The Dance of Life: Directed by John Cromwell, A. Edward Sutherland. With Hal Skelly, Nancy Carroll, Dorothy Revier, Ralph Theodore. A vaudeville comic and a pretty young dancer aren’t having much luck in their separate careers, so they decide to combine their acts and in order to save money on the road, they get married.
I bought this at the same time that I bought “Lucky Boy” from the same questionable retailer, though I still don’t feel too bad about that since it’s a 100 year old movie. It has some audio sync issues, some wobbly frames, and some pretty bad hairs stuck in the gate (not biological hairs I assume), but for the most part this is an ok transfer.
It opens on a traveling performance group on a train to their next performance, where one of the just introduced characters named “Skid” is absolutely ripping into his boss and how much of a bum he is, just to find out that the boss was right behind him the entire time. This is a joke that’s over 100 years old! The guy gets thrown off the train and meets the gorgeous Bonny as played by Nancy Carroll, though it’s not love that’s on their minds, it’s pure survival, as they’re both starving, have no place to stay, and no homes to go back to. There’s some discussion about teaming up and the main guy really drives home that he has no confidence or ambition past where he’s been able to get now and has to be nearly forced by the lady to strike out on his own.
They end up finding a home with another circuit performance group, then get a headline gig at a smalltime performance hall. They have a pretty good thing going for them with some amazingly thick chorus girls, but it turns out that Skid has a creeping problem with alcohol, in that he’s not necessarily an alcoholic, and he’s a great guy, but just like any other self respecting alcohol consumer, it sneaks up on him and ends up being the only thing he cares about doing. One of the other performers warns Bonny of this singing a song that I googled and it’s called “The God Damned Dutch (autoplay audio)”. It was a catchy song, but I’m assuming there’s a blend of racism in there against the Dutch that I just don’t understand. Bonny’s the only thing that keeps him on the straight and narrow, and there’s a couple instances of his failing to keep the bottle out of his hand, but between the two of them they do what needs to be done to keep their jobs. They eventually fall in sorta love and decide to get married, saving them a buck or two in the process.
Fortunately for their pocket book, but sadly for his soul, Ski is scouted by a big New York City performance hall and is offered the gig of a lifetime. The only way they can make it work financially is if he goes off to NYC to work and she stays behind to work the old show, but without Bonny there to stop him, most of the extra money he would be sending back home ended up being used for hard liquors. This movie was released in 1928, so it was solidly in the middle of Prohibition in the US, so I can see how there’s a moral story being told here. The setting also lends itself to some interesting things, like when Bonny eventually comes looking for him, she finds him at a bar, but it’s behind two steel gates and the bar keep won’t let her in without a pass. She sees her man being smooched on by another lady, so she gives up on the marriage and petitions for a divorce. Since she’s in NYC she looks up and old friend, which wouldn’t you know it, Skid was heading there after the bar to drink and sing some more. While there, one of the hosts mentions he has some “pre-war scotch” which is obviously from before “The Great War” aka, WW1, and it was pre-war because it was grandfathered in with the prohibition laws.
To remind you, this is a film from 1928. All that above? That gets us to about half way through the movie! It’s two hours long! The second half of the film is a series of performances from Skid, starting with some absolutely fantastic performances, one that includes precursor to the Michael Jackson Lean, which now that I’ve seen this 100 year old movie, I know that plenty of people knew how MJ did that 60 years later, he just copied what was done here in this film and moved forward instead of left to right. Genius!
From there though, Skids performances start to decline, he’s got Bonny on the mind and no one there to stop him from drinking. During a performance of “The Matador” he’s too drunk to even stand up straight, so it’s Bonny to the rescue. She had been warned that he was off track, and she showed up and set him straight, sobering him up enough to be able to walk, then slowly get more sober as the performance goes on. We don’t get to see him during this time, which I think is a great way to do it, instead we’re shown the stage hands as they move set dressings, curtains, lights, and all that jazz, making bets on if he’s going to make it through the next performance or not. The final dance routine goes up and we finally get to see Skid somewhat sober and Bonny giving it her best, and they’re talking while dancing, and make a decision that she’s going to move to NYC and cancel the divorce petition. I’d say that at this point the credits roll, but like most movies at the time, only the people with voice parts get credited, and those credits were at the beginning of the film, so the film just wraps up super quick, then it’s over.
It’s an absolutely whirlwind of a film that I’m shocked I enjoyed as much as I did.