Every time I see Joan Crawford she gets younger. Of all the stars of the twenties she was the one who perhaps had the greatest career in sound and I know her best from those films of the 40s and 50s.
I watched Johnny Guitar a few months back – what a stunningly odd film that is, but all the better for it – and to see the same intelligent hood-eyed stare from Joan a full 26 years’ earlier is testament to her consistency and ability.
Whilst Crawford had earlier been in successful but slight comedies like Spring Fever with William Haines (a superb comic actor who lost his stardom to homophobic prejudice) and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp with a fading Harry Langdon (she was also in Tod Browning's truly bizarre The Unknown with Lon Chaney), Our Dancing Daughters was the film that turned her into a major star. And it’s easy to see why.
Joan plays Diana Medford an energetic jazz baby who seems to be the life and soul of every party. The film starts at breaktaking pace with the camera focused on a pair of dancing feet in front of a mirror, the feet carry on their movement as, cheekily, a pair of pantyhose are pulled up over them. The camera pulls back to show a full-clothed and party-ready, Joan dancing like the Charleston champion she was in real life.
Di goes down stairs to say goodnight to her folks – "...see you at five!" – and to be toasted by a trio of male admirers. She decides to toast herself as she wants to be able to like herself all of her life…it seems a strange thing to say but it’s key.
Off they go to the party were the various characters are revealed and Joan gets to blast the floor some more. Di’s best friend is Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastien) who is seemingly more straight-laced and sensible and Anni (a great performance from Anita Page who really gives herself to the role) a girl who is anything but as innocent as she looks – she wants to marry well and that precludes everyother option.
They have variable relationships with the men in the group, the mischievous Freddie (Edward Nugent), the serious Norman (Nils Asther) and the seriously loaded Ben (John Mack Brown).
Di spies Ben and take an immediate interest but gets pulled away to dance leaving the way open for Ann to make a play.
A competition takes place for the millionaire’s affection which Ann wins through guile and pretending to be the innocent girl that Di is not. Yet Di is true to herself and won’t compromise her way into Ben’s affections.
He falls for Ann’s impersonation and the two are married. Ann is triumphant and doesn’t mind who knows it and at the same time she continues a fling with Freddie behind Ben’s back: she’s got what she wants and doesn’t think she can be displaced.
Too late Ben realises that it was Di he loved after all but she has resolved to tour Eurpoe and to leave the scene of her disappointment. At the same time Bea has married uptight Norman who cannot forgive her past and tries to exclude her old friends.
It seems that only the amoral schemer has got what she wanted and things are set for an almighty showdown and a dramatic climax.
What is so interesting about the story is how it plays with preconceptions. The flapper turns out to be the decent gal and when Di toasted her good character and her ability to live with herself she really meant it. Ann is also true to herself but she is totally cynical and sees manipulation and “real politik” as the only means of obtaining her goals.
The rest are less sure of themselves and are in various states of confusion even though they may find their way forward – Bea is essentially decent and we hope Norman is too.
Written by three women, Josephine Lovett, Marion Ainslee and Ruth Cummings, Our Dancing Daughters is very much a film dominated by the female leads and that, coupled with its balanced view of youthful high spirits marks it apart from the formulaic moral tale it could have been.
There's a lovely moment when a drunken Annikins looks down on three washer women scrubbing the floor of the night club: "Women, women...working!" Josephine, Marion and Ruth obviously knew that reaction well enough.
And, Joan Crawford is sensational…there's a particular set of the jaw that she carries when faced with opposition and it is the same warring against Anita Page as it is facing down mad Mercedes McCambridge all those years later in Johnny Guitar. What an intelligent and centred actress she was and, all legend aside, she seems to have been immensly hard-working and driven.
Here she is naturalistic and believable. Her character is a winning one and that is all the more impressive given the subject matter. This is a party gal but one who we will see to be true to herself, honest and fair. It would take a superior talent to make that line work in any time, that Joan does it here is testiment to the small revolution of her coming.
Our Dancing Daughters is available through Amazon and all good retailers. Now, having outlined the plot of The Unkown to my disbelieving wife, I have to persuade her to watch it!
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