When wealthy playboy Tod Newtwon (Franchot Tone) goes to take in a show at a two-bit burlesque hall, he happens to be there the same night the police raid the joint. Some of the dancers, including Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) are arrested for indecency and taken to night court for sentencing. Since Janie can’t pay the fine, her only option is to spend time in jail. Tod is attracted to Janie and bails her out. Once he gets to know her and sees the passion she has for dancing, he decides to help her land a gig on Broadway, despite her insistence that she do it on her own.
Tod makes an arrangement with producer Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) to finance his new show if he gives Janie a chance. Patch is hesitant to accept her, but warms up to her when he sees her genuine talent and dedicated work ethic. Janie starts seeing Tod, but Patch and Janie also start falling in love with each other. Janie works her way up from chorus girl to being the star of the show, but when Tod begins to think that Janie wouldn’t have time for him if she becomes a big star, he pulls his funding for the show. But when Janie finds out what he’s done, she realizes where her heart really lies.
Dancing Lady is my favorite Joan Crawford pre-code. It’s so very emblematic of the early 1930s era of her career. Joan is great in it and she has the chance to work with two of her best co-stars: Clark Gable and Franchot Tone. An MGM movie with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone hardly sounds unusual, but Dancing Lady is noteworthy for the fact that it also features The Three Stooges and the film debut of Fred Astaire. Where else can you see Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, The Three Stooges, and Fred Astaire together in the same movie? The story isn’t anything remarkable, the musical numbers aren’t particularly memorable, but the cast is solid enough to make it worth watching. It’s the kind of movie that knows it’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake and it doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to quite well. It’s great fun.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moments
At night court, the Judge calls Janie’s dancer friend to the stand:
Judge: “What’s your name?”
Rosette: “Rosette Henrietta LaRue! Occupation: hip swinging!”
When Janie goes to thank Patch for putting her in the show, he smacks her on the rear end and she enthusiastically replies, “Thank you!”
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
It doesn’t get much more definitively pre-code than having a major plot point hinge around a dancer being arrested for indecency. Janie is a classic example of a likable, sympathetic character who just happens to have an occupation that censors didn’t want audiences finding sympathetic. She may have worked at a burlesque joint, but most importantly, she’s a hard worker who was just trying to do the best she could and that’s something depression-era movie audiences could definitely appreciate.