Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Film Review: Our Dancing Daughters

"Our Dancing Daughters" *** (out of ****)

Recently I have been reviewing more modern films, mostly because of the European Union Film Festival going on in Chicago, but, I didn't want readers to think I had abandon classic Hollywood films, not on your life! I'm still out there fighting the good fight, trying to introduce people to the wonders of the classics. So, I thought I'd take a quick break from the modern movies and write about a good Hollywood film.

"Our Dancing Daughters" (1928) is a silent film starring a very young Joan Crawford, and some have suggested this was the film that made audiences take note of her. I personally haven't seen many of her silent films. I have only seen two; the Harry Langdon comedy, "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" (1926) and the Lon Chaney horror film "The Unknown" (1927). I have written about Crawford on this blog before though. I reviewed one of the pre-code gems she was in, the cops & robbers film "Paid" (1930). Where she plays a recently release convict who out smarts the police.

Here though Crawford plays the role we most often associate her with. She plays the woman who defies convention. She goes against society's norm. She is a free spirit who is pretty street smart. Some of my favorite films with her are "Dancing Lady" (1933), "Laughing Sinners" (1931) and "Love on the Run" (1936). In her later years, I can only guess because of her age, she moved away from these type of characters but, was still able to turn in some powerful performances. Perhaps some of the best of her career. "Humoresque" (1946) and "Mildred Pierce" (1945) have to appear near the top of the list for her best roles.

In "Our Dancing Daughters" she plays Diana Medford, a young girl from a privileged family. She has a reputation as a "wild" girl, the life of the party. A sort of flapper. All the men love to be around her because of what appears to be her loose morals. The film also follows her best friend, Bea (Dorothy Sebastian) who is deeply in love with Norman (Nils Asther), a man who repeatedly ask Bea to marry him. And finally we have Diana's rival, Ann (Anita Page). Ann is something of a gold digger, who tries to come off as naive, sweet and innocent, Page normally played those kind of girls. All at once it seems she doesn't realize what kind of dangerously attractive figure she has but at the same time takes full advantage of it. Ann and Diana will soon butt heads when they each go after the same man, Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), a wealthy, handsome young man, who seems interested in both.

As the film goes on we learn secrets about each of these girls. Bea we find out has engaged in fornication. As a result she doesn't feel worthy of Norman. But, even after she reveals her big secret to him, he still wants to marry her. But can he completely forget her past? Ann thinks the only way to get a man is to lie and trick him into marriage. And we find out Diana is not as wild as she seems. She is still pure.

This all makes "Our Dancing Daughters" a cautionary tale for young women commenting on how to behave. Remember the film was made in 1928, the jazz age, the time of the flapper. But this film argues women should remain respectful and pure. Norman can never completely forgive Bea. Her past will always be a problem. If only she had remained pure. Ann cannot keep a man because eventually her lies will catch up with her. It is better to be a virtuous woman. Nothing in your past can ever come back to hurt you. It is these type of women men want to marry and start a family with.

For us old timers the message isn't anything new. It is a reflection of our own morals and the way we were brought up. A younger generation will look upon this as out of date. A film which reflects old fashion conservative values. Some girls may even find the film sexist. For instance, the idea of Norman "forgiving" Bea. Does any man have the right to be in a position to "forgive" a woman? Do women today seek a man's approval? But, I think in some ways the morals presented here are still with us today. Most men don't want to go out with a woman who has slept with a lot of men. Especially if that number is higher than the amount of women they have slept with. A man looks at a "wild girl" only as an easy conquest, not a future wife. The difference though would be today's movies might not play the material so melo-dramatic. Yes, "Our Dancing Daughters" is kind of sappy but this was 1928. Try to keep that in mind.

The film was directed by Harry Beaumont and written by Josephine Lovett. Beaumont directed the "Best Picture" Oscar winner "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929). He also directed Joan Crawford in a number of pictures including "Laughing Sinners" and "Dance, Fools, Dance" (1931). Lovett, who was nominated for an Oscar for her script here, wrote the Greta Garbo picture, "The Single Standard" (1929), which I have also reviewed. That movie dealt with the double standard between the sexes. How strange that "Single Standard" would try and promote a more progressive theme, equality between the sexes, while "Our Dancing Daughters" seems to endorse the more traditional values.

I must say the acting in the film is pretty good across the board, not just Crawford. Johnny Mack Brown was also in "The Single Stanard" as well as another Greta Garbo movie, "A Woman of Affairs" (1928). He also impressed me a lot in "Coquette" (1929) with Mary Pickford. That was the first film I saw him in. Nils Asther was a Swedish actor who was also in "The Single Stanard". His character is believable and reacts to situations in a way most should be able to relate to. Anita Page looks as beautiful and sexy as ever. The character kind of fades out as the film progresses sadly, but, it is a nice performance. She, like Crawford, had a good screen presence. She was in Beaumont's "The Broadway Melody" where she almost played a similar character. She was even in a couple of Buster Keaton comedies among them, Keaton's first sound comedy "Free & Easy" (1930). And finally Dorothy Sebastian remained a bit of a mystery to me. I couldn't quite figure out if her character had given up her old ways. Or does she just live in a constant fear of her jealous husband? She too appeared in a Buster Keaton movie, his last silent film "Spite Marriage" (1929) which actually has some funny bits.

"Our Dancing Daughters" was nominated for two Oscars; cinematography and writing. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece but I did enjoy watching it because of the good acting and the interesting theme. It is a movie which I felt really showcases the time period quite well, even while trying to challenge the times. It is worth seeing and I hope people check it out and won't let the fact that it is silent keep them away.
I should also mention if you enjoy this movie you have to check out the most famous story of a flapper looking to marry a playboy, Clara Bow in "It" (1927).