Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Barbara Stanwyck in "Ten Cents a Dance"


TCM had another one of their Stanywck days today, and tivo nabbed me TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931). Stanwyck is on a great slow burn here, starting out as a naive--though world-weary-- dance hall girl and ending as a wizened (but still world-weary) dance hall girl. And the dialogue sizzles with half/double entendres, as when a new dancer is explaining what the stern matron of the dance hall, Miss Blanchard, told her about dancing with the guys: "She said be very careful, but not so careful. She tole me to be inna... inamit..intimate but lady-like. Now what do you make out of that? To feel my way along until I got the hang of things..."

Hmm, re-reading it now, it's not so tawdry. But it's how she says it, and where she says it... in a crowded pre-code dance hall. "Feeling your way until you get the hang of things" is not only a double entendre, it's site-specific! We all snug at home don't have to worry about it, but there was a time when people lived with no privacy, a time when several generations lived under the same roof and no bed however small wasn't guarded by at least some embittered virgin equivalent of an East German Stasi. You do the math, especially when you hear Babs explain the job of glowering matron Mrs. Blanchard as "keeping it hot enough to avoid bankruptcy and cold enough to avoid raids."

The whole issue of censorship codes and codes of conduct for ladies and gentlemen itself was, these films slyly reveal, once not fixed in the stars. Nowadays we're so trained by moralist abuse that we never even think, for example, to whip off our clothes and have sex in public, or grind up against a sailor during one a' dem slow ballads. Apparently it was not always so, once sex surrounded us from all sides like a pack of jackals. The mangy Bigfoot of "the code" hangs in the middle of Hollywood history, obscuring both sides of what should be an uninterrupted stream of sexual how-to's and do's and doesn'ts.

Take the loser Babs weds, for example, played by the odious Monroe Owsley. Babs hasn't been schooled in how to spot a social climbing drifter, so she passes over the amiable, slightly soused rich business guy bachelor who "sees something very special in her," and marries a talentless Mr. Ripley who proceeds to insult her cooking, belittle her choice in wall colors and insult her dresses as she scrimps and saves on the nickels he throws her from the job she got him. Naturally when he embezzles money for his social climbing (he's a terrible bridge player) it's saintly Miss Stanwyck who goes back to the bachelor--now her husband's boss--to "earn" her husband's freedom.

This old warhorse must have been traveling up and down the states for years in that old version of pre-code cinema, roadshow theater, because every situation is played exactly how long it should and in all the right places to get maximum laughs and steakless sizzle. Personally, I love early sound theater-cinema like this, 1929-1931; the boxy static sound carries an oceanic charge; it always feels like everyone is underwater, like the oxygen is richer. It probably was. They have energy to go through long scenes without getting tired... or bored.

What makes TEN CENTS so good, too, is the complexity of character and the importance of not judging by appearances. We're all set to moan and groan through a standard soap opera plot (Owsley is introduced with typical 'student' style nobility and ambition) but as the film goes along it seems to catch wise to itself; our innocent Owsley turns very slowly into the vilest of townies, all the while becoming more and more enjoyable an actor. Stanwyck rises up through the classes, buoyed by moxie and a lack of attachment to material things... that's right you dumb social climbing townie, in order for the hot air balloon to rise, you got to let go of all the crap your clutching. If you can do that, you can be like Stanwyck and fall asleep while waiting for the rich drunk to come home so you can borrow money for your no good husband, and you can fall asleep in a threadbare old crackhead dress and wake up in the same dress gone double knit and cleaner and even satiny, just in time for a long near-seduction scene.

Stanwyck makes it all work; she's the Kali goddess of modern sound cinema, dispensing hope and sweetness with the right hand and smacking you down with the left. The film starts out all stiff and jerky; all the actors (excluding the "born smart" Babs) seem microphone conscious, and slow to enunciate, trapped in dorky types - the bachelor good guy shoved into the model of a straw hat college boy slummer; the weasel starting out one of those frazzled Odets-ianly earnest cads. But as the film creaks along, the oil slowly starts to take hold in the gears and the creaking grows almost inaudible. As it does, and these suitors switch their stripes, Babs morphs blissfully through the six stations of the Zen soap martyr--never lapsing from her perfect love into selfishness, tears, tantrums or even a frown--and then finally, from this silent film histrionic pupae, she bursts out with that barrelhouse Babs temper at last, letting her soul take wing and giving this Ripley the what's-what in no uncertain terms!

The censorship people's mistake was in thinking ignorant equals innocent. TEN CENTS A DANCE is practically a training manual for the battle of the sexes. It might show you the "plans" for some sketchy operations (the censors were always afraid of criminals "getting ideas"), but it also makes those operations public, so they don't work anymore anyway. That's called education, you grant to-someone else giving tartuffles!

Anyway, back to the past. When those brave hippie hunters finally scared the Breen Bigfoot out of the aforementioned love stream, was the current able to catch up with itself? Were we able to catch up with sex where we left off after thirty years of incarceration? No, we forgot everything. We ran wild, like the Lord of the Flies. Then, a decade or so of free love and everyone was dying; the 1980s came rising up on the crest of foamy institutional grade soap, Nurse Ratchett played by Meg Ryan, that was our half-shelled Venus!

But my friends! Now thanks to DVD and TCM we can begin to remember when we truly had a chance to be free. While the conventions that films like TEN CENTS were mocking have come back, we can at least begin to recognize them as conventions (enforced by a controlling elite) and not human nature. Even watching the film now it's easy to be mislead by its dated surface into thinking its all grandmotherly and proper, that it's gonna bore you or try and peddle some churchin'. No! Sonny, daughter, listen up! There was a time when Grandma and grandpa did things you'd never even think of doing (thanks to the code you don't even know you can). In the pre-code era they didn't fall for the wizard of Oz smokescreen; there was no easy placebo stopgap bullshit measures, no endless retrials and postponements. Come what may, come hell or high water, (and the water came hella high in 1931) you were gettin' a legit happy ending. It's that endless delay of gratification that your giant capitalist conglomerate Miss Blanchard is counting on; she ain't your mother for free, and sexual frustration is the cornerstone of her wobbly foundation. Now is the time to topple it! Come and get some, and watch her Ratchet-y jaw drop like a '29 stock market!

2 comments:

  1. She is the definition of woman empowerment.

    Don't forget about her performance in Night Nurse.

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  2. Finally got around to this. Interesting and I'm sure deliberate reversal of the "Way Down East" formula. Here's it's the slick city stranger with the morals and the clean-cut small-town boy newly arrived in the city who's the crumb bum. There's something of a similar reversal in the same year's "Night Nurse" with Ben Lyon as the bootlegger with a heart of gold.

    As far as censorship, I noticed one they couldn't (but tried) to cross in this one where Barbara tells Ricardo, "I'm here because my brains are in my feet! And you're here because..." and she lets that thought trail off. Wonder where she was going to say his brains were?

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