Thursday, September 14, 2006

after the fall

I recently had reason to watch the silent film Our Dancing Daughters from 1928. I watched it after reading lots of synopses and reviews and things, so I knew [spoiler! as they say] the villainess plummeted down a flight of steps to her death. Allowing the heroine to conveniently reunite with her beloved, who had been snared by the aforementioned villainess. I also knew the scenario had been nominated for an early Academy Award for writing this story and that even the reviews of the day thought the plot a bit contrived. You might remember, I love watching things after much description and anticipation.

So I wondered, how did someone get nominated for a writing award with a plot like that?

But after I saw the film it made perfect sense. It was a truly brilliant plummet down a flight of stairs and the writing and performance really "put it over" as the old reviews say.

For one thing, there's three "dancing daughters" as it were, the money hungry Ann (Anita Page), who poses as an old fashioned innocent to catch her man, the "frank" and "modern" and somewhat intimidating Diana, and Bea, the girl with a past whose fiancee wants to believe he can accept her as she is (but he can't). So it's not just a bad girl and good girl; those characters are more complicated than that and there's a third role too. And the film actually emphasizes these three young women's' relationships with their mothers and draws some pretty visual contrasts. And every now and then it takes some sort of visual risks with the cinematography and editing (which were described in the scenario, I was able to check) to make its point.

Finally, the role of Diana, who drinks and smokes and dances and flirts but also falls deeply, passionately and honestly in love (kind of an Ilse character, if you follow my intense devotion to the lesser works of LM Montgomery), is played by none other than young Joan Crawford. When that sneaky priss Ann steals her boy, she gets to mouth the line, hopelessly, in bitter realization, "You can't be honest - frank - Men want flattery - trickery - lies - lies - lies" and she wonders, "What is wrong with me?" Oh, it's pretty touching.

And this is where it gets complicated. Everything about Joan Crawford as Diana is tough and modern and "honest" and "frank" and beautiful. The line of her jaw, the shape of eyes, the movements of her shoulders. Am I just retrospectating (not my term, but stay with me), given that I'm more familiar with Crawford in something like Mildred Pierce? I don't think so. I think she uses her body to make this physical contrast; Diana as a "modern" with Ann (Anita Page) as a dated gold-digger. The costumes (Diana in a man's buttondown, Ann in a fussy hat and scarf combo) definitely back me up on this one. But what's so great IS the retrospectatorship - as a spectator I know that Joan/Diana wins in the end. That her version of tough self-reliant femininity triumphed and became the model for Hollywood glam. (Or maybe just for the next 50 years, I think she might be losing now. Are baby-faced helpless blondes in again?)

All this, plus Bea and Diana get to roll around on the floor together and the sets are, as reported, amazing deco monstrosities and Ann's final (slurred and drunken) speech includes "Women - women - working! Hey - why are you working? Haven't you any pretty daughters?" And you are never told who it was the Bea was fooling around with.

As for that convenient fall down the stairs, does anyone fault Nella Larsen's writerly abilities just because she pushes her villainess out a window in a timely manner?

If anyone ever needed more 1920s film recommendations, I'd say this one is both representative and outstanding for flapper pictures. Though I'm glad Mantooth enjoyed teaching Anita Loos and I totally agree, she's like a real modernist. What with her use of dialect as kind of primitivism, but in the city, and what have you.

Would you be reading The New Yorker on a day like today?

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Anonymous andyhorbal said...

This sounds fantastic! And it's available at Hillman!

9:20 AM  
Blogger zp said...

I am totally fascinated by things only available on VHS, things that fall under the Criterion, etc DVD release radar. Like they are (temporarily, most likely) some sort of lost or misplaced bric a brac. And you have to find them funny places, like Hillman, or the CLP or Heads Together has a fine collection too. I also like the way DVD release kind of screws with auteurism since all the director "collections" that come out are really dictated more by rights and studios and distribution than by the director's canonized works.

Actually, my fourth career (the one I'd pursue if I were wealthy, entrepenurial and well connected, ha!) is owner of a small company that releases odd things you might be able to pick up for cheap on DVD. I think it'd be one of those things (kind of like the desktop video eds as critics you mentioned) where taste and a kind of productive creativity are paired . . .

10:58 AM  
Anonymous andyhorbal said...

The Criterion Collection as film critic...

3:38 PM  
Blogger zp said...

or maybe more as a textbook. schooling in taste. creating or reifying a canon in response to moribund years of film criticism and the disciplining of film studies.

you're really interested in film criticism, huh? i can't quite see my feelings about criterion turning into a blog a thon post . . .

5:40 PM  
Anonymous andyhorbal said...

What gave me away? :-)

10:13 AM  

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