Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
 
Joan Crawford and Johnny Mack Brown
If Our Dancing Daughters was a building it would have to be listed as a historic monument.

Don't be deterred by all the uninformed reviews that say Our Dancing Daughters is an awful film - they are wrong. This is a Jazz Age movie made by Jazz Age people with a serious theme very much an issue during that period.

It is not a retrospective where the Jazz Age is seen through the distorting lens of history. In this film there are no speakeasies, bootleggers, or gangsters. But the booze flows, the music is authentic, and Buster Brown hairstyles are in.

Our Dancing Daughters is also very much a Hollywood film. Flappers or Sweet Young Things might drag their beaus to see it because of the romantic drama that was to unfold on the screen, but Hollywood knew how to keep the men entertained as well.

In Our Dancing Daughters every empty surface has an Art Deco female nude figurine. As the film opens we see a pair of panties being stepped into by a pair of very attractive legs. More legs and underwear are on display when Ann (Anita Page) is getting ready for a party. When Diana Medford (Joan Crawford) dances at the party, she removes her skirt. At the country club, the horseplay between Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastian) and Diana, elegantly clad in boots and jodhpurs, verges on the kinky. And on the yacht owned by Norman (Nils Asther), when the camera dollies across the saloon to zoom in on Diana it also manages a closeup of the scantily-clad crotch of a female entertainer just as she is bending backwards into the arms of her dance partner.

No doubt if the censors had complained, there would have been surprised looks and much talk of "Good Lord! We never noticed that!" But nothing is ever by accident in a movie, especially a premier MGM production such as Our Dancing Daughters.

But apart from the surface glitter, what is it that makes Our Dancing Daughters a great film? To understand this a little arithmetic is called for. The film was released in 1928. Although it is never stated, the central female characters are aged about twenty, certainly under twenty-one. We can deduce this because they still live with their parents and there is talk of cutting an allowance should one of them be caught smoking. They would therefore have been born about 1908,and their whole adolescent life would have been during the boom years of the "Roaring Twenties".

For them things have got better and better. Their parents own the local businesses which have boomed since the war, and are the local elite. There is no shortage of money. The girls belong to the country club, go riding at the weekends, and Diana spends a couple of years in Europe. By the time we meet them in 1928 they are emancipated, free spirits with Buster Brown hair styles and skirts that reach only to their knees. They think of their selves as "moderns", especially the central character, Diana, who thinks it is so "good to be alive" and wants to grasp it and "taste everything".

However the men they associate with are a decade older, in their late twenties or early thirties. Beatrice's brother Freddie (Edward Nugent) is the exception - he is described by Ben (Johnny Mack Brown) as "that young pup". But excluding Freddie, the formative years of the other young men would have been before the First World War, some of them might have been old enough to have fought in it. They see life differently to the girls they are courting. Yes, they enjoy the good life - the yachts, country club, the booze - but as Ann's mother (Kathlyn Williams) cynically remarks, "when it comes to marriage, men are still old-fashioned".

This is the theme of the film. There is a subplot which makes the point explicit. Norman finds great difficulty in coming to terms with the fact the girl he loves, Beatrice, has had sex before marriage. Ann's mother understands the difficulty young women are in when she admonishes her own wayward daughter: "Be careful, Ann. A rich man want's his money's worth." Today this sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, but one should bear in mind that a bride's virginity was an issue that was still current in the 1960s and beyond.

Sex before marriage is not the issue with Diana's problem, but it underlines it. She loves Ben, and Ben loves her, but she is a "modern" and Ben finds it difficult to cope - his views of womanhood stem from the Victorian era, in which of course he was probably born. Can he trust a girl who is so free?

But there is also a deeper issue at play here. Diana is intelligent, a free spirit, but the man she loves is earthbound, trapped in the perceived wisdom of what is right and proper. Diana is strong, while Ben is weak. He feels threatened by Diana's exuberance which he can never copy. This is a story that would have been familiar to women from an earlier age. In Madame de Staël's novel Corinne ou l'Italie (1807), Corinne is just like Diana. She is intelligent, beautiful, and acomplished, but it gets her nowhere with the man she loves. Like Ben, Lord Nelvil cannot cope with the idea of an emancipated "Europeanized" woman and dumps her to marry a compliant English rose. But there has been some progress: the Twentieth Century Diana grits her teeth and gets on with life, unlike the Nineteenth Century Corinne who does the fashionably Romantic Age thing and commits suicide for love.

Of course Hollywood would never make a film that ended like Corinne. We know from the time they first meet everything is going to end happily for Diana and Ben. And of course it's a Joan Crawford movie - love has to triumph in the end!

However what nobody could have forseen was that the film was recording the life style of a class of Americans that would almost disappear in a year or two. In 1928 who could have forseen the stockmarket crash of 1929? Or the Great Depression that would spread across the whole country by 1930? The parents in this film exactly fit the category of people who lost the most. Local businesses went bust - there would have been no money for yachts or country clubs or trips to Europe on Blue Riband liners. Our Dancing Daughters is a portrait of the last golden year of a class that was to disappear for ever.

This alone would not make Our Dancing Daughters great. But there are other reasons.

Our Dancing Daughters has another historic dimension. It was originally made as a silent, but by the time it was to be released, silents were dead in the water. The film was reworked. A sound track was added. We hear doors being knocked, telephones ringing, background chatter, but the one thing that is missing is the voices of the lead actors. It was decided wisely not to attempt to dub their words. But that doesn't matter - the music sweeps the viewer along. Genuine 1920s music with its jazz rhythms. "Come on Miss Diana!" shouts the band leader: "Strut your stuff!" and Joan Crawford shows us what a genuine Charleston was like. Very different to the sort of retrospective we are used to by later dancers such as Debbie Reynolds in Singin' In The Rain.

Other reasons to rate the film highly are the direction by Harry Beaumont, which is excellent, and the acting, especially from Anita Page. Hers is the most difficult role to play - to Ben she has to appear as the ideal life partner, to Freddie the girl to have fun with, and to everyone else as a tricky schemer who develops into a first-class bitch.

But when it comes to the acting stakes, Joan Crawford more than holds her own. This is a Joan Crawford that few film buffs will be familiar with. Here she is young and vulnerable, yet with an inner strength that enables her to survive intact. Joan Crawford was already a star before Our Dancing Daughters and she has top billing, but this is the film that made her into a superstar. And it is easy to see why. Anita Page was the better actress, but good actresses abounded in Hollywood. Someone like Joan Crawford who could carry a complete film all by herself was a much greater rarity.

[The comments about the soundtrack refer to the original soundtrack as available on some video recordings. Another inferior version also exists.]