Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dancers in the Dark (1932)

This is part of Hot and Bothered: The Films of 1932 Blogathon hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen and Theresa at CineMaven's Essays from the Couch. For more steamy posts, click Day 1 and Day 2.

The Task

*To write about a film from 1932
*I chose Dancers in the Dark sight unseen because of the topic (dancers!) and Miriam Hopkins.

The Film

In the film, taxi dancer Gloria (Miriam Hopkins) and saxophone player Floyd (William Collier Jr.) are in love and want to get married. He is willing to forgive her past, which may be worse than he thinks, but he insists he doesn't need to know. Bandleader Duke (Jack Oakie) grew up with Floyd and sees him as a brother. He believes Floyd deserves better than the fallen Gloria. Duke arranges for Floyd to take a four-week out-of-town job, hoping his absence will cause Gloria to reveal her true colors. Side note: At one time, Duke was also in love with Gloria, and she had a crush on him.

Miriam Hopkins, William Collier Jr., Jack Oakie

As if this triangle did not produce enough friction, gangster Louie (George Raft) shows up pining for Gloria, his former lover.


New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall praised Raft's performance, comparing him to James Cagney. Image Source - The Golden Girl


Hot and Bothered

If you are looking for a film with a lot of heat, you would be better off with another Miriam Hopkins love triangle, Design for Living (1933). Since the plot of Dancers in the Dark focuses on Gloria's ability to reform, her misdeeds are left in the past--and even then, they are only alluded to. I was troubled with Duke forcing himself upon Gloria twice. She struggles and eventually pushes him away. Her laissez-faire attitude and willingness to laugh it off and remain friends bothered me. I felt I was witnessing the genesis of our rape culture.

Following Duke's first attempt, both characters use vague terminology (thing, it) to describe what has occurred. A problem without a name. Gloria tells Duke that he did a rotten thing, but she's glad he "did it" because it proves her faithfulness to Floyd. In fact, she is "happier" with their friendship because it shows she no longer cares for Duke. There's all kinds of wrong in her reasoning. So if she wasn't able to push him off, she would be complicit and therefore an unfaithful, scarlet women? This is proof of a strong female/male friendship? Yikes! The second time around, Gloria laughs while trying to escape Duke's grip. The sad fact is this scenario and all its incorrect implications is not the film's pre-code component. Post-code films would continue the 'even though she resists, she will be happy you did it' messaging. Gone with the Wind (1939) comes to mind.

Scarlett gleefully hums the day after Rhett forces her up the stairs.  
Click here for video clip.

Taxi Dancers

Dancers in the Dark becomes recognizably pre-code when Gloria is allowed a happily-ever-after despite a past with other men. The film's treatment of her dance hall colleagues is also evidence of pre-code movie morality. In most films, someone condemns dance hostesses, using the term "taxi dancer" in place of prostitute or gold digger (Two Seconds, Battleground, These Glamour Girls). In Dancers in the Dark, there is no such character. The belief remains that the dancers know how to use their sexuality, but the prevailing attitude is approval 

Gus (Eugene Pallette) buys Fanny (Lyda Roberti) a bracelet, though he is surprised there is a jewelry peddler in the dance hall: 
Say, what kind of joint is this? They sell everything in here but yachts.
The next evening Fanny cozies up to Gus in appreciation. The feeling is mutual: they may be different from his, but Fanny has her own assets.
 

Duke jokes with one of the taxi dancers: Hmmm, telephone operator. 
Taxi dancer: How do you know? 
Duke: I see all your lines are busy. 
The dancer laughs.


When Duke says Gloria is not good enough for Floyd, there is a sense her individual history as a gangster's moll bothers him, not her profession. By the end of the movie, Duke changes his mind about her, deciding she is better than Floyd deserves. He suggests Floyd will not be able to support her. Gloria is not worried.

I can work. I always have.  

And like that, the line passes. No uproar about her being the breadwinner (see Edward G. Robinson's character in Two Seconds) or the cheapness of dance halls (see Barbara Stanwyck's beau in Ten Cents a Dance).


"St. Louis Blues"

A key plot point in the film revolves around the song gangster Louie requests whenever he enters the dance hall: "St. Louis Blues." In addition to sharing his name with the tune, he enjoys watching his old flame Gloria sing it. The song leads to his downfall. However, "St. Louis Blues," may have more significance than bringing down the antagonist in Dancers in the Dark.  

During research on censorship, I discovered an interesting Cinema Journal essay by Peter Stanfield on the use of "St. Louis Blues" in films. According to Stanfield, the song was a means for filmmakers to signify "sexually transgressive women" to their audiences. The lyrics about a woman who uses trickery (fancy jewelry, makeup, fake hair) to steal another's man became the anthem of many a fallen woman in film.


Stanfield supports his argument with numerous examples. In Baby Face (1933), "St. Louis Blues" punctuates Lily's (Stanwyck) rise from her father's bar to the top of Gotham Trust. The song accompanies each exchange of sexual favor for advancement up the ladder. Sadie (Joan Crawford), who is a prostitute, plays an instrumental version of "St. Louis Blues" on her phonograph throughout Rain (1932). In Red-Headed Woman (1932), the tune is on the radio when Lil (Jean Harlow) lures her married boss to her apartment. In Ladies They Talk About (1933), Nan (Stanwyck) covers her fellow prisoners' escape with a recording of the song. Stella (Stanwyck) of Stella Dallas (1937) is finally able to convince her daughter that she would rather give into sexual desire than take care of her by putting "St. Louis Blues" on the record player. 

Dancers in the Dark follows suit. "I've sung that song for you for the last time," Gloria declares to Louie. "If I ever sing that song for you again, you can tell the whole wide world that I'm your girl." Gloria's denouncement of "St. Louis Blues" corresponds with her decision to get married to Floyd. When he later doubts her faithfulness, she's ready to jump back on the bandwagon.

I don't care what you think about me now. I know where I stand with myself and that's enough.

True to her word, Gloria belts out "St. Louis Blues." (Hopkins' voice sounds dubbed. IMDb and Wikipedia credit Adelaide Hall, but a more credible source is needed to confirm the info.) At the last moment, all is straightened out and Gloria gets her happily-ever-after with Floyd.

~  ~  ~

While Dancers in the Dark is not the hottest pre-code I have ever seen, the film adds to the existing scholarship on the evolution of rape culture in film and the coded use of "St. Louis Blues." I am grateful to Aurora and Theresa for giving me an opportunity to study this 1932 film.     

 Click here to read more steamy posts.


Ciao til next time!

Sources

Hall, Mordaunt. "Miriam Hopkins and Jack Oakie in a Film Story With a Dance Hall Background." New York Times. 19 March 1932. Web. 5 July 2016.

Stanfield, Peter. "An Excursion into the Lower Depths: Hollywood, Urban Primitivism, and St. Louis Blues, 1929-1937." Cinema Journal 41.2 (2002): 84-108. PDF. 5 July 2016.

6 comments:

  1. Very interesting information on "St. Louis Blues". While I certainly recognized it in many films, I never made the connection. When I think about that Handy song and movies it always relates to "Banjo on My Knee" and Walter Brennan calling it the most beautiful music in the world (or something like that).

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    1. Hi Paddy, Thank you for visiting. I've never seen BANJO ON MY KNEE, but Stanfield touched upon it in his essay. Interesting factoid: The producers originally wanted to use "Frankie and Johnny," however Joseph Breen didn't approve of "its flavor of prostitution and excessive sex suggestiveness" so they went with "St. Louis Blues" with the female character identifying with the abandoned woman.

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  2. I don't think I've heard of this film prior to reading your post, and I must say it's gotten me intrigued! The analysis over "St. Louis Blues" and its recurring use in various films is just absolutely fascinating.

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    1. Thank you! I was pumped when I found the article about "St. Louis Blues." It adds another layer to the films we already love.

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  3. Hi there Bonnie~ I love the cogency of your review of “Dancers in the Dark.” I love classic films - 40’s, 30’s, 50’s in that order. I’m a recent denizen to pre~code after many a friendly battles...er- discussions with a movie pal ‘o mine. As an African-American woman, I have had to square with a lot of prevalent racial attitudes of the time which hasn’t diminished my love for these films. I’ve made my peace.
    __

    But you brought to the fore another wrinkle in the fabric: the psychology behind the message of what is a “good woman” and what is a “bad woman” and gals laughing off or being a ‘good sport’ about [ almost being ] raped. You cited great examples ( “Baby Face” being the creme de la creme. ) I also think of two Loretta Young movies from her pre-code days which had twisted psychologies. If you get a chance you ought to check out what I wrote about 1932’s “Weekend Marriage” ( https://cinemavensessaysfromthecouch.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/week-end-marriage-1932/ ) AND “She Had to Say Yes.” ( https://cinemavensessaysfromthecouch.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/she-had-to-say-yes-1933/ )

    I swear, Loretta Young had to be the most ‘put-upon’ girl in the 30’s. She probably welcomed the 40’s and her ‘Sainthood’ in the 50’s with open arms.

    Thanks again for participating in Aurora’s and my blogathon. I’m going through reading the lot of you. Quite a few eye openers in the bunch...and your Writing is one of them. Thank you!

    0hhh...and here's my girl ~ THERESA HARRIS ~ singing the 'song of the hour': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMx1kTNZDu4

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    1. Hi Theresa, I am thrilled you enjoyed my post. I understand what you mean about loving classic films and making peace with attitudes that contradict our own beliefs/values. I can’t help but being intrigued by the evolution of societal attitudes – what has changed, what has not, what has been catalyst for change, what appears to have changed but remains lurking beneath the surface (coded signals such as “St. Louis Blues”). I will definitely be checking out your posts. And thank you for the link to Theresa Harris’ song. =)

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