Showing posts with label Fred Astaire. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fred Astaire. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Dancing Lady (1933)

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford - Dancing Lady (1933)
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford - Dancing Lady (1933)

 Richie rich Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) is out on the town with his equally wealthy friends. They're bored and looking for some amusement. They head to a burlesque show where dancers Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) and her roommate Rosette LaRue (Winne Lightner) are entertaining the crowd with their moves and a bit of stripping. The police raid the joint and the dancers are arrested. Tod and his friends, not wanting the night to end, watch the courtroom spectacle that ensues. Tod has his eye on Janie and bails her out of jail. He romances her but quickly realize he's in direct competition with her first love, dancing. With his influence and her tenacity, Janie gets a dancing part in Patch Gallagher's (Clark Gable) new show. She's conflicted by her love of dance, her affection for Patch and her sentiments towards Tod and the lavish lifestyle that comes with dating him. Not willing to compete with Janie's first love, Tod tries to sabotage her career by convincing Patch's backer to pull out of the production. Many people lose their jobs, something the wealthy Tod hadn't considered but pains Janie who understands the struggle. In the end, Patch and Janie must find a way to continue on with the show.

Dancing Lady (1933) is a backstage musical showcasing both MGM's established talent and newcomers alike. It's an experimental film in more ways than one. MGM had the rights to James Warner Bellah's novel, previously serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and the powers that be saw an opportunity to compete with Warner Bros.'s successful 42nd Street (1933). But first they needed a star.

Joan Crawford was Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick's top pick for the film. She wasn't a classically trained dancer but was a known hoofer thanks to her dancing in The Hollywood Revue of 1929Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). According to Crawford biographer Donald Spoto, Crawford was hesitant at first. She only accepted when Mayer offered her an opportunity to be a part of the story development. Even then she almost jumped ship. It wasn't until Selznick sealed the deal with some reverse psychology. He told her she wasn't right for the part saying "I think it's more Jean Harlow's style." There was no way Crawford was going to concede to letting Harlow have the part. Selznick and Mayer sweetened the pot by adding two major MGM stars, both love interests of Crawford's, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone to the film.

With their main star secured, MGM faced some difficulties with their two male leads. At first Robert Montgomery was supposed to play the part of Tod Newton but had to bow out. That's when Franchot Tone stepped in. Clark Gable got ill, either with a leg infection or an appendectomy, sources differ on what really happened, and MGM had to keep production going while the Gable was convalescing.

Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)
Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)

Then there were the newcomers. Dancing Lady served as a platform to establish some major talent. First there was Fred Astaire, the only true dancer of any significance in the film. Selznick had his eye on Astaire during his time at RKO and when he moved to MGM he brought Astaire with him. Astaire played himself in what would be his true film debut. And we all know what happened after that.

Also in the film are Ted Healy and the Three Stooges. This was before Moe, Larry and Curly broke away from Healy and became the trio we all know and love. Healy plays Patch's assistant stage manager while the Stooges are stage hands whose background gags add some levity to the film. The Stooges are poorly utilized and if you blink you might miss one of their scenes. While this wasn't their first film, it was still early days for the trio and the film helped give them the exposure they needed for their future career.

Eve Arden fans will delight seeing her in a bit part as a frustrated actress. Nelson Eddy has his first credited role playing himself. Then there is Robert Benchley, who wasn't technically a newcomer but Dancing Lady served as the start of the MGM career. It was a delight to see Sterling Holloway in an early credited role as the show's writer. On the flip side was then film veteran Winnie Lightner who was reaching the end of her short career in movies. Lightner was an underrated gem of the era and is not given nearly enough of the screen time that she deserved.

Dancing Lady is a mixed bag. It suffers from too much going on in the story. The plot would have benefited from some simplification and fewer characters. But if that had been the case we'd miss out on performances from the likes of Arden, Benchley, Lightner, Holloway, etc. Joan Crawford was not really a dancer and it shows. But the role of Janie was as close to the real Joan Crawford as you could possibly get. She was perfect for it. The final show number is lacking in actual dancing. Someone at MGM made the unfortunate decision to have Astaire and Crawford sing. They don't sing as much as they talk to music.

Regardless of it's flaws, the film was a success at the box office, earned a profit for MGM, which was no small feat during the Great Depression, and it gave a boost to so many careers. For budding film historians, Dancing Lady is a good study of the mechanics of the studio system. It demonstrates how a major studio like MGM utilized a combination of established stars while also building up new talent.

Dancing Lady (1933) is available from the Warner Archive. You can buy the DVD-R from the WB Shop by using this link.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to the Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Dancing Lady (1933) for review!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

TCM Road to Hollywood - Jane Powell and Leonard Maltin present Royal Wedding (1951)

Yesterday we had the pleasure of attending the TCM Road to Hollywood event at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Presented by Turner Classic Movies, hosted by Leonard Maltin and featuring special guest Jane Powell, last night’s event was nothing short of spectacular.

I have been excited about this special event ever since it was announced as part of the TCM Road to Hollywood lineup. As soon as tickets became available, I snatched two up as quick as I could and waited anxiously for the day to arrive.

Carlos and I arrived about an hour early to the event and there was already a line waiting to get in.

We didn’t have to wait long in the rain to get in. Once we entered, we handed over our tickets and picked up our complimentary TCM Film Festival postcards and TCM Now Playing Guide. There was a photographer taking pictures of us as we entered and this cool signage greeted us.

This event was sold out and the place was packed.

Tickets were compliments of TCM and the event was geared towards promoting the TCM Film Festival.

 A representative from TCM spoke to us about the Road to Hollywood series and the Film Festival encouraging us to go. I thank TCM for being so generous and hosting these events across the country and allowing us to attend for free! Not only that but allowing us to be in the presence of a classic film star.

After the rep from TCM did her talk, Ned Hinkle, Creative Director of the Brattle, also spoke encouraging folks to go to the TCM Film Festival if they could and thanking TCM, Leonard Maltin and Jane Powell for making this amazing event happen. He also spoke some really kind words about Leonard Maltin and all he’s done for movie buffs over the years, especially in the days before the internet when a lot of us relied on his movie guides for information and film discovery.

Leonard Maltin came out and talked a bit about the TCM Film Festival some more before Special Guest Jane Powell. He referred to it as Movie Buff Camp and said that the energy at the festival was really wonderful. I also remember him saying that people from over 45 states attended the festival. Woah!

Maltin introduced Jane Powell and she was received by the audience with a standing ovation and an enthusiastic roar of applause. She looked really good! She had a lovely blue dress on and black high heel pumps and looked absolutely lovely. The talk lasted about 30 minutes and Maltin was a gracious and helpful host and Jane Powell was witty and charming and effervescent. You could tell the crowd was hanging on to her every word and were really excited to see her. There was lots of applause and laughter. A positive experience overall. Maltin also took a few questions from the audience.

Here are some of the anecdotes that Jane Powell shared with us:

  • She referred to her younger self as a “country bumpkin from Portland, Oregon”
  • She got her start tap-dancing for a radio broadcast. Yes, radio.
  • She found out that MGM had changed her name from Suzanne Burce to Jane Powell from a phone call. She thought the name was boring and noted that other actors already had the surname Powell.
  • She liked the Studio system, always thought of herself as an employee of MGM. She went to school at the MGM lot with Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien.
  • She never turned down roles. Her only regrets were roles that were never offered to her. One of the roles she regrets not getting is Love Me or Leave Me which eventually starred Doris Day.
  • She wishes she could have been offered more dramatic roles.
  • The first time she met Clark Gable she was so star-struck she forgot his name.
  • She remembers Fred Astaire as a very private person and felt she never really knew him. She described him as unique, kind and a rarity.
  • The movie studio suffered from competing with TV. She remembered that if she had her picture taken that a TV set could not be included in the shot.
  • She used to be on the road a lot and always took her 3 kids and 3 dogs.
  • She always worked independently. Never had a secretary and still doesn’t.
  • She had a good relationship with Louis B. Mayer and described it as a father-daughter sort of bond.
  • She says she was never “chased around the desk” like other actresses were.
  • She was a bridesmaid at Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding and Taylor was a bridesmaid at her first wedding too.
  • After leaving MGM, she went on to perform in theaters and night clubs.
  • Her husband, actor Dickie Moore, isn’t doing very well health-wise so she has taken on the role of caretaker. She lives a very quiet life and refers to herself as a homebody.
  • She thoroughly enjoyed everything she did with her career and sincerely loves people.

Something I noticed about Jane Powell was how appreciative she is about her career and the people she worked with. She only had nice things to say about everybody. She shared a sad memory she had of Louis B. Mayer’s final days at MGM, but otherwise she had a lot of happy memories to share.

The conversation wrapped up and Jane Powell thanked everyone and she and Leonard Maltin received another standing ovation. They took a photograph by the poster and we’re off. I wish the talk lasted an hour rather than 30 minutes or that perhaps there would have been a follow up after the movie. Oh well! I was at least happy to be sitting in a good seat (second row on the left with no one really blocking me!) and to have been able to experience what I did.

Royal Wedding (1951) came up on the screen and we were treated to a showing. The film stars Jane Powell and Fred Astaire as Ellen and Tom Bowen (respectively), a brother-sister singing and dancing duo. They are a big success in the states and were offered an opportunity to perform in London and to attend the royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth II. The Bowens set off on a vessel across the Atlantic. On the boat she meets Lord John Brindale (Peter Lawford) and they find that they both share a propensity for leaving behind multiple love interests and that they both enjoy each others attention. A romance between them blossoms. While in London, Tom (Fred Astaire) accidentally meets Anne (Sarah Churchill – Winston Churchill’s daughter) a dancer who is auditioning for his show. There isn’t much of a conflict to drive the plot along but the movie moves at a very satisfying clip. It’s a fun movie to watch for various reasons. There are the amazing musical numbers. I especially loved the How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life (phew!) number: 


 It was really fun to watch Jane Powell as a sassy brunette! Then there are the famous Fred Astaire solo numbers, including Sunday Jumps in which he dances with a hatstand and the You’re All the World to Me number in which Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling of a rotating room (although it doesn’t look to be rotating!). Then there are the costumes, the comedy and the cultural musings of London circa 1950s.

The audience’s reaction to the movie was wonderful. We were all still feeling the energy from having just seen Jane Powell in person. There were applauses after most of the musical and dance numbers and an applause when Jane Powell’s name came up on the screen. I have been to many film screenings and I have to say I have never been to one with an audience as enthusiastic and as appreciative as this one. It was just hands down a wonderful experience.

Thank you so much to TCM, the Brattle, Leonard Maltin, Jane Powell and everyone else who helped make this amazing event happen!

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