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Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)
Joan Crawford
The Joan Crawford vehicle Dance, Fools, Dance deserves better reviews than it usually gets. This is a film that suffers because it is classed as pre-code. Professional reviewers tread warily.

Dance, Fools, Dance is most accessable on the MGM/UA video, but here it is promoted in the series "Forbidden Hollywood", with a quote that "Some films are so shocking that they got cut on TV 40 years later". In the introduction Leonard Maltin refers to its "titillation" and its low morality.

In fact all this excitement is based on a remark by Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) that she wants to give love a try before marriage, and a brief scene where young people go swimming in their underwear. In actuality the underwear consists of BVDs (male garments akin to extra-large boxer shorts) and some very unrevealing cami-knickers and slips. As for "trial marriages", in most of the Western World today that has become the norm. The problem is not that the pre-code films were shocking, but that films created after the imposition of the code had so little to do with reality.

Essentially Dance, Fools, Dance is a melodrama with the trite plot that usually goes with the genre. We see the "fast set" having a good time - rather tame by today's standards. Bonnie and her beau Bob Townsend (Lester Vail) dance a tango, and then they all go for the aforementioned dip. But then Bonnie's world collapses. Her father (William Holden) has lost all in the 1929 stockmarket crash and Bonnie and her brother Roddy (William Bakewell) are left penniless.

Roddy takes the easy way out by becoming a frontman for the bootlegger Jake Luva (Clark Gable), but Bonnie has much more character and starts at the bottom working for a newspaper. It is the time of the gang wars, and an event occurs which is remarkably similar to the St Valentine's Day Massacre. One of the newspaper's reporters finds out that Luva's gang was behind it by an indiscrete remark from Roddy, and as a result the gang forces Roddy to gun down the reporter.

Bonnie is put on the trail by the newspaper, and - miracle of miracles! - shows sufficient talent for dancing to be booked as the professional lead dancer at Luva's nightclub. Luva makes a play for her which she chastely rejects, but then she discovers Roddy's involvement. Aware they might talk, Luva and his gang intend to take Bonnie and Roddy "for a ride". But Bonnie outsmarts them. In the shootout Roddy dies, now at peace with the world, and Bonnie is a heroine. And guess who turns up? None other than her old beau Bob Townsend. They will get married and live happily ever after.

So why, with a banal plot like this, do I think Dance, Fools, Dance is a good film? For one thing MGM have pulled out all the stops. The script is witty, the supporting cast second to none, and the direction by Harry Beaumont is first rate. The scene where the reporter Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards) goes to his doom is genuinely chilling.

From a historical viewpoint, this is the film that made Clark Gable. As usual he was playing a bad guy, but the on-screen chemistry between Clark Gable and Joan Crawford launched a raft of the films where they were paired. Gable has all the qualities - and the faults - we associate with him. A magnetic persona, a real man's man - and woman's - but somewhat lacking in subtlety when it comes to acting. Although I am certain not a woman in the audience was worried about that.

But Clark Gable was a just an accident. Dance, Fools, Dance was conceived as a Joan Crawford vehicle - and she certainly lives up to it. This film will set Joan Crawford on a new path, the "strong woman", and will lead her to films like "Rain" and "Sadie McKee". In Dance, Fools, Dance we see the on-screen persona of the true star - we can believe in Joan Crawford as the character Bonnie Jordan, but we are also always aware we are watching Joan Crawford.

And Joan Crawford's dancing is not bad either.