Dancing Lady (1933) Robert Z. Leonard

The same year Warner Brothers released 42nd Street (1933) MGM came out with Dancing Lady, a backstage musical complete with a Busby Berkeley style finale. If you had to compare the two, the win would certainly go to 42nd Street, one the great Warner Brother musicals of all time. However,  Dancing Lady is entertaining if not exactly a knockout, the film can certainly hold its head high. It is just not in the stratosphere of great musicals like its better known counterpart.

The film has a pedigree cast with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone in the leading roles. Joan is Janie “Duchess” Barlow, a virtuous downtown burlesque dancer whose dream is to make it to the big time on Broadway. Slumming one evening with his multiple girlfriends is millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). The Burlesque house is raided that same evening and Janie and the other girls are all hauled off into court. Tod and his entourage decide to go to court for the entertainment value of the proceedings. Once there Tod suddenly takes a surprising interest in Janie and ends up paying her bail.

Smitten by this ambitious woman who wants to be a dancer more than anything else he gets her a small part that grows increasingly larger in a new Broadway production he is financing and is being directed by the acerbic Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable). What follows is a love triangle between Crawford, Gable and Tone. Tone loves Crawford, who clearly is attracted to the tough talking Gable who at first dislikes Crawford before falling in love with her.

It is all fairly standard stuff, the kind of film MGM used to put out at a standard rate. The real treat here is the rare opportunity to see Joan Crawford show off her dancing talent in a sound film and also some surprising amounts of skin in a couple of pre-code scenes that take place at the beginning of the film during the raid on the burlesque house. Also a pleasure is the opportunity to see Crawford, in a blonde wig, dance with Fred Astaire during the Bavarian dance number.

 This was Gable and Crawford’s first film since they worked together in the 1931 film Possessed and as usual they sizzle on the screen.  Crawford is as beautiful as Gable is macho. Off screen though Crawford was into a hot and heavy affair with Tone while Gable who supposedly was also  a bed time partner of Joan’s steamed. Gable was sidelined and many of his scenes had to be delayed in filming because of his serious and continuous teeth problems.

Dancing Lady turned out to be a big financial hit during the holiday season despite it going over budget due to Gable’s health problems. The script was by Allen Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson who used Warner Brothers big hit 42nd Street as a prototype. The songs were written by among others Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (Rhythm of the Day), and Burton Lane and Harold Adamson whose songs included “Everything I Have Is Yours”, a major hit in its day.
The film is also filled with quite a few future stars in early screen appearances. Making his film debut was Fred Astaire, that in itself makes this film a must see! Nelson Eddy also appears in what was only his second film. And most surprisingly The Three Stooges perform some of their classic style slapstick. This film was early in the Stooges career and here they were billed as part of the act known as Ted Healy and his Stooges in the opening credits. Healy was a big time vaudevillian with The Stooges as part of his act as I imagine most Stoogeologist know. Eventually The Stooges would split from Healy and go off on their own and to greater fame. Also look for Eve Arden in a walk on part, Robert Benchley and character actor Sterling Holloway.


12 comments on “Dancing Lady (1933) Robert Z. Leonard

  1. Dancing Lady is a good try at the Warners/Berkeley style but when I first saw it I was, perhaps predictably, fascinated by the Stooges in something prior to their definitive form. It’s bizarre to see Larry Fine functioning more or less solo in some scenes as a piano player, as if Metro thought he might be the most individually viable Stooge. That’s just one of the details, including those you mention, that make this film an interesting historical document.


    • John Greco says:

      Yes, this film is as your say “an interesting historical document.” More important for its parts (Astaire, Crawford dancing, the early Stooges) than for its sum, the standard backstage story, though I admittedly enjoy those kind of behind the scene stories.


  2. 1933 Film musicals as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dancing Lady and finally Flying Down to Rio, are the air I’m breathing as singer and tap dancer. I’m having a 1933 project, this week being in June 1933. The 1933-months change weekly and until Christmas I’ll go on listening to nothing but original music of 1933. Besides I’m watching 1933 politics. This sounds crazy, but I want to get the mood of this my favorite year as much as possible. To me it’s the most fascinated year of movie history and I love the music of that time very much.


  3. Judy says:

    This sounds great, one to look out for – I’d like to see more early Gable and Crawford. I’m guessing Gable doesn’t sing, though?!


  4. Gable is the director of the show in the show (show in the film). No, he doesn’t sing.


  5. I was interested in Judy’s blog since about half a year. But I had to work on 1933 dance movies first. Well, over those months I have ordered all these films and now I am more open for other kind of 1933 films. Tomorrow I’ll definitely buy King Kong, although it’s a bit late, since he had begun to run in April.

    I had crushed on the Hollywood movie-year 1933 when I was very young: It was Golddiggers, Dancing Lady and Flying Down to Rio which caused that 20 years ago. Today I’m still addicted to that year and I will go on to order other genres of 1933 films. Yes, Judy’s blog will be more and more interesting to me…

    Dancing Lady is marvelous. I wrote an article months ago and compared this film to Eleanor Powell: Although Eleanor Powell is technical much better, DANCING LADY won. It goes simply deeper than technical brilliancy. Yes, DANCING LADY goes very deep. But I have June 1933 now and DANCING LADY will be released in November…

    It’s funny, I consider Roosevelt my President and I love him very much. 🙂


    • John Greco says:

      Gold Diggers/1933 has to be one of my favorite musicals. Warner Brothers musicals had the songs, the dancing along with the grit, the street savvy and the social commentary you expect from 1930’s Warner films in general.


  6. Sam Juliano says:

    You bring the past to life here John with dazzling focus on the film’s production and artistic craftsmanship. That photo of Joan Crawford is a real keeper, and yes I agree that while it does not compare with 42ND STREET, it’s a notable musical on its own terms. Lorezo Hart was a real talent, until his alchoholism shortened his career, forcing Richard Rogers to pair up with Oscar Hammerstein II (no step down of course!) There was an incomparable gaity in the 30’s and this film perfectly embodies that spirit.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks again Sam for your insightful comments. I was unaware fo Hart’s alchoholism. There is a quite a bit of wonderful stuff to savor in this film. A lot of fun.


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