SPOTLIGHT: Dashing Pre-Code Gable (I)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the launch of a series of posts on the Pre-Code films of Clark Gable, our first male star to get the spotlight here on That’s Entertainment! We’ve actually covered a handful of Pre-Code Gable films over this past year during our examinations of the works of some of his frequent leading ladies. This blog has already featured: A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer, Possessed (1931) with Joan Crawford, Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, Hold Your Man (1933) with Jean Harlow, Night Flight (1933) with Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford, It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Myrna Loy. We’ve also covered two of Gable’s Post-Code films with Joan Crawford: Forsaking All Others (1934) and Love On The Run (1936). Move over Joanie, today’s spotlight is on The King!

 

Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

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After the death of her father and loss of the family fortune, Bonnie gets a job as a cub reporter while her brother becomes involved in bootlegging. Starring Joan Crawford, Lester Vail, Cliff Richards, William Brakewell, and Clark Gable. Story by Aurania Rouverol. Continuity by Richard Schayer. Directed by Harry Beaumont.

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This surprisingly brisk Pre-Code film runs through an assortment of genres —  hard boiled newsroom comedy, Depression-induced melodrama, and fast-paced gangster crime, all the while finding time for Crawford, who a few years earlier had been described as “the personification of youth and beauty and joy and happiness,” to show off her legs in a hot dance number. A look at the billing clues us in immediately that this is solely a Crawford vehicle, and no one on the screen is ever made her equal. Except Clark.

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“Bonnie Jordan, formerly a spoiled, carefree socialite, is faced with poverty or hard work when her father, Stanley Jordan, dies of a heart attack during the stock market crash of 1929. Though she is in love with Robert ‘Bob’ Townsend, she refuses his proposal of marriage, because he offers it merely as “the gentlemanly thing to do.” Instead, she goes to work as a cub reporter on the New York Star . Her brother Rodney takes an easier way out by helping bootlegger Jake Luva peddle his liquor to Rodney’s wealthy friends. Bonnie grows to love her work and is befriended by Bert Scranton, the Star ‘s top reporter. When a group of bootleggers are murdered, both Bert and Bonnie are assigned different aspects of the case. While investigating the crime, Bert unwittingly encounters Rodney, who, realizing that Luva is responsible for the murders, lets information about his gang slip out. When Luva hears about it, he tells Rodney that the only way out is to shoot Bert or be shot himself. Though he doesn’t want to do it, his own fear leads him to kill Bert.

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“Bonnie, who doesn’t know about Rodney’s connection to Luva, is then assigned by her editor to infiltrate Luva’s gang and find out who actually did the murder, as all of his gang have airtight alibis. She gets a job as a dancer in Luva’s nightclub, posing as ‘Mary Smith’ from Kansas City, and although both Rodney and Bob see her at the club, Luva doesn’t know her real identity. One evening Luva invites her to his apartment to seduce her. She goes along with him, hoping to get her story, but when she answers his phone and hears Rodney’s voice, she realizes the extent of her brother’s involvement and tries to leave. When Rodney arrives, the three argue and Rodney kills Luva, but is killed himself, trying to protect Bonnie. Bonnie then phones in the real story to the Star . The next day her boss and others at the paper try to discourage her from leaving, but she feels that she must. As she walks out, Bob finds her and proposes again, this time for real, and as they kiss, some of her friends on the paper capture the moment for the announcement of their marriage on the society pages.” (This summary is brought to you by TCM.)

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The story revolves entirely around Crawford. Her brother, played by Bakewell, leaves little impression. And when his loose lips put him in trouble with the mob, it is our little Joanie who comes in to set things right. Her love interest, played by Vail, also leaves little impression. His character is without verve, and they lack the chemistry required for audience support. (I didn’t root for them.) Meanwhile, Crawford’s acting is capable in both the script’s melodrama and glib sweetness, although Fitzgerald’s infamous observations about her facial machinations when switching emotions are occasionally evident during the picture. Largely, however, Crawford gives an excellent performance. Her turn as ‘Mary Smith’ to fool Gable is probably one of the sexiest moments of her film career — well, the part in the club at least (before she goes back to his place for some melodrama).

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And this is where The King takes over his spotlight. In this, the first of eight legendary cinematic pairings of Crawford and Gable, our star manages to be the only performer in the film able to go toe-to-toe with the leading lady, providing most electrically exactly why these two were box office dynamite together. Their scenes — coming near the end of the film — are undoubtedly the highlight of the whole picture. Gable, as often was the case in his early Pre-Code career, plays the bad guy, but he’s so dangerous, yet so suave, that he’s irresistibly likable — even when he’s threatening to kill our heroine’s brother. Gable makes this film a dozen times better than it would be without him, and it’s a shame that his role is (understandably) not bigger than it is.

As for the story, it has many twists and turns, and though slightly predictable, it’s wonderfully eventful — with (excepting Crawford’s love interest) wonderfully fleshed out characters. The pacing of the scenes themselves is a little slow every now and again, but the story itself is quick. It’s a much better film than one would ordinarily expect it to be. And as the first teaming of Crawford with the magnetic Gable, this is a picture that fans of both should definitely seek out. Entertaining from beginning to end.

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Come back next Friday for another Gable film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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