Monday 25 August 2008

Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

Cinematic purists today often gleefully complain about movies based on comic books, video games or theme park rides, and to large degree they have a point. However while such media may be new, the concept certainly isn't. Back in 1931, they based movies on things like 'the popular song by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers' and the people doing it were people like Lionel Barrymore, who directs here. He wasn't a minor name in 1931, to say the least, and it's interesting comment on the time that he would make a film on such material.

Ten Cents a Dance was a 1930 song about a taxi dancer, a curious profession that flourished in the depression era and still persists to this day on a much smaller scale. Taxi dancers would spend hours a night on the dance floor dancing with paying customers, at ten cents a dance. In the 1931 film version, the taxi dancer is Barbara O'Neill, played by Barbara Stanwyck, still new to the industry at this point. This was only her sixth film but she'd become the lead on her second time out. Here she plays opposite Ricardo Cortez, as she did on her previous outing, Illicit. He was far more established, having being the romantic lead opposite Garbo back in 1926, but it would be Stanwyck that became the real star.

As a taxi dancer, Barbara O'Neill has one huge fan. He's Bradley Carlton, a rich and important executive who does things like throw a $100 bill her way because he likes her company. However Barbara has eyes for someone else: an educated young man called Eddie Miller who rooms in the same apartment building. Soon enough they're married, but Eddie soon finds that having a wife of Barbara's class isn't quite what he's comfortable with. He meets up with friends from college who get him hooked on bridge games and the stock markets, and next thing you know he's $5,000 in the hole. Barbara knows she can always go to Carlton, but unfortunately he's the one that Eddie has embezzled the money from to cover his debts.

Stanwyck is solid here, as she always was. She had a way of suggesting things with her voice that instantly made her believable in the precodes, but she could play tough or tender, arrogant or humble, outrageous or virtuous. Unlike most lead actresses, she could be both the wonderful girl next door that you'd marry or the most blatant gold digger that you'd involve yourself with at your peril. Here she's the honest young lady who props up her idiot husband and she's the sort who any husband would be grateful for.

That husband is played by Monroe Owsley, who begins as a blank space on legs in the Leslie Howard manner, but turns into a complete cad. The sort of characters that Howard played may have been nothings but they were rarely cads, and while I could never raise enough enthusiasm to root for them I couldn't find any other emotion either. Owsley's character here is truly loathsome and despicable and he plays that pretty well, if a little over the top. However he's completely overshadowed here, both as an actor and a character.

Ricardo Cortez does a superb job of playing a sympathetic rich guy. It would have been so easy to become manipulative, the way that Warren William would soon be playing many of his precode parts, but he resists that urge and leads us gently along to a happy 1931 ending. There aren't many sympathetic leads like this in the precodes and its the sympathetic leads that make this story. It's a simple one without any real depth or character development, but its effective in the hands of Stanwyck and Cortez.

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