18 May 2011 | eschetic-2
More than an almost lost gem - a fine film in any era
The famous play, BURLESQUE, came to Hollywood following a successful Broadway run (372 performances at the Plymouth Theatre from Sept. 1, 1927 through July of the following year made it one of the biggest hits of the year) just at the cusp of when burlesque - which George Jessel had described as "the most family friendly" theatre form as straight vaudeville declined - was itself declining from the fine mix of sketch comedy and music into the girlie shows that would be banned by Mayor LaGuardia in the 1940's. Paramount apparently felt that decline as well as the universal quality of the story merited the name change to THE DANCE OF LIFE for their August 16, 1929 film release, but they also knew well how famous the original play had become as it toured around the nation, so the original name was prominently featured in all the advertising.
Protecting their investment further, four members of the original Broadway cast were recruited for the film version (the lead, Hal Skelly as "Skid", Ralph Theodore as Harvey, Charles D. Brown as Lefty and the great Oscar Levant in his first film role as Jerry the composer/pianist). Only the Broadway leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck as Bonny, Skid's lady love, was passed over for look-alike Nancy Carroll (rumor hath that Stanwyck's real life leading man declined to let her take the role unless he was hired too). Carroll was entirely fine in the role and Stanwyck followed to Hollywood shortly after.
The result for THE DANCE OF LIFE was one of the year's best films and the script, direction and cinematography hold up remarkably well after a little over 80 years, much better than some of the early full fledged "musicals" filmed at the time. This was not a traditional "musical" by Broadway or Hollywood standards, but a play in which a lot of music was intrinsic to the plot, and the musical numbers are as good a snapshot of what real live touring musical theatre looked like in 1929 as many an actual filmed musical show (like the Marx Brothers' COCOANUTS which was filmed at the end of its "subway circuit" tour out at the Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, New York). The borderline "beef trust" chorus girls marching in unison are a far cry from modern "choreography," but they breathe with the life of the world portrayed.
As good as the film is - and it is very good indeed, despite the often copied plot, remarkably faithful to the Broadway original, of the loyal girl protecting her talented but weak partner - no small credit is due to the superior cast. An Oscar Levant younger than most people today know him from his film roles of ten to twenty years later (THE BAND WAGON, opposite Nanette Fabray passing for a composer/lyricist team patterned after Betty Comden and Adolph Green is a classic), gives every indication of the indelible comic curmudgeon he would become, and Hal Skelly's Skid is a leading character actor for the ages. "Skid" would be a great performance in any age.
I haven't seen a naturalistic performance jump out of the more declamatory style performances around it with this much vivacity since Helen Hayes opposite Gary Cooper (three years later) in A FAREWELL TO ARMS. Hayes, of course, would go on to a brilliant career on stage and screen for another 50 years. Skelly might have, but after only a few more films and Broadway shows, while back East producing and starring in one of them (the ironically titled COME WHAT MAY) he lost his life when a car he was riding in was hit by a freight train in Connecticut. It was a greater loss to the stage and screen than those who have never seen his performance in this film (BURLESQUE was, with good reason, his greatest hit) can ever fathom.
I've never been able to find a copy of the brief VHS release noted elsewhere of the Paramount Picture, but until some wise soul finds a way to pry a pristine copy from the Paramount archives (one suspects the film may now be in the public domain if ANY copy could be found) to make it available to a new generation of film and theatre students who need to see the craft and passion involved, at least a decent copy can be viewed at Archive.org. It is essential viewing for any true student of the theatre or film. I'll be first in line to buy a copy when a DVD is available. Let's hope it's soon.