The Joan Crawford Blogathon: Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)
Dance, Fools, Dance (1931) may not be one of those films that turns up on Top 10 lists of pre-Code movies, but it’s one of my favorites. When I say it’s got it all, you can take that to the bank. Gratuitous shots of ladies in their lingerie. Financial ruin. Premarital sex. Bootlegging. Gangsters. Petty female jealousy. Murder.
And best of all, it’s got Joan Crawford.
La Crawford stars as Bonnie Jordan, a wealthy, spoiled brat who seems to spend half her time partying with her friends on the yacht that bears her name, and the other half lounging in bed, recovering from the yacht parties. Along with her equally trifling brother, Rodney (William Bakewell), Bonnie gets an abrupt and unexpected awakening when her father suffers a fatal heart attack following the stock market crash. Forced to earn a living, Bonnie gets a job as a cub newspaper reporter and winds up going undercover to find a local bootlegger (Clark Gable).
There’s not a dull moment in this 80-minute film, as we see Bonnie undergo a drastic transformation from flighty socialite to struggling working girl to purposeful crusader – and we get a saucy dance number from Crawford as an extra treat! Here are some of the many reasons why Crawford and her character make this underrated pre-Coder one to watch:
The movie makes no secret of the fact that Bonnie and her (rather boring) boyfriend, Bob (Lester Vail), are doing more than just holding hands, if you know what I mean. We quickly learn that Bonnie’s in no rush to walk down the aisle – instead, she espouses the virtues of “trying love out on approval.”
An illustration of Bonnie’s shallow personality at the start of the film is offered up in a scene at her family breakfast table. Shortly after taking her seat, Bonnie lights up a cigarette, and her father asks her if she has to smoke before they eat. “I must if I want to keep thin, darling,” Bonne tells him.
After the sudden death of their father, Bonnie and her brother discover that they are flat broke. Bob shows up to rescue Bonnie with a half-hearted proposal of marriage, but Bonnie’s pride won’t allow her to take him up on the offer. She manages to mask her disappointment and sadness at Bob’s palpable relief when she turns him down – she doesn’t let the tears flow until after he’s gone.
Bonnie and Rodney are forced to auction off the contents of the mansion where they grew up, but while Rodney turns sullen and bitter, Bonnie quickly develops a plucky sense of determination. “There’s no use crying about it,” she tells her brother. “Buck up. Put on your spurs and gauntlets and give the world a battle. Swat ‘em in the eye.”
After she lands a newspaper job, Bonnie’s no overnight sensation. She devotes pages to stories that deserve only a paragraph and she’s stuck reporting on less-than-earthshaking events like a local poultry show. But she doesn’t give up, learning the ropes from her closest friend on the paper, Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards). And when Bert is gunned down by the local mob, Bonnie gets the job of infiltrating the gang in an attempt to find the killer. Fully aware of the danger she’s facing, she tamps down her fears: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to find out who killed Bert,” she tells her boss. “I’m not afraid.”
Bonnie gets a job as a dancer in a nightclub owned by mobster Jake Luva (Clark Gable), and while performing one night, she spies her old boyfriend, Bob, in the audience. She still loves him, but when he comes to her dressing room, she hides her feelings under a veneer of defiance. There is a moment when her bitterness over Bob’s half-assed marriage proposal rises to the surface, but she doesn’t allow it to stay there for long.
If I tell you any more about this plucky dame, I’ll be spilling some important plot points, but suffice it to say that the last 20 minutes of the film are packed with non-stop action and some twists that you won’t see coming. It’s totally worth your time.
The critic for Photoplay magazine wasn’t a fan of the film, but he praised Crawford’s performance, writing that the actress “proves herself a great dramatic actress. The story . . . is hokum, but it’s good hokum and Joan breathes life into her characterization.” Crawford, though, wasn’t pleased with her portrayal of Bonnie Jordan: “[Dance, Fools, Dance] was a disaster!” she said. “I gave a lousy performance, the overacting thing again.”
Dance, Fools, Dance is the first of nine films in which Gable and Crawford starred opposite each other. Some of their other films are Possessed (1931), Laughing Sinners (1931), and Forsaking All Others (1934).
Of Gable, Crawford once said: “The first time I met him, I was terrified. I kept thinking, ‘He is a stage actor. He knows how to read lines. I am suffering by comparison. He’s laughing at me.’”
If you’ve never seen Dance, Fools, Dance, hunt it down and check it out. And in the meantime, enjoy this clip from the film!
This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal over at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to visit her site and check out the other great posts that are part of this event!