In 1933, Clark was in a musical–but no singing and dancing for him…just brooding and yelling.
In Dancing Lady, Clark is Patch Gallagher, a short-fused Broadway producer who hires down-on-her-luck ex-burlesque dancer Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) for the chorus line of his latest show. Janie is constantly pursued by a rich playboy admirer, Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). Patch begins to have feelings for plucky Janie, but grows bitter as it becomes obvious she is wrapped up with Tod. When he promotes her to the lead in the production, Tod becomes impatient (Janie said she’d marry him if the play fell through) and pays off the Broadway powers-that-be to shut the play down. Janie finds out of his deceit (thanks to a drunken Patch) and dumps Tod. She encourages Patch to put on the show all on his own. The conclusion, the showing of the production, is a beautiful art deco showcase of dancing, singing and spectacular sets.
The producer of this musical extravaganza was David Selznick, whom Clark had just worked with in the ensemble piece Night Flight and would later work with in Gone with the Wind. Clark did not enjoy working with Selznick in Night Flight—finding his perfectionist ways tedious and was perturbed that the film’s many delays caused him to miss a planned fishing trip. So he was hardly excited to be working with him again in Dancing Lady. It was Selznick’s idea to take James Warner Bellah’s rags to riches novel and make it into a grand musical. Selznick had originally wanted to cast Jean Harlow, whom he had just worked with with great success in Dinner at Eight. But Joan Crawford was desperate for the role, as her career had started to take a dive after the recent failures of Today We Live and Rain. MGM wanted to tag her onto Clark’s rising star to revive her career. And the film is really Crawford’s, with her scenes practically doubling Clark’s.
But one of the things I really like about this film is that it is so very quintessentially 1930’s. From the scandalous burlesque-girl-makes-her-dreams-come-true storyline to the dance numbers, to the gorgeous costumes,–from itty bitty dancing rompers and fringe-lined bathing suits to esquite ruffled gowns.
Speaking of costumes, my oh my this was definitely the pre-code era. We have everything here from Crawford in those tiny rompers and a small bikini top, to girl cops in the finale number wearing short flippy skirts with see-through mesh tops with pasties covering their nipples! It is a role that fit Joan like a glove, as she always played “poor girl makes it big” roles at this point in her career, and she was a hoofer before she was an actress.
The supporting cast can’t be ignored. Yes, that’s Eve Arden with platinum blonde hair ranting and raving with a fake Southern accent after she leaves the stage early in the film. And there’s Sterling Holloway, known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh, as one the theater managers Clark ticks off. May Robson plays Franchot’s crusty deaf Grandma as only she could. That unmistakable voice is indeed Nelson Eddy in a top hat in the finale number “Rhythm of the Day” as well. Especially of note is that this film marks the first film appearance of Ted Healy and his Three Stooges, here as stagehands.
Oh, and that skinny, balding man hoofing it with Crawford nearly an hour into the film? Why, that would be the very first film appearance of a certain Mr. Fred Astaire. That’s right, Fred’s first scene in a film was with Clark Gable and his first dancing and singing partner was Joan Crawford! Later on in his signature hat and tails, no less.
Clark always described himself as miscast in the film. And it’s true. He is rather wasted. He is angry in nearly every scene, barking orders and brooding in corners. The romance with Joan seems rather forced as most of the time he’s either yelling at her or avoiding her. The one cute scene is when they both are working out at the gym. She hurts her hand and so he rubs it. She hurts her shoulder and so he rubs it. She hurts her butt…and tells him he better not!
Part of the bad memory of the film for him might be because he was very sick during filming. In 1957, he recalled, “MGM assigned me to do a bad part in Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford—a picture I didn’t like. But as bad as the part was, it wasn’t as bad as my health…I’d lost a lot of weight. They’d been working me hard and I was tired. I told myself, ‘If I have a few operations, that will take care of my health and the part in Dancing Lady too.’ I had my appendix and tonsils out, but it didn’t take care of everything, for MGM was mad at me. For some strange reason they thought I’d taken evasive action to avoid their picture. They bided their time during the eight or nine weeks I was in the hospital. Then the very day after I got out they called me in and said, ‘We’re sending you over to Columbia Pictures on a loan-out.’” The loan out? That would be for a little picture called It Happened One Night, which would earn Clark his one and only Oscar.
Not only were his tonsils and appendix taken out, but so were nearly all of his teeth. He had developed pyorrhea—a serious infection of the gums that threatened his life. He was extremely ill with a high fever as the infection spread. After two weeks of rest, his gums were finally well enough for indentations to be made for a new set of dentures.
After being absent for weeks, Clark appeared back on set to film one scene: the one he has with Fred Astaire. Clark’s mustache had been shaved off for his gum surgery and so he had to wear a fake one. In his absence, they had already filmed all of Fred’s dancing numbers and he had to finish his scenes so he could start his first film with RKO, whom he had recently signed a contract. Clark was on set just one day to film that one scene and Crawford recalled, “He was so weak, perspiration broke out on his face. I never felt so sorry for anyone.”
Clark and Joan had been notoriously engaged in a heated affair off and on for about two years when filming on Dancing Lady began. Clark’s long absences from the set led the bored Joan to seek comfort elsewhere–in the arms of co-star Franchot Tone. By the time Clark finally returned to set to finish the film, he had been replaced by Franchot as the main visitor to Joan’s dressing room. Joan and Franchot were eventually married in 1935.
Dancing Lady is available on DVD in the Clark Gable Signature Collection. You can see over 150 pictures from the film here and read more about the film here.
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