2 April 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Excellent vaudeville drama
'The Dance of Life' (1929) is the film version of a hit Broadway play called 'Burlesque', which starred Barbara Stanwyck. The original title was considered too racy for movie audiences, so the film producers bought the rights to a best-selling NON-fiction book about sex, 'The Dance of Life', just so they could use the book's title for this movie based on 'Burlesque'.
Skid Johnson is a baggy-pants comedian who can't make it on the vaudeville circuit. He meets Bonny Lee, a bright young dancer who is pretty and talented but who just can't catch a break. Stranded in a train station between vaudeville bookings, the two decide to team up and try a new act together. To save money, they get married: if they travel the vaudeville circuit with a marriage license to prove they're husband and wife, they can share a single hotel room. As their act gets better, Skid and Bonny get bookings which bring them closer to Broadway, and soon they are genuinely in love with each other. But, just when stardom is within their grasp, Skid gets a big head. And then the trouble starts...
'The Dance of Life' is a fascinating early talkie. Nancy Carroll (in the Stanwyck role) is an excellent actress and a fine dancer. Dramatic actor Hal Skelly had difficulty getting roles because of his clownish face; in this film, he puts his unusual appearance to good tragicomic advantage as a comedian who encounters problems in his offstage life. Skelly does a funny skidding dance which probably explains his character's nickname.
Oscar Levant had a small role in the Broadway cast of 'Burlesque', in a party scene which gave him a chance to play the piano and make a few wisecracks. He makes his film debut in 'The Dance of Life', repeating his Broadway role ... but the screenplay cuts Levant's role to a mere walk-on, giving him no opportunities to play the piano or crack any jokes. Don't expect any of those great Levant witticisms.
I was excited to see Al Saint John's name in this film's cast list, in the role of Skid Johnson's slapstick comedy sidekick Bozo. Al Saint John was one of the great acrobatic comedians of the silent screen, working prominently with his uncle Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle and with Buster Keaton. Seeing him cast as a comedian in this dramatic backstage story, I expected St John to do some of his brilliant acrobatic pratfalls in 'The Dance of Life'. Unfortunately, we never see Bozo doing any of his act onstage, so St John's comedic talents are wasted in this film. But he handles the dramatic aspects of his supporting role very well.
Some of the dialogue in 'The Dance of Life' was considered quite racy at the time, but it will seem very tame now. Like this example:
GIRL: You wouldn't kid me, would you, mister?
BOY: I would if I could, sister, I would if I could.
In 1929, that was pretty close to a dirty joke. I recommend 'The Dance of Life' as a fascinating example of early talking pictures