"Dancing Lady" (MGM, 1933), directed by Robert Z. Leonard, with David O. Selznick credited as executive producer, became MGM's introduction into the new cycle of backstage musicals that began with "42nd Street," "Gold Diggers of 1933" and "Footlight Parade," all for Warner Brothers. But what makes this particular backstage story stand apart from the others is the casting of its leading players in offbeat roles. First there is Joan Crawford as Janie Barlowe, a burlesque dancer who not only struggles to succeed, but strives for success. In spite of her wanting to become a dancer, she gets very little screen time in doing so. And when she does dance, it appears more strange than different from the usual dancing style of others. Second, there is Clark Gable as Patch Gallagher, the director of stage musicals with a rough exterior and a kind heart, but tries not to show it. With this being the fourth Crawford and Gable pairing, the two work quite well together, and it shows on screen. But any movie that has The Three Stooges (Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Jerry "Curly" Howard); Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy as themselves performing in the stage numbers; Winnie Lightner, formerly of Warner Brothers, appearing in her sole venture at MGM , as Rosette Henrietta LaRue, occupation "hip swinging," along with some bizarre production numbers, one presenting Joan Crawford in long blonde pig tails and Fred Astaire in mustache, both unrecognizable dancing in Bavarian clothes, is worth seeing at all costs.
The plot is simple: Set in New York City, 1933, a burlesque theater where Janie Barlowe (Joan Crawford) is performing, is raided by the police, sending all the employees who are unable to pay the fine, to serve thirty days in jail. One of the patrons, Tod Newton (Franchot Tone), a millionaire playboy with limited morals and overabundance of girlfriends, comes to court and takes an interest in Janie. He decides to not only bail her out of jail, but offers her marriage. But Janie, determined to succeed as a dancer, chances her odds by taking Tod's second offer, by accepting a job in the chorus in one of Patch Gallagher's (Clark Gable) musical shows, which Tod is backing. At first things are a little rough for Janie when she tries to get through an audition, having Gallagher's assistant, Steve (Ted Healy) and Stooges (Moe, Larry and Jerry, a/k/a Curly) giving her the "brush off" before Steve comes to realize that Janie really does have plenty of talent and convinces Patch to hire her. The rest becomes cliché from there, with little conviction, but above all else, "Dancing Lady" in its 92 minutes, became a box office success and helped to boost Crawford's then sagging career. But unlike the Warner Brothers entries, "Dancing Lady" had very little exposure on local television revivals over the past few decades, but with the help of MGM/UA Video and cable's Turner Classic Movies, where it is shown frequently, it can be rediscovered by a new generation of movie lovers or curiosity seekers.
Songs featured include: "Hey, Young Fella" (sung by chorus); "Hold Your Man" (sung by Winnie Lightner), by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown; "Everything I Have Is Yours" (sung by Art Jarrett) by Harold Adamson and Burton Lane; "My Dancing Lady" (sung by Jarrett during rehearsals) by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh; "Tango Dance," "Heigh Ho, the Gang's All Here" (sung by chorus/ with Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire); "Let's Go Bavarian" (chorus/ Crawford and Astaire) both by Adamson and Lane; "That's the Rhythm of the Day" (sung by Nelson Eddy) by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; and "My Dancing Lady" (sung by chorus).
The production numbers, directed by Sammy Lee and Eddie Prinz, try not to duplicate the choreography of Busby Berkeley over at Warners. Aside from only one overhead camera shot, the camera virtually remains focused from the audience point-of-view. The finale, however, with chorus girls riding on a carousel that forms some unusual mirror effects, is quite clever, but otherwise, the staged show comes off with four brief musical segments with an orchestral score coming in loud and clear and sounding like ragtime from the 1920s. A stage number that was deleted from the final print of "Dancing Lady" can be seen in one of MGM's musical short subjects, that sometimes plays on TCM's ONE REEL WONDERS.
In the supporting cast are May Robson as Dolly Todhunter, Tod's hard-of-hearing grandmother; Robert Benchley as Ward King, a critic; Gloria Foy as Vivian Warner; with Sterling Holloway, Maynard Holmes and Grant Mitchell. Along with lavish sets, "Dancing Lady" presents some risqué dialog and scenes (such as Crawford getting a pat on her "fanny" by Gable, with her response being, "Thank you!"), that tries to outdo the daring-dos at Warners, and almost succeeds. There is even a kissing scene between Crawford and Tone in the swimming pool from under water. Aside from this being the movie debuts of future stars, Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy, there is Art Jarrett, another newcomer who sings like future tenor, Dennis Day, but never made it to immortality. In conclusion, one has to have a quick eye to find future movie and TV comedienne Eve Arden as Marcia, the phony Southern actress, appearing in a brief bit. (***)