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This is the story of an egotistical nightclub dance performer named Raoul, his determination to succeed at all costs, and the only woman in his life that truly matters to him, a dancing partner named Helen. (The highlight of the film is a dance performed atop a circular stage to a truncated version of Ravel's "Bolero.") Written by
Eugene Kim <email@example.com>
This is a surprisingly good '30s dance film from Paramount. It is neither a frothy comedy nor a dated revue like so many musicals of the day. There's a bit of a story, some nifty dialogue and a whole lot of style.
The story follows Raoul (perfectly cast George Raft) as he rises from coal mine laborer to be a top dancer in pre-Great War Europe. Unrelenting and egocentric, he goes through a line of dance partners from whom he flees romantic entanglements until war changes everything. As unlikely as the plot sounds on paper, director Wesley Ruggles easily guides the action from Raoul's unfortunate experience in an amateur theater to a beer garden to a Paris nightclub to a London club to his own hot spot. Along the way there is the desperately possessive Frances Drake, erotic fan dancer Sally Rand, and best of all Carole Lombard as Helen, the woman Raoul really falls for.
Those who are watching the film just to see Lombard have to wait a while before she first shows up. In fact, it is even longer before we first hear the music of "Bolero" itself. But it's all worth the wait.
The dances are a great representation of Raft's vaudeville and nightclub act before he hit Hollywood. The portrayal of the first Paris club, in fact, recalls a very young Raft's real employment as a tea-room gigolo - dancing with dowagers for tips with the possibility of having to fulfill other obligations afterward. Sex has a constant presence here, as is usually the case with Raft's adult fare. The hint of it spices the dialogue and drives the action. Rand's famous fan dance is a sensual highlight, and Lombard easily strips down to her skivvies as well.
A major part of the consistent mood is Leo Tover's cinematography. He dramatically captured the dances as well as emphasizing the performances of the actors with light and shadow. Even in the distance shots of the Bolero number when dance doubles do the heavy lifting, there is never a break in the moment. Tover and Ruggles set up the film to play to Raft's strengths and let Lombard be Lombard.
As with so many movies, the grotesquely gruesome World War I is hacked down to about two minutes, but it does cause a huge turn in the plot. And believably so, as the long-term effects of poison gas really did ruin the lives of those who survived the war itself.
It is odd to see Raft and William Frawley playing brothers (they are almost different species), and it is not explained until very late in the film that they are only half-brothers. Also coming late is the sudden information that Raoul's mother was Belgian, making it convenient for him to join the Belgian army as a publicity stunt.
But the movie isn't about plot - it's about mood and style. This is the only "A" musical Raft was fortunate enough to get. The studios threw him into other musicals occasionally, but they were all cheaper, slap-dash affairs (like the vastly inferior "Rumba" with lover Carole again) trying to make the same buck without half the production value and certainly without quality direction.
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