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Monday, November 11, 2019

Another Full Meal That Is Precode

The Crash and Crime and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

Another of precodes to splendidly capture the era, Dance, Fools, Dance is rich in ways they ought to teach, not just as film history, but history all-round. Pre-crash, post-crash, and all round the town (Chicago), this one put me conversant with the news game (more so even than The Finger Points), rugs yanked from under the rich (familiar Depression theme), and gangs loose and lethal (being Chicago, after all). Add to these Joan Crawford at hot dance, willing surrender of virtue in a first reel, bug-eye dramatics to surpass even herself, and groped by gorilla Gable who’s in to make deep early impression, and does. I don’t glance away from shows this good even to check a clock, because frankly, I don't want a Dance, Fools, Dance to end. Much is woven from aftermath of a certain garage massacre on 2/14/29, a best early 30’s exploit of shock off headlines. Did law abiders get vicariously off on close quarters to crime product like this supplied? What strikes me is how near they put us to carnage, even where only talked about (vividly) rather than shown.

JC and Lester Vail Agree To Try Out Love "On Approval"

Normal folks sucked into vice is again an emphasis, slumming to speakeasies a danger route for a privileged class gangland knows how to victimize. Joan Crawford and brother William Bakewell, born to wealth, lose it all when Dad drops dead on the exchange floor, an event we see coming from an opener yacht party where latter observes a tottering market and warns fellow card-players that their flush can’t last, all this while Joan puts out to playboy-ish, but ultimately straight arrow, Lester Vail. We’re made to know Joan and sibling Bill are lost lambs once money is gone, but are reassured that screen Joan, even where poor, won't let it stall her long. Bill, less so, is lured into bootlegging, kills benign scribe Cliff Edwards on gang head Clark Gable orders, then is wheel man for the St. Valentine killers. Buying bathtub liquor was like 60’s reefer use for leading always to hard stuff of felonies, maybe death, as movies plus other authority figures told us. I like least the going blind part of drinking hootch, but look how many took such risk in the 20/early 30’s. Would we drink more today if someone told us all of a sudden that we couldn’t?

The yacht party open sees Joan and guests stripping to skivvies and diving off, this relief to boredom of dance and drinks. The gag works as sop to precode, stills and footage a commonplace in books and highlight reels since. ABC used it for a wide-viewed, in 1972 and since, celebration of MGM past called Hollywood: The Dream Factory, which was first exposure for many to abandon that was 30’s before a crackdown. What with lights out (at Lester Vail command), why leave any clothes on, and if the issue was not enough bathing suits, according to Joan, what then do they change into once out of saltwater, and dripping wet? Trips home would be sticky at the least (did early 30’s boats have showers?). Yet more reason to not examine such stuff closely, much less to emulate it. We could wonder if real-life revelers tried, and hope that if they did, there were fresh underthings handy. To further and worse example, there is JC at final rich girl breakfast lighting up before servants serve. Dad objects, but she explains, straight-faced, that smoking is a necessary way to keep thin. I’ve heard this before, been told that indeed cigarettes retard appetite, and that’s why so many women used. The scene gives shudders re those who watched in 1931 and were guided by movie star oracle that was Crawford. Most of them, virtually all, aren’t around now to catalog regret, as even a 1931 start at smoking would see lucky survivors aged 100 now, but how many with the habit made it to two thirds that?

A Bootlegger Invited In Among Polite Company, a Commonplace During Prohibition Years 

Joan as moral arbiter tells the boyfriend that she believes in “trying love out,” to which he replies, “On approval?” Therewith is go-ahead and checkmate to their entering a happy marriage and saving Crawford grief, penury, and her brother’s ultimate death. Precode titillated, but often carried a harsh stick for moral misstep. To this, add admission of a criminal element onto home and hearth, as brother Bakewell welcomes a bootlegger so that he can order cases on the cuff. This is all to show how easy it was for criminals to consort with decent folk indifferent to illegality of strong beverage. A montage of youth on frenzied spree tips to a stock market hitting bottom, a warn we saw not for a first time here, variants on the excess=doom dating to Noah’s Ark (modern section), and more. Caution lights were lit if only an audience would heed them, but how to get past distraction of glamour figures doing wrong things and by all evidence enjoying it?

Behind-Scenes Action of Crawford as a Chicago Cub Reporter

Dance, Fools, Dance personalizes the Crash via family retainer telling Joan-Bill they are “wiped out completely,” then to tactless capper, “You’re quite penniless.” I’ll assume this was for benefit of those also penniless, but with a dime at least to get in and see Dance, Fools, Dance. Financial ruin was payback plutocrats had coming, them and their yacht party. Viewers enjoyed screen ostentation plus deflation of the rich. Real life meanwhile did its own leveling, leaps out Wall Street windows reminding us that money was no bet for contentment. What kept rooting interest for “Bonnie Jordan” (Crawford’s character) was JC past-playing rich and poor, her never-say-quit a guarantor of crowd support. A short four years at stardom gave Crawford not one, but several, templates she and writers could mix-match in service to Metro output. Showmen was alert to things she’d do in Dance, Fools, Dance that had worked before. Ad art evoked Our Dancing Daughters, not forgotten even though it was out of circulation for being silent. To that add Paid, a departure when new in 1930, but since absorbed by the Crawford persona, it understood that she’d play all-out melodrama where needed and excel at it. Dance, Fools, Dance thus saw her rich in a first reel, diminished in a second, gone to work at entry level news reporting, then put to root-out of bootlegging killers, all fresh to Crawford following yet comfortably familiar. This was brilliant marketing of a personality built from scratch who had risen to heights in a remarkably short time.

There’s notion, mistaken I think, that we are better educated than folks who saw Dance, Fools, Dance, plus others like it, first run. Seems to me there is corrective for that in every old movie I see. A couple of for instances, not at all emphasized, but there, and noteworthy: Bonnie/Joan turns aside a marriage proposal from “Bob Townsend” (Lester Vail) she attributes to his feeling sorry for her lost fortune. “Noble Barkis,” she says, by way of rejecting what she considers a charity offer. I recognized Barkis as the character from David Copperfield, him of the familiar line, “Barkis is willing,” Bob/Lester’s gesture evoking latter because Barkis too was “willing” to marry the novel's “Clara Peggotty,” who otherwise had few prospects. This line of Bonnie’s comes and is gone with no explanation of its literary antecedent, then-audiences figured to know who Barkis was, and how appropriate mention of him at this moment will be. If the line had been adjudged too obscure, would someone at script, shoot, or edit stages have taken it out? No … I suspect most of them had read, or at least knew, their Dickens, and figured we would, or should, as well. How many today could divine as much?

"Jake Luva" (Gable) Provides Scoring to His and Gang's Review of St. Valentine Garage Rub-Outs

Where It's Gable Making The Play, No Seldom Means No 

JC Declares Independence: "I'm Hitting The Pace Now, and I Like It"
Real-life crime wasn’t long for entering folklore, and becoming basis for films, The Finger Points inspired by a Chicago reporter’s murder, then there was sneak photography of Ruth Snyder getting death house juice for killing her husband in concert with lover Judd Gray, this a springboard for Cagney comedy at Warners in 1933 (the Snyder/Gray event is referred to as late as 1951 by Douglas Spencer’s newshound character in The Thing). Most crime-centered precodes had basis in truth, lurid news an always source for screen stories. Feral gang chief Clark Gable engineers the St. Valentine killings in Dance, Fools, Dance, but who’d figure his “Jake Luva” for playing soft melody on a crime lair piano while reviewing the hit with henchmen? It’s a remind of how cultivated folks were for being raised in households where music, to be heard, had to be made. I’m always pleased, then abashed, when Classic Era characters sit casually at keyboards and begin to play (this came up before in discussion of Hold Your Man). It’s a sign for me that, whatever depredations otherwise, they were way ahead of later generations for whom home essential was a TV set, or later, video games and palm pilots. Wherever I imagine we’ve “progressed” past bygone folk, it takes but dialogue and situations from rich resource of a Dance, Fools, Dance or related others to get quick corrective, that readily had at a next TCM run or on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Joan Crawford had to be tough. So do we all. Let those who fault her fault her. The woman is an inspiration.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I wonder how many people thought it was as easy to get a newspaper job as Crawford makes it to be.

2:46 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

"Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" -- Lucky Strikes actively advertised cigarettes as a weight loss gimmick. A quick search indicates that the campaign ran around 1930 and drew protests ... from the candy industry, among others. For decades there were ads pitching cigarettes as Good For You, often as a way to calm your nerves (which were probably on edge because of nicotine addiction).

Quite a cultural shift: I remember when even Uncle Walt did a cigarette bit on his show, and in real life parents would be puffing away while fretting about their kids not eating their vegetables. Except in some period contexts, onscreen cigarette smoking is now identified almost exclusively with sleazy characters or idiots trying to look cool.

Cigars are still acceptable despite frequent association with vulgar wealth; old-school pipes still convey a certain kind of respectability.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

John, your remark about the heavy playing classical piano reminds me of the Republic serial FEDERAL OPERATOR 99, in which the criminal mastermind relaxes by playing "Moonlight Sonata." Unfortunately this must be the only song he knows, because he plays it again and again throughout the various chapters. Makes you wonder if his various hirelings were good and sick of the same damned melody -- they had to listen to it more than the viewer does!

12:56 PM  

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