Joan's Back in Dancing Lady

Today, I'm reviewing Warner Archive's new DVD re-release of the musical Dancing Lady, starring Joan Crawford.

The good folks at Warner Archive are bringing five classic Joan Crawford movies back into print. Each Friday in March, I'll have a review of one of these movies, starting today with the pre-code musical, Dancing Lady (1933). Warner Archive re-released five films of Crawford's great rival, Bette Davis, in September. You can check out my series on those films here.

The Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

The Stars: Joan Crawford; Clark Gable; Franchot Tone; Fred Astaire, and Ted Healy and The Three Stooges.

Source Material: A novel by James Warner Bellah that was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post.

The Plot: Janie Barlow (Crawford) is a New York City burlesque dancer who dreams of becoming a top Broadway star. After a police raid on her club, Janie catches the eye of rich playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), who bails her out of jail and recommends her to a top Broadway producer (Grant Mitchell), who is putting on a new musical with famed director Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable). Janie and Tod begin dating and, although she enjoys his jet-set lifestyle, she instead finds herself attracted to the tough-as-nails Patch.

Backstory: MGM acquired the rights to Bellah's novel as a vehicle for Crawford, who had recently suffered two box-office disappointments. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer requested that Leonard and producer David O. Selznick create a lavish backstage musical that would top the success of Warner Bros. 42nd Street (1933).

Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford kick up their heels in Dancing Lady (1933).
Joan's career at the time of Dancing Lady: Joan first became a top MGM star  by playing wild flappers in films like Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and her success continued in the sound era with films like Possessed (1931) and Grand Hotel (1932). Joan stumbled a bit in the melodramas Rain (1932) and Today We Live (1933), but the huge box-office success of Dancing Lady made her one of the top-earning stars in pre-code Hollywood (the only stars that outranked her in 1933 were Janet Gaynor and Marie Dressler).

Joan's men: No Crawford movie is complete without at least two men in the cast hopelessly in love with her. Here's the rundown of her leading gents in Dancing Lady.
Tod Newton: Played by Tone, who would soon become Joan's second husband, this tuxedo-clad playboy becomes instantly infatuated with Janie as soon as he spots her spangly underpants in the burlesque show. Despite an all-expenses-paid trip to Cuba and weekend trips to his fabulous mansion (the swimming pool alone must have blown MGM's budget), Janie isn't sure the aristocratic Tod is the right man for her.
Patch Gallager: Played by Gable in their fourth film together, this Broadway visionary hides his love for Janie under a tough exterior. He mostly expresses his affection by trading sarcastic jabs while they're working out, although his facade occasionally cracks, such as when Janie collapses from a sprained ankle.

Joan's clothes: Crawford's slim figure made her one of old Hollywood's leading clotheshorses. Here's three of her best Adrian-designed looks from Dancing Lady,
1. Crawford ensemble for the finale is a spectacular ruffled gown with large ostrich-feather sleeves that stand-in for her beloved shoulder pads (photo above with Astaire).
2. Crawford wears a sleek backless gown adorned with gardenias for a romantic interlude with Tone.
3. Crawford's cowl-neck and fringe swimsuit is the last word in thirties chic.

Joan Crawford with Ted Healy (center) and The Three Stooges on the set of Dancing Lady (1933).
Best scene: Art director Merrill Pye pulled out all the stops for the lavish final production number. Watch for several design elements that are quite similar to The Wizard of Oz (1939), such as the large castle in the background and a circular brick road.

Best Line: "I'm like the guy throwing quarters into the slot machine. I keep on trying" -- Janie

Fun Fact: Dancing Lady was the film debut of Fred Astaire, and it featured the first major movie role for singing star Nelson Eddy. It also featured The Three Stooges, who were then partnered with comedian Ted Healy, as comic relief stagehands.

The Critics: Dancing Lady has a 70 percent favorable audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Leonard Maltin writes that "Show-biz story, three-cornered romance are strictly standard, but cast and MGM gloss add points" in a two and 1\2 star review for his Classic Movie Guide.

The Bottom Line: Viewed today, Dancing Lady is a fascinating pre-code romp that features sleek camerawork and MGM's luxe production values. Watch it for Crawford and Gable's unrivaled chemistry, the spectacular production numbers, and a pre-stardom look at Astaire, Eddy, and The Three Stooges.

Availability: Dancing Lady will air at 1 a.m. May 9 on TCM. It is available on DVD from Warner Archive (link below) and on video on demand

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Check out my review of the new DVD re-release of the Crawford melodrama, A Woman's Face (1941).


  1. So glad you made reference to 42nd Street as an influence on the making of this. I always think Dancing Lady could have been subtitled "42nd & Joan Street" since the similarities are so heavy.

    It's not that I don't like the film, I do-even if it's not one of my favorites, but the idea that Joan is some kind of dancing find for the ages is a major weakness of the picture. It’s almost laughable how she starts out as a cooch dancer but because of grit, determination, the right connections and a dancing talent that is apparently great she becomes the star of a Broadway bound show. I say apparently because with the evidence Joanie offers the talent is only in her mind. She exudes star power to burn and while she's not exactly a glue foot her dancing movements especially above the waist are graceless and overly earnest, there is more than a whiff of desperation to them.

    But as always she pairs powerfully with Gable and since you get the soon to be huge Fred Astaire, though he’s not showcased well, as part of the package there are worst ways to spend 90 minutes.

    1. Joan's dancing is kind of like Chico Marx's piano solos: enjoyable, but limited ;)

  2. I agree with the previous comment, about Joan's Dancing however I didn't think it took anything away from the movie. Compared to the dancing of today one could possibly ridicule her dancing but back then it may have been good enough...the fact that both Clark and Franchot were really romantically involved with Joan made this movie more exciting!


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