crawford and Gable's chemistry was further explored in Chained (1934), Forsaking All Others (1934) and Strange Cargo (1940). 

This is my contribution to The Joan Crawford Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (2002) | Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell (2002) | Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford by Donald Spoto (2011) | Puttin' on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography by Peter Levinson () | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


  1. I've been meaning to see this one for ages - must get on and do it. What a fantastic cast, including Astaire in his film debut! Enjoyed your great review.

  2. I watched this because it was Fred Astaire's debut, but I ended up enjoying it! Thanks for a wonderful review...and great history and research!

  3. The background of this film could almost be a movie in itself! The fact that Joan C. would continue to work so hard despite her injury proves she was every bit the Movie Star.


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