Difficult to assess the importance or merit of Robert Z. Leonard’s Dancing Lady (1933), a misguidedly opulent extravaganza that squanders much of MGM’s illustrious talent on a preposterous and predictable ‘shop girl makes good’ story. Based on James Warner Bellah’s novel, the screenplay by Allen Rivkin is threadbare at best. MGM’s throws its most promising talent into the mix. Joan Crawford and Clark Gable headline. She’s Janie Barlow, a no account hoofer at a popular house of Burlesque. He’s Patch Gallagher, a Broadway sensation with director’s nerves over his latest sumptuously mounted stage spectacle.
During a performance at her place of employ Janie is spotted by wealthy playboy, Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). The police raid the Burlesque and Janie is imprisoned. However, she is sprung by Newton who takes a fancy and introduces Janie to the finer things in life; moonlight swims, carousing aboard his fashionable yacht and late night parties at Manhattan’s most swinging night spots. For Tod, the passion play is aimed at a genuine romance. In fact, Tod even tells his grandmother, Dolly (May Robson) that he is going to marry Janie. For Janie however, her sights are set a tad lower.
In fact, after having been introduced to Patch by Tod, Janie’s affections begin to focus on rising through the ranks as a dancer in Patch’s new show. She garners Patch’s respect and then, much later, something more – leaving Tod without love. Eventually, the star of the show bows out, forcing Janie to assume the lead in a convoluted claptrap of musical offerings that round out Dancing Lady on a bizarre eclecticism of oddities.
We have, as example, The Three Stooges (on the cusp of their illustrious tenure with Columbia Studios), as a trio of clueless backstage hands, mugging for the cameras briefly. When asked by Patch to musically accompany Janie during rehearsal, Moe declares, “Oh, boy! Will we? We’re the best in the country!” to which Larry replies, “Ah, but how are you in the city?”
Fred Astaire (on the verge of being united with Ginger Rogers at RKO) appears briefly in musical support with ‘Heigh Ho’ a rather incongruous 'hoofing' number where he and Crawford are whisked from an art deco ballroom aboard a magic carpet to a German beer garden. There, Astaire looks much too uncomfortable in lederhosen and his painted moustache.
Finally, there’s MGM’s resident crooner, Nelson Eddy delivering the curious ‘Rhythm of the Day.’ The number begins in Louie XIV France, migrates to contemporary Manhattan, and concludes aboard an art deco carousel drapped in ‘Busby Berkeley wanna-be’s.
In all, MGM spares nothing in mounting this super-production that sadly debuts as more of a mutt than a masterpiece. Ironically, given that Crawford and Tone were real life husband and wife their on screen chemistry is largely antiseptic. Crawford gets better vibes off her costar, Gable – not so remarkable when one considers the two were having an off camera affair. The rest of the cast is really just a lot of background scenery with little to say or do. Dancing Lady is kitsch and can be fun. But as a whole, it tends to fall short of expectations.
Warner Home Video’s DVD has obviously been the benefactor of some restoration efforts. Though the image continues to suffer occasionally from age related artifacts, dirt and scratches, for the most part it is sharply focused and much cleaned up over previous incarnations on laserdisc and VHS. The grayscale contains some rather impressive tonality, given that the elements are more than 70 years old. The audio is mono but well preserved. Extras are confined to vintage shorts and the film’s original trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)