Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only covered one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this series we’ve featured Ladies Of Leisure (1930) and Illicit (1931). Today…
Ten Cents A Dance (1931)
A taxi dancer with a jealous husband finds herself falling for a wealthy client. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ricardo Cortez, Monroe Owsley, and Sally Blane. Written by Jo Swerling. Continuity by Dorothy Howell. Directed by Lionel Barrymore.
“Barbara O’Neill is the prettiest and most popular woman at the “Palais de Dance,” a dance hall in New York City. Bradley Carlton, a wealthy patron, visits Barbara, and for no reason gives her $100. When Barbara then asks Bradley for a favor, he agrees to give her friend and neighbor, Eddie Miller, a job and they have dinner. When Barbara arrives home, she sees Eddie packing because he cannot afford to pay his rent. Barbara gives him the $100 and tells him about the job she has arranged. Later, Eddie and Barbara meet in the park and realize that they are in love. Back at the dance hall, Barbara receives a new dress, but is disappointed to find out that it is from Bradley. Then Eddie arrives and asks Barbara to marry him. Barbara agrees and quits her job. After five months of marriage, Eddie meets Ralph Sheridan, an old friend, and his sister Nancy, and does not tell them that he is now married. They play a game of cards that leaves Eddie $240 in debt, but, because he and Barbara are poor, he keeps the debt secret from her.
“Meanwhile, Barbara has returned to work at the dance hall, where she occasionally sees Bradley. While Eddie claims to be at a convention, he meets Nancy. Eddie returns to find the rent and utilities past due because he has spent his pay gambling. Later, Barbara finds Eddie packing and he admits that he stole $5,000 from Bradley’s office safe, then lost it playing the stock market. Barbara talks him into staying and goes to Bradley to ask for a $5,000 loan. Bradley gives her the money because he loves her, even after she explains why she needs it. The next morning, Barbara presents the money to Eddie, who greedily accepts it, knowing where it came from. When Eddie comes home from work, he throws a fit of jealousy, and Barbara packs her things and returns to the dance hall. Then Bradley arrives with two tickets for the Ile de France , so that Barbara may obtain a divorce and marry him.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Stanwyck is one of the best Pre-Code starlets we’ve covered on this blog, and yet you’d never know it from some of the turgidly slow melodramas (that really aren’t that dramatic) with which we’ve started off her blog series. Although those first two had moments of creakiness, Ten Cents A Dance, despite a cool title/theme song (based, obviously, on the Rodgers and Hart tune from the 1930 musical Simple Simon — coming here to Musical Theatre Monday before the year is out) and the simple Pre-Code fact that our leading lady is a dance hall hostess (READ: HOOKER), remains a funless, foolish, and disappointing vehicle with regard to Stanwyck.
While the two men do a fairly commendable job of being believable in their respective roles as Mr. Right (Cortez) and Mr. Wrong (Owsley), Stanwyck spends too much of the film not in charge. And as this flies in the face of what we’ve come to understand about her image — in both the Pre-Code and Post-Code era — it’s a disappointment to not see her driving the narrative instead of letting it drive her. Perhaps an argument could be made that her existence as the hapless heroine to whom personal dramas are happening makes the tension greater. Even if that were the case (and it isn’t, because the script isn’t strong enough to support that justification), it doesn’t negate the simple truth that the film, one of the few talkies directed by Lionel Barrymore, isn’t as entertaining as it should be.
For the Stanwyck junkies only; everyone else should stay tuned for the brighter and better films to come!
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!