Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On the Big Screen: OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928)

Harry Beaumont's flaming-youth film was billed as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's first sound film -- the studio's first with a pre-recorded soundtrack. Filmed at a time when silent film, at the brink of extinction, had reached a peak of expressive artistry, Our Dancing Daughters is a silent that feels like it should have been a talkie. Consider its signature moment, Joan Crawford's wild dance scene at a sort of wild party. The scene did for Crawford what the dance scenes in Saturday Night Fever did for John Travolta; the film as a whole made her a superstar and a sex symbol. But by the standards of sound cinema something isn't right about it. The dance music wasn't recorded live; the scene was filmed silent and scored in a studio afterward. Crawford moves at silent-film speed, filmed by Beaumont with little sense of style or choreography. She looks frantic, almost more spastic than sensual, and for all I know this was the desired effect and the way the flapper's era saw her: crazed energy bursting to express itself in wild motion. But from here Crawford calms down quite a bit, to the point where this, her star-making movie, is nearly stolen from her by the film's real bad girl, Anita Page.

The attempted theft may seem more obvious now; modern audiences may be more attentive and responsive to her character's fearsome dysfunction. Bred to be a gold digger by a mother so mercenary that she's an outright kleptomaniac, Page steals Crawford's millionaire boyfriend (as an Alabama football star with a fortune, John Mack Brown plays a wealthier version of himself) but isn't happy and is probably incapable of happiness. I thought Page had shown me something with her one-punch KO of Buster Keaton in Sidewalks of New York that had been hidden in her now best-known picture, The Broadway Melody, but Our Dancing Daughters shows her in full rage mode. Her jealous drunken tirade against Crawford and Brown is a sustained bit of suspense set against open windows and steep staircases; you expect her to fall or throw herself to her doom at any moment as she releases all the pent-up bile that may have kept her alive all along. The sequence climaxes with her mocking (and self-mocking) chiding, from the top of that perilous staircase, of three scrubwomen cleaning the floor at the foot of the stairs for failing to raise pretty daughters to keep them from having to work. If Page had been able to speak during the scene, she may well have stolen the film completely from Crawford. Her mad scene is still the highlight of the silent film.

Crawford still earned her fame with a performance that plays for pathos the way Twenties audiences liked, and Dorothy Sebastian, who completes an actress troika that went on to make two thematic sequels, is fine in the least showy role of a newlywed struggling to live up to her love for and responsibility to a husband (Nils Asther) who proves a bit of a stick in the mud. Beaumont's direction is mostly overshadowed by the film's art-deco production design, but he achieves at least one coup de cinema, opening the first party scene by parting a frame-filling screen of balloons to reveal the dance floor as seen from the ceiling. Until recently that shot opened Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Night" intro montage, and it set the tone quite nicely.  Our Dancing Daughters was indisputably a success on its own terms in its own time, but it may have gone over even bigger as a talking picture. It would have been better objectively had it not been burdened, as many late silents and part-talkies were, with an insipid love theme. The turgid ballad, "I Love You Now As I Loved You Then" is the antithesis of the jazz rhythm that possesses Crawford on the dance floor; it has no business on the soundtrack of a flapper film, but juxtapositions of that sort were all too common in the late Twenties. They shouldn't surprise us in as obviously transitional a film as this one.

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