A young, vivacious Joan Crawford headlines Dance, Fools, Dance, but a little-known actor named Clark Gable who just arrived in Hollywood almost steals her thunder. The two generate plenty of heat in this fast-paced, absorbing crime drama that Warner Archive has meticulously restored. A stunning new 4K scan of the original camera negative, solid audio, and a great supplemental package that includes a rare MGM documentary highlight this exceptional Blu-ray presentation of a vintage antique. Highly Recommended.
Joan Crawford was one of MGM’s top stars in 1930, vying with Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo for “queen of the studio” status. (Because Shearer was married to MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, Crawford - much to her chagrin - would remain a lady-in-waiting until his death in 1936.) Crawford loomed so large, she merited solo above-the-title billing in Dance, Fools, Dance, a ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama directed by Harry Beaumont, the man who helmed her breakout picture, Our Dancing Daughters, a couple of years earlier. Her two male co-stars (William Bakewell and Lester Vail) never steal the spotlight from her, but the same can’t be said of the sixth-billed performer who had recently landed an MGM contract. His name was Clark Gable, and though he doesn’t appear in the film until it’s almost half over, he instantly commands and rivets attention in each of his scenes.
Gable wasn’t yet “Gable” when he was cast in Dance, Fools, Dance. It was just his third movie (not counting several jobs as an extra during the silent era) and he plays the heavy, not the hero, but he took the screen by storm nonetheless, sending female hearts aflutter with his macho demeanor and bad boy charm. He hadn’t yet grown his trademark pencil-thin mustache, but even without facial hair his magnetism can't be denied. Instead of upstaging Crawford, he complements her, and in so doing, makes her better. When she’s around him, she shines, almost as if he ignites a flame within her. The two of them combust (and would soon do so off screen as well)...so much so MGM paired them in two more 1931 films and five other movies between 1933 and 1940.
Dance, Fools, Dance was one of MGM’s attempts to duplicate the Warner Bros gangster movie formula without sacrificing the class and elegance that defined the studio, and it's largely a successful venture in that regard. Putting a female star at the center of this crime drama was a novel twist and Crawford has the chops to meet the challenge. She plays Bonnie Jordan, a pampered Chicago heiress who parties with abandon with her haughty brother Rodney (Bakewell) while their disapproving father (William Holden, but not that William Holden) stews. The day after a particularly wild night of carousing, the stock market crashes and their stricken dad drops dead on the floor of the Merchandise Mart.
Wiped out financially, abandoned by their wealthy friends, and forced to - horrors! - go to work, Bonnie and Rodney liquidate their swanky penthouse and move to a cramped walk-up apartment. Bonnie swallows her pride and gets a job as a cub reporter at a Chicago newspaper, but the transition is tougher for Rodney, who links up with a gang of bootleggers led by the dashing yet ruthless Jake Luva (Gable) in the hope of getting rich quick. Bonnie's nurturing colleague Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards) has been trying to blow the lid off Jake's racket, and when he gets close to doing so, Jake gives Rodney an impossible choice - bump off Bert or get iced himself. Rodney dutifully carries out the hit, which devastates Bonnie and inspires her to go undercover and cozy up to Jake in an effort to discover the killer's identity. Little does she know it's her beloved kid brother.
Dance, Fools, Dance is somewhat constrained by early talkie sound limitations, but Beaumont, who earned a Best Director Oscar nod for The Broadway Melody (the first sound Best Picture winner), navigates the tricky terrain well and delivers a tight, engrossing motion picture. The script by Auriana Rouverol, whose biggest claim to fame was writing the stage play that spawned the long-running Andy Hardy series, nicely captures the tenor of the times and weaves thinly veiled real-life events, most notably the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, into the tale. Like many pre-Code films, Dance, Fools, Dance also pushes the envelope and its free-wheeling attitude toward sex and violence makes it feel strangely less dated than movies made several years later.
Crawford, who wouldn't truly come into her own until Grand Hotel the following year, is still a little rough around the edges. Dance, Fools, Dance was just her fifth talking picture and she doesn't yet seem completely comfortable with this newfangled way of making movies. Decades later in an interview with Roy Newquist, Crawford derided her work in Dance, Fools, Dance, saying she overacted in the film, but I find her performance vivacious and heartfelt. She also shows off her considerable dancing skills during an electric solo turn in a slinky sequined outfit.
It's a shame Gable didn't get the chance to portray more bad guys during his career because he's so good at it. Rough and ruthless, yet cool and slick, Gable makes a primo gangster, but after 1931 he'd only play rogues not villains. He'd repeat the gangster gig in The Secret Six, A Free Soul, and Night Nurse, manhandling Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, and Barbara Stanwyck in that order (hopefully all three of these classics are in the Warner Archive Blu-ray pipeline), but then became too big a star to be a baddie. Seeing him in the mobster mold here giving Cagney and Robinson a run for their money is one of the reasons why Dance, Fools, Dance is so much fun. Another is watching Natalie Moorhead, who plays his platinum blonde moll, blow out a match after he lights a cigarette. It's a clip that gets plenty of play in classic Hollywood documentaries, including Hollywood: The Dream Factory, which is one of the extras on this disc.
Dance, Fools, Dance can't compete with Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, or Scarface, but it's a solid, fast-paced underworld drama that boasts an absorbing story and fine performances. Crawford and those glimpses of Gable make the movie memorable and whet our appetites for their future films together. Of all the classic screen teams of Hollywood's Golden Age - Tracy & Hepburn, Bogart & Bacall, Rooney & Garland - Crawford and Gable rank right up there with the best, and Dance, Fools, Dance shows us why this pair became the pair of the 1930s.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dance, Fools, Dance arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
To think the original camera negative of a 92-year-old movie still exists kind of blows my mind, but leave it to Warner Archive to unearth it, restore it, scan it in 4K, and produce a beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that utterly revitalizes this antique crime drama. Grain levels fluctuate throughout, but the texture in some sequences is so perfectly resolved you’d never dream this movie was shot nine decades ago. Clarity is often astounding and combined with superior contrast, rich blacks, bright, stable whites, and nicely varied grays, the picture exudes both a lovely sheen and palpable depth while maintaining a distinct film-like appearance. Background elements and bits of decor are easy to discern, shadow delineation is fine, and sharp close-ups showcase Crawford’s allure and Gable’s machismo. Any age-related speckling has been meticulously erased as well. I don’t own any other home video incarnation of Dance, Fools, Dance, but there’s no way any of them hold a candle to this exceptional rendering.
Considering Dance, Fools, Dance was produced 92 years ago when recording equipment was still rather primitive, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track sounds quite good. Surface noise is intermittently evident throughout, but it’s quite muted most of the time so it really doesn’t distract from the on-screen action. Sonic accents like gunfire and the tapping of typewriter keys are crisp and a fair amount of fidelity enhances the incidental music during party scenes…so much so that it drowns out much of the dialogue in the opening sequence on the yacht. Thankfully, that episode is brief and all other exchanges between the actors are clear and easy to comprehend. Pops and crackle are absent and no distortion creeps into the mix.
A hefty supplemental package enhances the disc.
Documentary: Hollywood: The Dream Factory (HD, 51 minutes) - This captivating 1972 made-for-TV documentary about the golden years at MGM surely inspired That's Entertainment!, which was released two years later. Dick Cavett narrates the program, which covers the inception of MGM in 1924 and the moguls, movies, and stars that fueled the studio over the next 30-plus years. Plenty of rare behind-the-scenes footage and scads of clips from MGM dramas, comedies, and musicals - including a couple from Dance, Fools, Dance - take us back to a bygone era and remind us that MGM really did have "more stars than there are in the heavens" and produced some of the greatest movies of all time.
Vintage Cartoon: One More Time (HD, 7 minutes) - One of the earliest Merrie Melodies cartoons, this black-and-white short stars Foxy, a sly yet lovable animated fox who's a doppelgänger for Mickey Mouse. Here Foxy plays a baton-swinging cop who has his paws full dealing with law-breakers in the big city.
Vintage Cartoon: Smile, Darn Ya, Smile (HD, 7 minutes) - Foxy returns as a trolley driver who encounters plenty of problems along his route in this spritely musical short that boasts a catchy title tune.
The first movie to team Crawford and Gable gives us a taste of their classic chemistry and whets our appetite for their future films together. Dance, Fools, Dance resembles many other early 1930s pictures, but the star power of these two titans makes it worth revisiting almost a century later. Warner Archive honors this MGM antique with a brand new 4K scan struck from the original camera negative, solid audio, and a few vintage extras. If you’re a Crawford and/or Gable fan, this disc belongs in your collection. Highly Recommended.