Selznick – as in the son-in law-also rises – needed a success now that he had joined MGM. Joan Crawford needed a hit after a few flops. The outcome was Dancing Lady – a musical with a plethora of non-musical stars, including Clark Gable and Franchot Tone, the debut of the Three Stooges. some weak songs, an uncredited performance near the end from Nelson Eddy about the “Rhythm of the Day”, and about 5 minutes of Fred Astaire, appearing as himself before he took up his contract with RKO.
It was a fairly obvious copy of 42nd Street, with Clark Gable showing more than a mere trace of the manic quality of Warner Baxter as a legendary Broadway producer, but they lacked a choreographer with the stylistic brio of Busby Berkeley. There are some overhead camera angles but nothing as extraordinarily imaginative nor as kaleidoscopic as in the mind of Berkeley. The greatest flight of fancy is to take Astaire and Crawford on a magic carpet ride from 1930s Broadway to Bavaria, where they do a number dressed in lederhosen, with lots of beer glasses in the background – and this was during Prohibition.
It might have made a better picture if it had not been a musical. Crawford’s dancing was limited and she had very little singing voice. It was actually quite an effective pre-Code drama about the socio-economics of putting on a show. Franchot Tone is a rich man who bankrolls the show as a way of getting into the affections of Joan Crawford by forcing her into the cast with his financial muscle. Then, on a whim, so that the show has to fold and so she cannot make it as a dancer – hence has to marry him – he withdraws his backing. The script is very strong on the social injustice of this, how it puts 100 people out of a job. But at least, neither Tone nor Gable had to sing and dance.
The score only contained one standard, Everything I have is Yours, which only became a hit years later, when Billy Eckstein picked it up. The rest is very poor. In the few days before he joined RKO, Astaire is, simply, himself. Asked by Gable – “now Freddy, take her through it” – he saunters over to Crawford in his characteristic way, asks the pianist for a pick-up and leads her into a tap dance to Dancing Lady. Unfortunately, she gets cramp and is unable to complete the number. The next time we see him is at the end, in white tie and tails, dancing on an art deco set with her to The Gang’s All Here, followed by the excursus into lederhosen. What a misuse of his abilities!
The art deco sets are glorious. there is a great montage near the start of the feet of Gable as he tries to get away from the feet of Crawford who is importuning him for a part in his show. The Three Stooges on their first outing were as idiotic and violent as ever – their humour consisted simply of hitting each other as often as possible.