Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
This is the story of an egotistical nightclub dance performer named Raoul, his determination to succeed at all costs, and the only woman in his life that truly matters to him, a dancing partner named Helen. Starring George Raft, Carole Lombard, Sally Rand, Frances Drake, William Frawley, Gertrude Michael, and Ray Milland. Screenplay by Horace Jackson. Story by Carey Wilson and Kubec Glasmon. From an idea by Ruth Ridenour. Directed by Wesley Ruggles. Produced and Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
“In 1910, coal miner Raoul De Baere (Raft) dreams of being a professional dancer and uses his brother Mike’s (Frawley) financial support in making his dreams a reality. His first performance is at a beer garden in New Jersey, but he soon moves on to Paris and a more elegant club, where Mike acts as his manager. Raoul is constantly frustrated by the amorous advances of his dance partner, Leona (Drake), because he does not believe in mixing business with pleasure. He fires her after he auditions Helen Hathaway (Lombard), who signs with him to perform at the Essex Club in London. Raoul makes Helen promise that she will refuse him if he ever falls in love with her. They are a tremendous success as a dance team, but are not romantically involved. Raoul’s ambitions continue to skyrocket and he plans to open his own nightclub. While vacationing in Belgium, Raoul and Helen fall in love despite their promise to each other.
“On the opening night of his club in Paris, Raoul presents his dance ‘Bolero,’ but the club is buzzing with talk of war and their performance is ignored. Seeking success no matter the cost, Raoul works the crowd into rousing support of the war effort by promising to enlist. When Helen realizes Raoul’s enlistment is a publicity stunt, she is disillusioned and leaves him. During the war, she marries Lord Coray (Milland), while Mike and Raoul fight in the trenches. Raoul sustains an injury to his heart, and is told by a doctor he must not dance again. After the war, however, Raoul reopens his club. Coray and Helen attend the opening, and when Raoul’s partner stands him up, Helen performs with him. Elated by their success, Raoul intends to continue, but suddenly dies of heart failure.” (This summary is brought to you by TCM.)
With a cast that stars the radiant Carole Lombard alongside the debonair George Raft in his “back-to-my-roots” element as a hoofer, and a supporting cast that features William “Fred Mertz” Frawley and the infamous Sally Rand doing her equally infamous fan dance, Bolero is a film that offers a lot of reasons to watch. And coming in 1934, when the industry was finally being forced to crack down on the draconian Production Code, Bolero also looks to promise a certain amount of sexual heat… if not in the bedroom, then at least on the dance floor… Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that this heat is few and far between. Oh, yes, it’s there — in the final climactic dance sequence (mostly done in wide shots with an an obvious body double for Lombard, who can only fake it so much) where Raft gives his all and exudes a sensuality that’s less about the interaction of two lusty bodies moving rhythmically to a knowingly suggestive dance than to the elegance of the sequence, which is photographed beautifully, features two stellar, glowing creatures, and literally exists as the entire picture’s raison d’être…
But that’s precisely the problem. Bolero lives for its “dirty dancing,” which takes up fewer than three minutes of an 80-minute picture and doesn’t arrive until its final reel. Dramatically, it’s the moment towards which the narrative has been building, and one could argue that it HAS to be the best and most important part of the story, especially for a character like Raft’s, who expresses himself through dance, during which he’s the most alive (and this is his pinnacle — he dies shortly thereafter)… However, there’s never much indication of this pent-up tension prior to this moment, for you see, even with fragments of another Bolero dance, the rest of the film lacks anything RESEMBLING the passion of this well-produced sensual centerpiece. The non-romance romance between Raft and Lombard, who share little chemistry (which is ironic since they, ahem, “dated” off-screen), is tepid and yawn-inducing, and while undenied, repressed urges could perhaps be of thematic interest, the dramatically limp, poorly paced, “get to-the-fan-dance” nature of this screenplay suggests that such lofty narrative intentions are imagined.
And so, in other words, Bolero is very basically a below-average film that, fundamentally, tells a mediocre story with great mediocrity. It doesn’t captivate as a work of drama, and it doesn’t even showcase its luminous stars as they should be (aside from Rand, who does her own speciality) — not even Raft really gets to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is what he should be doing on-screen. What’s more, the deliciously lascivious texture of the Pre-Code era isn’t ever felt… until that aforementioned climactic dance scene, where Lombard and Raft look like a million bucks and the Bolero dance of the title is able to stir up feelings and urges that the rest of the film, well, seemed to leave on the dance floor. Thus, I can only recommend you see this 80-minute feature for three of ’em. If what I’ve described seems worth it, check it out. If not, just take a gander at this and, like ol’ Georgie Raft, keep it moving.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more sitcom fun!