Sunday 16 March 2008

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

While many of her apparent contemporaries arrived in film at the beginning of the sound era, Joan Crawford had turned up half a decade earlier. This is the fifth and most recent of her silent films that I've seen and they're an interesting and varied bunch, mostly because she was far from the star in any of them. She was Norma Shearer's body double in her first, Lady of the Night, the object of Lon Chaney's desire in The Unknown, love interest to Billy Haines in West Point and the middle of a love triangle in the sea drama Across to Singapore. I have another couple ready to go too, a Harry Langdon comedy called Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and a William A Wellman slapstick called The Boob.

Here though is apparently the first time she really got to strut her stuff and show what she could do. She is certainly believable as a wild flapper though if anything she overdoes it a little and appears almost modern in her lack of inhibitions. It's a powerful performance and she dominates the film completely. She's Diane Medford, who we soon discover is known as 'That wild Diana Medford' or 'Diana the Dangerous' and sure enough, it doesn't take long for her to be dancing flamboyantly on tables at parties and leaping into the arms of many men. All this is apparently with the blessing of her parents who may just get up to a slightly less flamboyant version of the same thing themselves.

At one particularly wild party, Diana meets a football player called Ben Blaine and falls hard for him, either not knowing or not caring that he's wealthy. Unfortunately she has a rival for his affections, another young lady in her circle called Ann, who is her opposite any every way. Her parents treat her very differently, expecting her to behave as a young lady should and follow strict rules of conduct. The thing is that Diana appears to be wild, shocking and uninhibited but is really just full of life, honest with her affections and loyalties; while Bea appears to be virtuous and decent but is really a nasty piece of work, ruthless and amoral gold digger, as trained by her equally nasty mother.

Crawford steals the entire film, the focus of attention even when she's the very furthest thing from the camera lens. It sounds bizarre to say this when talking about a silent film, but she's awesome in the quiet moments as much as the ones that are full of action. She's wild in the passionate scenes and subtle in the quiet ones, thoroughly impressing as she goes. I'm not a huge Joan Crawford fan, partly because she was always better as the star than as the actress, but there are times when her talent did shine through and here is a stunning example. She really looks completely head over heels in love and she really looks heartbroken.

She doesn't leave much room for Johnny Mack Brown as Ben, Anita Page as Ann or Dorothy Sebastian as Bea, but they do get scenes to shine. Bea has done something wrong in her past, presumably sleeping with someone before she got married, and her husband can't quite get over it. Ann has some scenes where she can relish her apparent success in life and some powerful drunken scenes towards the end. There's also Edward J Nugent in a very early role for him that he makes work well halfway through with one facial change and runs with it from there. There's also Nils Asther, Dorothy Cumming, Kathlyn Williams and Huntley Gordon, all of whom do their job admirably.

I wasn't expecting this one to be any good, but it simply shone. Dancing and romantic melodrama are hardly my thing but I was rivetted and I recognised some memorable shots from the intro sequence from TCM's Silent Sundays segment. When I first started watching silents on TCM I only recognised a few of the actors and almost none of the movies in that sequence, but I'm filled in most of them now. This one appears twice and that doesn't seem unjust. Another great silent from 1928.

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