Release Date(s)1931 (October 31, 2023)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
In Dance, Fools, Dance, Joan Crawford is top-billed, with Clark Gable a distant sixth. They went on to star in a total of eight pictures together and became one of MGM’s most profitable teams. When they share the screen in this pre-Code drama, the chemistry is already there.
Bonnie Jordan (Crawford) and brother Rodney (William Bakewell) are the offspring of a wealthy father who is wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash and dies of a heart attack. Forced to auction off their possessions and sell their house, they must also seek employment for the first time in their lives.
Bonnie was having an affair with playboy Bob Townsend (Lester Vail). He offers to marry her, but as she knows he’s proposed out of chivalry rather than love, she refuses. Vail is a lightweight actor and his character is bland, particularly compared with the strong presence of Clark Gable as bootlegger Jake Luva.
Bonnie loses no time looking for work and gets a job as a newspaper reporter condescendingly consigned to writing fluff pieces, which her editor cuts down to one short paragraph. Rodney procrastinates until a shady job working for Luva falls into his lap. Embarrassed to tell his sister that he’s working for a bootlegger, he tells her he’s been hired to sell stock.
Luva sets up a gangland killing (patterned on the St. Valentine’s Day massacre). The newspapers are convinced he’s responsible but have no tangible proof. Nosing around, Bonnie’s friend and fellow reporter Scranton (Cliff Edwards) gets information that could implicate Luva in the murders. Luva hears about this and assigns Rodney to kill Scranton or be killed himself. The terrified Rodney reluctantly complies.
Bonnie and Rodney cross paths when she infiltrates Luva’s circle by getting hired as a dancer in his nightclub in order to discover who killed Scranton.
Bonnie takes the shocking overnight reversal from riches to rags rather well and seems almost to welcome the challenge of fending for herself, while her brother can’t imagine looking for work, something he’s never had to do. His excessive drinking offers him only periodic solace. When Bonnie gets a chance to prove herself capable of chasing a big story, she puts all her effort into the task.
Crawford gets plenty of opportunity to display her range as an actor as well as a dancer. An opening sequence set aboard the family yacht features Crawford dancing up a storm, doing a tango complete with swirls, dips, and arm gestures. Her character clearly revels in the excesses made possible by seemingly endless wealth, throwing lavish parties where the cocktails flow and she urges guests to strip off their evening clothes and go swimming in their underwear. Later, she dances as the featured soloist in a showgirl number.
Gable is very good as a suave thug whose appearance belies a brutal killer. The scene in which his Luva makes clear to Rodney that if he doesn’t kill Scranton he won’t live long, conveys a desperate ruthlessness. Luva will protect himself, no matter the collateral damage. Luva commands respect from his underlings, instills fear because of his reputation, and acts decisively.
The dialogue by Aurania Rouverol sounds spontaneous and Crawford, in particular, is excellent as she shows the transition from pampered socialite to hard-working reporter. Of the two siblings, Bonnie is by far the stronger and more adaptable to adversity. She’s a survivor and won’t be beaten down by a major setback, She finds legitimate work while Rodney gravitates toward bootlegging because the money is good, he can use his social connections to generate sales, and he doesn’t have to keep regular hours. He convinces himself that since everyone breaks the law during Prohibition, he’s doing nothing really wrong.
Director Harry Beaumont has given Dance, Fools, Dance a brisk pace. Tightly edited with little padding, the story has a fast forward narrative. Production design is opulent, typical of MGM’s extravagance. The party scene on the yacht that opens the film is filled with scores of costumed extras and an impressive, nearly full-scale vessel.
Dance, Fools, Dance was shot on black & white 35 mm film with spherical lenses by director of photography Charles Rosher and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.20:1. The Blu-ray’s aspect ratio is 1.37:1. There are no discernible imperfections such as scratches, splices, jitter, emulsion clouding, or cue marks. The picture is sharp with details well delineated, especially sequins on Crawford’s dance costume, ripples of water near the yacht, close-ups of typewriters, and Luva’s nightclub. Blacks are deep and rich and grain quality natural. Crawford is often back-lit, creating a halo effect around her head that causes her to stand out from the background.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue is clear and distinct. The musical numbers lack the richness of modern films but add nice touches to what is essentially a drama. Sound effects include typewriters clacking and ambient noise in the newsroom, gun shots, voices on the telephone, car engines, and street traffic. The soundtrack includes the songs Free and Easy, Little White Lies, and Accordion Joe.
Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include the following:
- Hollywood: The Dream Factory (50:36)
- One More Time (7:04)
- Smile, Darn Ya, Smile (7:00)
Hollywood: The Dream Factory – Dick Cavett narrates this 1972 made-for-TV documentary about the fabled history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, its Golden Age, and its decline, culminating in the auction of its backlot and props, most notably Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The program features clips from many of MGM’s biggest films, showcasing its greatest stars. The scenes of the company’s demise create a sense of nostalgia for the heyday of the studio that boasted “More stars than there are in Heaven.”
One More Time – In this 1931 black & white Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Frank Marsales, Cop Foxy is trying to enforce the law in town, but dangerous drivers and gangsters who kidnap his sweetheart are making this difficult.
Smile, Darn Ya, Smile – Also from 1931, this black & white Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon, also directed by Frank Marsales, features a streetcar conductor who deals with a would-be passenger hippo, a cow blocking the tracks, and a runaway train, while he, his passengers, and some hobos sing the title song.
Dance, Fools, Dance is a pre-Code melodrama that offers sex, romance, and suspense. Made at the beginning of the sound era, it was a transitional film for Joan Crawford. She was leaving her wild flapper character from the silent period behind as she essayed more substantial roles. Crawford easily dominates the screen with a unique presence that made her one of MGM’s biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s, and a movie icon for a remarkable six decades.
- Dennis Seuling