by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All Rights reserved
The film Charles and I watched last night was The Dance of Life, which had begun on stage in New York in 1927 as a stage musical called Burlesque that featured Hal Skelly as burlesque comedian Skid Johnson and Ruby Stephens as Bonny Lee King, a chorus girl who tours with him, marries him and attempts to steer him towards big-time success (which she doesn’t) and keep him from blowing it all on the bottle (which he doesn’t). By the end of the stage run Stephens had acquired a new name, Barbara Stanwyck, and when Paramount bought the movie rights to Burlesque they tested both the stage leads. They signed Hal Skelly to repeat his role in the movie but rejected Stanwyck in favor of Nancy Carroll because Carroll, who had just done the major film The Shopworn Angel (a part-talkie co-starring Gary Cooper), had already done movies and therefore had a “name” with movie audiences while Stanwyck didn’t. (Stanwyck would go on to make her film debut at Pathé in 1929 with a melodrama called The Locked Door and then would achieve overnight stardom with Frank Capra in Ladies of Leisure at Columbia — and she’d be a major draw for four decades, including on TV in The Big Valley after her film career petered out, while Carroll would make a few more films — including the interesting musical/thriller Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round in 1934 with Gene Raymond and Jack Benny — before retiring in 1938 and making a TV comeback a decade later.)
The play was by Arthur Hopkins (a leading theatrical producer as well as a writer) and George Manley Watters, and the film was scripted by Benjamin Glazer with Julian Johnson credited with titles (probably for an alternate silent version of the film for theatres that still hadn’t wired for sound). It’s also yet another one of those films that originally contained a sequence in two-strip Technicolor (representing Skid Johnson’s spectacular debut in the Ziegfeld Follies) but for which only black-and-white prints exist (though at least the film survives complete in some form; we don’t have the even more frustrating situation of Paramount on Parade, Chasing Rainbows and the 1930 Good News of having the films incomplete because neither color nor black-and-white versions of the original color sequences exist). What’s fascinating about The Dance of Life is how dark it is — though it’s about the stage rather than the movies, it’s really the prototype of A Star Is Born, and it gives the lie to the oft-repeated myth of film history that alcoholism was never seriously depicted on screen until The Lost Weekend. (A partial list of films that took alcoholism seriously well before that would include this one, Applause and Lord Byron of Broadway, all from 1929; What Price Hollywood? from 1932; Dinner at Eight from 1933; the original A Star Is Born from 1937; Johnny Eager from 1940; and Ziegfeld Girl — Lana Turner’s character arc — from 1941.)
As the film opens Bonny King (Nancy Carroll) shows up to audition for a touring vaudeville show just as the train taking it to its next stop is about to leave; the producer allows her to go through the motions of an audition but couldn’t be less interested in her; she doesn’t get the job and Skid Johnson (Hal Skelly), the show’s star comic, quits in disgust over the shabby way she’s been treated. They’re sitting in the train station, idly leafing through a copy of Billboard magazine hoping there’ll be a want ad in it they can respond to, and sure enough there is: from a burlesque show in Wisconsin that needs both a comedian and a (female) specialty dancer. Skid and Bonny answer the ad and get hired, though within a few weeks business drops off and the producer wants to keep Skid but fire Bonny; Skid offers to give up part of his own salary to pay Bonny’s, and eventually the two get married despite Bonny’s anxiety over Skid’s penchant for drinking and partying. Her anxiety level shoots up when Skid leaves her alone in their hotel room on their wedding night to drink and carouse with his friends from the show — including fellow performer Sylvia Marco (Dorothy Revier), who for some reason is after Skid herself — and life continues like that for them on the burlesque circuit until one day a Ziegfeld talent scout sees the show and decides Skid would be perfect for the comic spot in the latest Follies — only he doesn’t want Bonny, just Skid. What’s worse, he hires Sylvia as well, and though Skid is originally reluctant to take his big break, Bonny and his producer talk him into it.
He’s a stunning success at the Follies but he’s also an uncontrollable drunk off-stage, and matters come to a head when Bonny meets wealthy Wyoming cattle baron Harvey Howell (Ralph Theodore) and he wants to marry her, and is willing to wait while she goes through the divorce process (she files in Chicago, probably to avoid the law in New York state that then said the only grounds for divorce were adultery or desertion). She goes to New York in a last-ditch attempt to win back Skid and to get him to sober up and live responsibly — and he shows up with a retinue of leeches after she’s already spotted him in a speakeasy kissing Sylvia. The shock of seeing his wife and realizing she’s leaving him for someone else propels him into the worst binge he’s had all movie; he misses a show at the Follies, gets fired and plummets so fast not even the burlesque shows will take a chance on him anymore. The only person who will take a chance on hiring him is his old boss from Wisconsin, and even then he goes on a bender two days before opening and Bonny, giving Skid one more try before she goes through with the divorce, shows up, sobers him up enough so that he can sort-of perform, and finally does one of their old dance routines on stage with him: dancing as rehab. This is supposed to signal a reunion and a happy ending, but with what we know about alcoholics and what they do to their relationship partners today, it doesn’t read like one now: it seems like poor Bonny is giving up that nice young rich guy from out West in order to sentence herself to a life of co-dependency.
The Dance of Life (a title Paramount bought from, of all places, a non-fiction sex book because they thought Burlesque seemed too sordid for film marquees — though the main title stresses its origins in the play) suffers from weak casting in the leads — they should have had Stanwyck repeat her stage role (scene after scene in which Nancy Carroll is clearly struggling to make her points Stanwyck could have nailed with no trouble at all) and the male lead should have been another film newcomer, James Cagney (he was a superb dancer, a good enough singer and, most importantly, a finely honed actor who could have made the character’s uneasy perch between lovability and maddening irresponsibility believable in ways that totally eluded the more superficial Hal Skelly) — and also from the crudities of early sound filmmaking. They got two directors, both talented ones, John Cromwell (father of James Cromwell, modern-day actor of Babe, The Queen and W.) and A. Edward Sutherland, but the helmsman they really needed was Rouben Mamoulian, who at the time was doing a similar story for Paramount, Applause (though with Helen Morgan instead of a man as the irresponsibly alcoholic burlesque star), with a command of early sound filmmaking far ahead of what we see in most of The Dance of Life.
There are actually some quite inventive and almost electrifying shots in this film — most of them shot silent and with sound dubbed in later — as well as some real felicities in the scripting: when there’s a mass layoff at the burlesque theatre one of the women who got the notice shrugs her shoulders and says, “Well, I guess I’ll have to go back to my husband,” and later on in New York there’s a symbolic shot as Bonny sees an animated neon sign advertising the Follies by showing Skid Johnson taking a pratfall, which comes to represent the total mess he’s made out of both their lives. The Dance of Life was remade twice — as Swing High, Swing Low (1937) and When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948) — and imdb.com also lists three TV versions of the original play (in 1949, 1951 and 1952) — probably because it’s a sturdy story that explores the dark sides of show business and human behavior while still offering plenty of opportunities for song and dance. The Dance of Life could have been better with stronger leads, more creative direction and retention of the original title Burlesque (whose double meaning — a form of entertainment and a satire on life — actually works for the story), but even as it stands it’s a formidable film and one early talkie that still holds up well today.