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One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
Plodding Pre-Code Melodrama with an Expressionistic Main Set
Another Pre-Code obscurity, Dancers in the Dark is a middling melodrama about a dancehall singer/dancer Gloria (Miriam Hopkins) who finds three men pining for her: wet-behind-the ears saxophonist Floyd (William Collier, Jr), smart-alecked bandleader Duke (Jack Oakie), and murderous crook Louie (George Raft).
Gloria seems to have a drama-ridden past but innocent Floyd has fallen for her anyway. And she likes him just as much. They plan to get married but Floyd's childhood friend Duke doesn't like it. He arranges it so that Floyd has to leave town for a month-long gig with a band in Pittsburgh. Obedient Floyd leaves, planning to marry Gloria when he returns. Duke figures that soon enough Gloria will be back to her old tricks. But then Louie shows up, one of those old flames of Gloria's, a two-bit crook who immediately moves in on his old territory. Only Gloria stops his advances; she's in love with Floyd. Soon even Duke's putting the moves on her; his original idea was to get Gloria to forget about Floyd, but instead he finds himself falling for the tough-talking blonde.
Intersperse the above melodrama with the occasional song and dance number and a pointless robbery scene and you have Dancers in the Dark. A lot of these Pre-Code flicks are regrettably now obscurities but some of them have been forgotten for a reason; at this moment I'm considering Dancers to be one of the latter. For this is an overly-talky, plodding affair in which nothing seems to happen except for people sitting around and talking and talking and talking.
I blame screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. These days he gets credit for writing "Citizen Kane" and admittedly his dialog is good – but at least in Kane he had Orson Welles, a director who understood what separates films from plays. Mankiewicz had a long screen writing career behind him but more than that he was a playwright, and his scripts generally fall under the same rubric; like plays they are composed of precious little "movie content" and instead feature endless scenes of dialog. What with the talent and the surreal set, a director could've done wonders for this movie, turned it into a fast-moving piece of Pre-Code luridness. But David Burton directs the film in as stage-bound a manner as Mankiewicz's script. For example, that aforementioned robbery scene. We don't even see it; Louie and his croney discuss the robbery, we see them sneak up to the place, then a ham-fisted screen-pan and we see them coming out after performing the deed. We only discover what happened via their dialog, of course.
Most notable about the film is its main set. Really the film only takes place on the one set and it's a doozy: this massive dance floor with a bandstage in the center, with surreal architecture swooping and spanning above and about the entirety. Oblong shadows are cast all over the expanse, lending the film a German Expressionistic/Dr. Caligari feel. Paramount went to some lengths to create this set; it's unfortunate the story doesn't live up to it. I can only imagine what a Josef von Sternberg or a Lubitsch or even a Leisen would've done with such promising décor. That being said, I only wish I could see the set better; I'm certain it would look all the more incredible on a better print than my sourced-from-16mm bootleg copy.
Acting-wise everyone performs admirably; Raft has the sneering gangster bit down pat and Jack Oakie's at his gum-chewing, line-dropping best. Miriam Hopkins carries the brunt of it, ranging from drama to comedy. She handles it well but I feel she emotes a bit too much in certain scenes. Lots of overly-dramatic stuff which, again, probably would've gone over well on a theater stage but comes off as hammy in a film. She sings a few numbers, particularly "St. Louis Blues," but she's obviously lip-synching. I have no idea who really sang the number, but whoever it was had one belter of a voice.
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