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  • Here's one of the early talkies that has been readily available to home video, but one I've avoided. An early musical, and yet another "backstage" plotline, this was something I've seen done so poorly elsewhere I suspected I'd wind up throwing things at my TV. [Have any of you anguished your way through the musical numbers of The Great Gabbo?] Happily, such was not the case. Here is a film totally accessible to contemporary audiences.

    A big film in its time, Paramount popped for Technicolor and assigned it's two top directors, Cromwell and Sutherland. [The directors appear in cameos as doorman and theatre attendant, respectively.] Musical sequences are well done and entertain. Cringe factor on a one to five scale, one. The wonder of seeing the tall, lanky Skelly and diminutive Carroll dancing in perfect unison is still with me. They're the most unlikely team this side of Laurel and Hardy.

    Many other splendid differences between this film and its contemporaries are worth noting. Released August, 1929, Paramount's superimposed credits seem so much more modern than the silent card graphics MGM still used. Not everyone cares to know who the associated producer is, we want entertained. Behind The Dance Of Life, silhouetted stage hands scurry about, pulling backdrops and riggings. You're treated to seeing behind the scenes while the obligatory texts play out. The ensemble cast has antagonists which prove to be red herrings. It's loaded with interesting camera compositions. A train is gained and quit at night in a pouring rainstorm. A sandwich is used as a romantic device. And what I enjoyed the most was the personal and up close feeling the directors give scenes. Skelly, after pratfalling from wing to wing, sings "True Blue Lou" so personally it would seem he was oblivious to the camera which closed in three times during the song.

    A snapshot of a lost form of American entertainment, The Dance Of Life stands apart from its roots as a great film. See it!
  • '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
  • 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 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.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    When John Cromwell was hired to direct "The Dance of Life", a film version of the Broadway success "Burlesque", it was automatically assumed that the key members of the cast would be tested and hired. They all turned up for a one act screen test - all except one. Barbara Stanwyck's husband refused to let his wife do the film (according to Oscar Levant). He was an egomaniac and wouldn't let her go to Hollywood until he was also summoned (Stanwyck made her film debut a few months later in the static "The Locked Door"). So the assignment was given to Paramount's latest star Nancy Carroll - she was not only more relaxed and natural in front of the cameras than many of the other "stagies" in the film, she definitely boosted the film's popularity at the box office.

    Skid Johnson (Hal Skelly), a talented comedian, who is also an alcoholic, is fired from a third rate burlesque show. He meets Bonny Kane (Nancy Carroll) who has failed to make specialty dancer from the same show. "You wouldn't kid me lady? I would if I could mister, I would if I could" - that became a popular catch phrase of the day. They become friends and get jobs in the same show. Under Skid's guidance Bonny becomes an expert dancer and through her steadying influence he really starts applying himself to his work.

    Someone else has their eye on him -Sylvia (beautiful Dorothy Reiver). Skid performs "King of Jazzmania with the chorus then Bonny takes the stage for "Cuddlesome Baby". The manager wants to get rid of Bonny but Skid persuades him to keep her and deduct her wage from his salary. She finds out and decides to quit but in the middle of their routine Skid proposes and she accepts. Their wedding night is disastrous as Skid gets drunk - but from now on Bonny holds him on a tight rein. He sings "True Blue Lou" - a beautiful song inspired by Bonny's love. (The song became the hit of the year with Ethel Waters doing a marvelous recording of it). His act is seen by Flo Ziegfeld and suddenly Skid is on his way to the top. There is a musical interlude ala the Ziegfeld Follies - "Ladies of the Dance" - showing beautiful show girls parading down stairs, then cutie, Marjorie "Babe" Kane sings "The Flipperty Flop", followed by an Eccentric Dance by Skid. (This was obviously the "Technicolor Sequence" but it was only in black and white on my copy). But who's this - bad girl Sylvia is the leading showgirl and trying her best to be Skid's leading girl in real life as well. When Bonny goes to New York to see Skid she accidentally sees them together and thinking he has forgotten her, she leaves without seeing him. She files for divorce and turns to Harvey Howell, a "big breath of fresh air" from Wyoming who wants only the best for her. Just before her marriage Skid calls on her and after a riotous reunion, Harvey walks in and Skid embarrasses himself. Nancy Carroll here sings "In The Gloaming" - she actually sung this for her first screen test.

    After going on a gigantic bender and being sacked from Ziegfeld's show, he is finally given a last chance by Lefty Miller (Charles B. Brown) the manager who gave him and Bonny their first break. Bonnie is asked to come back and help him through - he is now a skid row drunk. Bonnie, who has never stopped loving him, helps him back on his feet and as their dance starts up with the familiar patter, realises her place is beside Skid.

    This film was one of the most popular and highly regarded films of the year. Made at a time when most films adapted from stage plays were usually inferior, this was a standout in every way. Oscar Levant had a bit as a songwriter - his part was not cut out, he did play a couple of songs and had a few lines. Nancy Carroll gives a remarkable performance in this primitive talkie - anybody could tell she was destined for big things.

    Highly, Highly Recommended.
  • Odd title for the film version of the Broadway hit, BURLESQUE, that starred Hal Skelly and Barbra Stanwyck and made them both stars. Odd also that Skelly would topline the 1929 film version but Nancy Carroll would get the lead role over Stanwyck.

    In any case both stars are excellent in this underrated and forgotten gem that includes great vaudeville numbers, songs, comedy, and drama.

    Skelly is an "eccentric" dancer who teams with Carroll and they struggle on the burlesque circuit until a talent scout spots Skelly and gets him a spot in the Ziegfeld Follies. But money and fame go to his head and he starts boozing with a golddigging hussy. Eventually he his fired and Carroll sues for divorce to marry a Wyoming rancher. Skelly has one more chance when he's offered his old job with the burlesque show but Carroll must leave Wyoming to help him get through his opening show.

    Hackneyed plot but done with great spirit and truth. Carroll and Skelly are great. Supporting cast includes May Boley terrific as Gussie, Oscar Levant as a pianist, Al St. John as Bozo, Charles Brown as the burlesque manager, Ralph Theodore as Harvey, and Dorothy Revier as Marco.

    High point is a terrific semi closeup of Skelly sitting on the stage and singing "True Blue Lou" in his sad clown makeup. Great moment. Carroll gets to do several dances and she's damned good. Her singing isn't as good though.

    After seeing the lousy HONEY I was skeptical about another Nancy Carroll musical but THE DANCE OF LIFE is terrific. Hal Skelly could have been a big big star but he was hideously killed in 1934 when the car in which he was riding was smashed by a freight train in Connecitcut.
  • cstotlar-123 January 2013
    This was certainly not what I expected. I was delightfully surprised in just about every way. This film shows clearer than any I've seen the Vaudeville life and the acts in the last years. The sound was handled beautifully and the ending quite touching. Since I caught this where I could find it on You Tube, there were no sequences in color, alas, but everything else was precious, particularly the leads. It paved the way for so many subsequent "show must go on" movies and the phrase itself finally became cliché but this is pristine, sensitive and ultimately quite moving. I was also thankful that so many of the acts were filmed in their entirety, for historical as well as artistic reasons. The balance was perfect!

    Curtis Stotlar
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This is one of the very good early talking films of 1929, although the plot itself seems very typical. The difference in this backstage musical is in the use of the camera and the delivery of the performances by the cast. It is quite technically advanced and this allows the viewer to appreciate the heart behind the film rather than noticing how primitive everything seems. There might be what constitutes spoilers ahead, so be warned.

    Nancy Carroll was a big star at Paramount at this time, and here she plays a dancer, Bonny, who has come a long way to audition as a dancer in a revue. Hal Skelly plays Skid Johnson, an eccentric dancer with the troupe. He rebukes the manager of the troupe for not giving Bonny his attention when she auditions, and Skid is now out of a job too. While waiting in the train station, the two wire a burlesque troupe that is advertising for dancers and they both get hired. From that point forward Bonny and Skid are fast friends, and ultimately consider themselves partners since they mostly dance together. Skid is a big plain looking fellow, but he has a heart of gold. The problem is, after the show he drinks like a fish. He's not a mean drunk, just a drunk.

    The revue falls on tough times and the manager is telling Skid he will have to let Bonny go. Skid tells him to keep Bonny on and just take her salary out of his. When Bonny refuses this as charity, Skid uses this as an opportunity for a rather sideways but sweet proposal. The two get married that very night, but there are constant arguments from that point forward over Skid's drinking and general irresponsibility. Ultimately, Skid gets an opportunity to headline in a Zeigfeld show. Bonny tells him to take the job and leave her behind. Skid does so, but without someone to watch over him he drinks even more heavily and begins womanizing. Skid eventually hits the skids and drinks himself right of his job and his marriage.

    The manager of the old troupe decides to give Skid another chance. However, without Bonny, Skid has no real motivation to sober up. The night of the opening performance he shows up drunk. Bonny does get him straightened out in time, but the closing scene leaves matters open on whether the two will reconcile. What is clear is that the two do love each other and always have. Sometimes however, love and the will to make it work are not enough. Both people need to have some strength of character, and in this case one party doesn't, and furthermore, he knows and admits he doesn't.

    Hal Skelly was killed in a car when it collided with a train in 1934, so his life was tragically cut short at age 43. He gave such a great performance here I'm surprised he didn't at least get an Oscar nomination for his acting.

    One other commenter mentioned that this film is on home video, but I have never been able to find it commercially available. The DVD copy I have was duped from a VHS tape that was apparently on its last legs. At one point I thought that I was watching a scene in two strip Technicolor when I realized that the outfits of the chorus girls appeared yellow because of a rotten spot on the original tape that had copied onto the DVD. Even if you have a bad copy though, this film is well worth your time. Paramount made some of the finest films in that first talkie year of 1929 - this film, The Virginian, Chinatown Nights, The Love Parade, and Glorifying the American Girl, for example. It's too bad that we'll probably never see any of these in their restored state on an official DVD release.
  • A vaudeville couple find that his meteoric rise begins to strain their relationship. The ill-fated Hal Skelly relies on an abundance of personality to overcome his lack of acting skills, but he and Nancy Carroll make a likable couple in this absorbing, bittersweet tale. Skelly's laidback rendition of True Blue Lou is a highlight not to be missed.
  • Back in the early days of sound movies, Hollywood was in love with musical spectaculars. The problem is that with the earliest ones, the quality of the sound and dancing is pretty awful. This is painfully obvious in "The Dance of Life". I don't entirely blame the films. After all, sound technology was primitive and quality choreography was something you wouldn't see until the early 30s. The Busby Berkeley-style song and dance numbers were very crisp and professional--the stuff in the earlier films just looks rough...very rough.

    This film is about two stage performers--Skid (Hal Skelly), a comedian, and Bonny (Nancy Carroll). When the film begins, both are out of work and struggling. Together, they seem to do much better and come to be friends and eventually marry. However, over time, Skid hits the big time and Bonny is left behind--putting a big strain on their relationship. Eventually, she takes up with a millionaire and Skid, unexpectedly, hits the skids. What's next for the duo?

    This film is very dated. As I mentioned, the dancing is pretty bad. Additionally, similar material is handled better in other films. Mostly of interest to devoted fans of the real oldies.

    By the way, sadly only a few years after doing this film, Hal Skelly was killed when he was a passenger in a car that got hit by a train! So, if you ever wanted to see this vaudevillian, this film is one of the few chances.