Our Dancing Daughters (1928) by matthew c. hoffman
“Young things with a talent for living”: Dorothy Sebastian, Joan Crawford, and Anita Page in Our Dancing Daughters.
Today our image of Joan Crawford is colored by the book and movie Mommie Dearest in which Crawford (played by Faye Dunaway) torments her daughter Christina with the “No wire hangers!” line. There were other stories of abuse that came out, but of course Joan was no longer alive to defend herself. Or the public remembers her for 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? opposite Bette Davis– or some of the horror thrillers she appeared in towards the end of her career. In later years, she became an onscreen caricature of herself, heavily made up and in padded shoulders. What the public has collectively forgotten is the initial impact Joan Crawford made on the silver screen.
With her Adrian gowns and her own fashion sense, she was one of the most glamorous of all stars in the 1930s. She was only 5 foot 4, but she was a giant in Hollywood. Her greatest role was that of a star, which she played onscreen and off. She once said, “I played the star Joan Crawford, not the woman Joan Crawford, to the hilt. Partly because of the image thing. Partly because I felt that I photographed better than I actually looked, so I tried desperately to make sure my makeup and wardrobe lived up to the image on the screen.”
Just last week a library patron was telling me she had met Crawford many years ago at a public appearance. This was when Joan was still working for the Pepsi-Cola Corporation. You felt like you were in the presence of a movie star. She still had that aura, she still dressed like a star, and she was still responsive towards her fans. Joan Crawford was the ultimate movie star, and Our Dancing Daughters contains the breakthrough performance that led her on that path to fame.
Joan Crawford’s life-story was like a Joan Crawford movie—the plot not unlike some of her films of the 1930s: the working class girl who grows up on the wrong side of the tracks only to make it big. Her life’s script opened on a scene in Texas in 1905 where she was born Lucille LeSueur.
Tomorrow, March 23rd, would’ve been her 107th birthday. Her father had abandoned the family before she was born. Her mother remarried and they lived in Oklahoma where her stepfather operated a movie theatre. The family moved again, this time to Missouri. Lucille was never well-educated, but she had ambition to succeed, and she dreamed of being a dancer.
While performing as a chorus dancer, Lucille was discovered by a Broadway producer. Around this time she did a screen test which landed her a contract at MGM in 1925. But the studio didn’t like her name LeSueur, which to them sounded like “Sewer.” A contest was started where readers of the fan magazine Movie Weekly could pick her new name. The newly-christened “Joan Crawford” appeared in bit roles and then as a featured player. She claimed she learned everything about acting from Lon Chaney, Sr., whom she worked with in The Unknown in 1927.
Crawford worked within the studio system, but ultimately, it wasn’t MGM that propelled her. It was her own drive and determination to make it to the top, to surpass stars like Norma Shearer. Joan maintained a rigorous regimen of self-improvement because she wanted to move up on the social ladder as well as in the credits. To her, the whole world was a soundstage, and upon this stage she became what her public expected her to be. But Our Dancing Daughters tapped into the person she felt she was inside. Much of her personality and vitality was in the character Diana. We even see her dancing on tables. When she wasn’t acting, Joan Crawford was dancing the Charleston all over Hollywood. Her nightlife activity paid off with 84 trophies won in various dancing competitions.
Our Dancing Daughters is the quintessential Jazz Age movie. As Diana, Crawford became a symbol of the new woman. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”
Another daughter in this film, the gold-digging party girl Ann, is played by Anita Page, who spends most of the film scowling like a brat. And she has one of the longest drunk scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Anita Page was born in New York in 1910. Prior to her death in 2008 at the age of 98, Anita took pride in being known as the last surviving silent film star. Though Anglo-Saxon in appearance, Anita’s heritage was actually Salvadoran and Spanish. Her career began on the New York stage in the mid-1920s, but by 1927 she was making movies in Hollywood. She worked opposite some of the biggest stars at MGM including Buster Keaton, but in the mid-1930s she walked away from Hollywood. She made an ill-fated comeback in the 2000s, but it wasn’t as dignified as Gloria Stuart’s comeback, for example, in the movie Titanic. Sadly, Anita appeared in some direct-to-dvd horror movies that were about as far removed from MGM as you can get.
Like Joan Crawford in her youth, Dorothy Sebastian, who plays Beatrice in this film, wanted to be a dancer and an actress. She was born in Alabama, and according to one online source, she had a very heavy Southern accent. She eventually ran away to New York where she hounded theatrical agents for employment. But it was a Hollywood screen test in the mid-‘20s that led her to success at MGM. Dorothy was romantically involved with Buster Keaton, whom she co-starred with in 1929’s Spite Marriage, but eventually she married future Hop-along Cassidy star, William Boyd. This was her second of three marriages. For more about Dorothy Sebastian, there’s a very well-organized website on her at: www.dorothysebastian.com.
The male lead in the film is played by Johnny Mack Brown, a former University of Alabama football star who hit it big in Hollywood and then had a resurgence later as a B-Western hero. One of my favorite films that he appeared in was 1931’s The Last Flight, which follows a group of recently discharged World War I pilots as they go carousing around Paris, “getting tight.” That’s the whole plot, but it’s a poignant reflection of The Lost Generation, and it rivals the best of Hemingway. Johnny Mack Brown will turn up later in Screen Deco with Female, which he made at Warner Brothers.
Our Dancing Daughters was directed by Harry Beaumont who had his best years in the silent era. His career as a director went as far back as 1914, and it would last until the late 1940s when he was directing Ann Sothern in the Maisie film series. But the high point in his career was directing MGM’s first talking musical, The Broadway Melody, in 1929. Beaumont was nominated for Best Director, and though he lost, the film did win the Best Picture honors. Broadway Melody—not to be confused with Universal’s Broadway of the same year—starred Anita Page.
At the time, Our Dancing Daughters tried to be modern in all aspects, certainly on a social level with it’s depiction of the “pleasure-mad generation.” Even the costumes reflect this. In press material for the film, Joan Crawford is quoted as saying,
“The spirit of modernity finds expression in the clothes we wear. They are startling. They do not blend; they contrast. They do not conceal; they expose. They do not rustle; they swing. They do not curve; they angle. Perhaps this new feeling in dress finds its first and most definite expression in the motion picture world. We are the first to exploit a style… my own wardrobe, and the wardrobe worn by Dorothy Sebastian and Anita Page, breathe the very essence of restless activity.”
Technically, Our Dancing Daughters was hardly modern because its silence came in the wake of the talkie revolution. And yet, people still wanted to see silent movies. The film is not totally silent because it has a synchronized soundtrack incorporating music and sound effects and even some dialogue in the background. One can still hear the roar of the Roaring Twenties.
The plot may be outdated with its female-centric melodrama, and the constant musical repetition of the melody “I Loved You Then As I Love You Now” beats the viewer over the head. Despite this, there are still universal truths here that make it relevant and less like a creaky antique. When Diana tells her parents in frustration that “Men want flattery—trickery—lies!” it strikes a chord that can be heard generations later when men are still drawn to “lying imitations.” The film is progressive in the sense that one of the daughters, Beatrice, has a past, but she’s depicted sympathetically. And yet, the film is also conservative because all the girls seem to believe in marriage. They just have different approaches on how to get a husband. With Ann, pretending to be decent is the surest way to hook a rich one.
Though its conflicting social values can be debated, what is apparent from the outset is Joan Crawford’s vibrancy. She brings a lot of energy to this film—and she has more substance as an actress than other flappers of ‘20s cinema like Clara Bow. You see that enthusiasm with the waist-high shot of her dancing while slipping on her underwear. Young people at the time were drawn to this character because she wasn’t anything like Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish, who were iconic actresses of the 1920s who represented a more traditional, almost Victorian image of women. Crawford’s Diana, by contrast, was having fun, but she remained true to herself. In surveys taken by the Payne Fund from 1929 to 1932, which recorded the impact of motion pictures on teenagers and young people, Our Dancing Daughters was mentioned the most. Girls admired Diana’s “sense of fair play.”
The most memorable aspect for me is the film’s aesthetics; namely, the set design by supervising art director Cedric Gibbons and his colleague, Richard Day. This is why I’m showing the film–not because it’s an important social document of 1920s culture, but because Our Dancing Daughters is an architectural landmark in Art Deco. Cedric Gibbons had attended the Paris Exposition in 1925 and had new ideas for modern décor. The home where Diana resides is an amazing Art Deco set with high-gloss floors, dancing figurines and other Deco statuary, and sleek furniture. MGM films were always about the rich—characters that go horseback riding or frequent yacht clubs. It was a world of cocktails and dance parties. The furnishings, therefore, reflect that high-toned lifestyle. The film was so influential it inspired set designs in other films as well as home decorating. The public simply wanted to live like these modern stars.
Our Dancing Daughters was a sensation and spawned two follow-ups with similar themes and decor: Our Modern Maidens in 1929 and Our Blushing Brides in 1930. The latter is not commercially available, but I do have clips from it in the Screen Deco blog which a friend had uploaded to youtube. A viewer can see the Art Deco influence in those brief scenes as well. Ideally, it’s not the recommended way of seeing a film, but for the purposes of this program I recommend checking it out.