TSFF Review: Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
For me, there are two alternating pleasures in watching silent movies. The first is the opportunity to watch a fledgling medium, one that is still so much with us today, being born. Silent movies showcase the intuitive genius of a lot of early filmmakers who seemed to just know what to do with these moving images. This is the pleasure of watching Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau, Griffith. But even when a silent movie is not so innovative or culturally fresh or technically groundbreaking, it can still offer up a window into a moment in time. Movies are, after all, a reflection of both what we actually are (sometimes, unintentionally so) and a projection of what we wish to be. Our Dancing Daughters (1928) falls firmly within the second category.
Simply put, Our Dancing Daughters is a visual ode to The Jazz Age. Full of flappers, flasks, and slangy intertitles, the interiors are gorgeous art deco museum pieces and all the gals have adorable bobs and fringed dresses. They are young, wealthy, beautiful, and navigating a tangled web of evolving sexual politics. Our Dancing Daughters was pretty risque for 1928. It had the censors fuming, and kudos to director Harry Beaumont and writer Josephine Lovett for even trying to tackle that rat’s nest. Or at least kudos to them for trying to exploit the public hysteria that simmered around the loose morals of 1920′s youth in America. But does the movie hold up to scrutiny when viewed through the old sexual politics lens? Not really.
In her first true star turn, a lovely and young Joan Crawford is “Dangerous” Diana Medford, a wealthy socialite who runs with a jazzy crowd. She’s vivacious, flirty, full of a lust for life, and not at all opposed to doing the Charleston on a table top. Anita Page plays Diana’s friend Ann, a venal little gold digger backed my a money grubbing mom. Diana falls hard for Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), a super wealthy playboy who’s just looking for a nice gal to settle down with. Ann falls hard for Ben’s cash and we have a good old-fashioned cat fight on our hands. There’s a nifty little side plot concerning Diana’s gal pal Bea (Dorothy Sebastian), who will be eternally tormented for her bad girl indiscretions prior to marrying Norman (Nils Ashter).
So here’s what happens… Ben is drawn to Diana but mistakes her vivacity and verve as loose morals. Diana is not the kind of girl you marry. Ann offers him an alternative, with a phony little-miss-innocent act, and the damn fool falls for it. Diana is heart broken and Ann goes about her boozing and catting ways, rewarding herself with diamonds for serving out the sentence of her marriage. Ben is unhappy, realizes he’s made a HUGE mistake, but… *spoiler alert* Ann gets her Karmic comeuppance when she falls down the stairs and breaks her pretty little neck, leaving Ben and Diana to be happy together forever. The moral of the story: hussies always lose and good girls always win, even in these crazy modern times when it’s at first hard to tell which girl is the tart and which one is virtuous.
As progressive and daring as Our Dancing Daughters pretended to be, it ultimately reinforced traditional sexual mores without really celebrating the liberation of women. Even while pulses raced at the saucy script and semi-shocking visuals, the movie also puts a reassuring hand on the viewer’s shoulder and says, “See, they only seem wild, but they’re still nice girls. And if they aren’t, they’ll eventually get theirs.” It’s not at all unlike Sex and the City, where even after 6 seasons of free-wheeling sexual independence, the only satisfying conclusion could be Carrie Bradshaw’s marriage to Mr. Big. Some things never change, I suppose.
With all that said, if you watch movies made in 1928 to explore sexual politics, you’re most likely a fool. It’s a testament to the complexity of Our Dancing Daughters that it provokes the same kind of head-scratching discussion of where women really fit into society that we still engage in today. But that’s not the reason to watch this movie. Watch it because it is a sheer delight to watch. It’s fast, fun, and Joan Crawford is a revelation. I personally love the crazy eyebrows, line-backer shoulder pads version of Joan, but to see her young, fresh, and really shaking a tail feather is a pure joy. And despite the confused social messaging of the movie, Our Dancing Daughters is a pretty little time capsule of 1928. The clothes are perfect and the art deco sets are stunning – the sort of thing that might make girls from small Southern towns move to New York City (you know, I have a friend of a friend, or something). The slangy title cards (“Mother – how vicious!”) are pure fun.
With the benefit of hindsight, Our Dancing Daughters also has a little taste of the bittersweet. The theatrical release date of September 1, 1928 puts this little gem almost exactly one year after the release of The Jazz Singer and almost exactly one year prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929- two events that will be cataclysmic to the industry and the world that made Our Dancing Daughters possible. That makes the movie feel like a fragile thing – like a butterfly wing or a fire-fly in a jar – beautiful, but doomed. As ever, I remain grateful that the camera were rolling.
I saw Our Dancing Daughters at opening night of the 2012 Toronto Silent Film Festival, on a big screen with some jazzy accompaniment provided by Andrei Streliaev. You can purchase the movie on dvd from TCM.
Here’s a taste of Our Dancing Daughters.