2012 TCM Classic Film Festival: OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS
Prior to the screening Linda Snyder-Sterne shared her memories of Anita Page with the audience. Ms. Sterne is the younger daughter of the silent film actress, who starred alongside Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Linda is no youngster, but she dressed up daringly in red velour from head to toe, sporting a long platinum wig. My assumption is that this was a tip of the hat to her show biz stint as a Dolly Parton look-alike. Even her speech pattern seemed to lean towards Dolly’s. She was warm, and excited to be there. By admitting to seeing the film a “million times” before but “never on the big screen,” she lent an indirect glimpse into Anita’s world.
Snyder-Sterne said Page was a great mother, recalling fondly “she was just wonderful to me.” But she remained affected by her stardom. When Linda got overly excited about seeing another famous actress at some San Diego parade as a child, Anita sent her on a bit of a guilt trip, asking if she had forgotten she had once been a star, too.
Anita shot Our Dancing Daughters at the tender age of seventeen. Apparently, she loved the role of Ann the best of all her film appearances, because she got to be a bad girl. It seems her idea of real performance involved inhabiting an evil character. Linda was not sorry her mother’s successful career was cut short, since abandoning Hollywood resulted in parenthood, among other things. Although, from vague hints it seems that Page may have changed her mind at some point and attempted a comeback: according to Linda, she was talking to two different executives, both of whom made unwanted advances.
When asked why Anita chose to sign with MGM, she noted the choice was easy to make, because “MGM made female stars.” And, Anita wanted to be a star. She succeeded wildly. At some point she was rumored to be receiving fan mail volume second only to Greta Garbo. One of the persistent fans was Benito Mussolini. “At least it wasn’t Hitler,“ was Ms. Snyder-Sterne’s comment regarding the infamy. “My grandmother wrote back,” Linda said. Prompted to elaborate as to what the letters from Anita’s mother contained, she replied: “That, I do not know.”
Our Dancing Daughters, however, made Joan Crawford the bigger box-office draw and propelled her to stardom. Joan’s character Diana finds herself in a love triangle with Anita’s Ann. The story follows three society girls and their clique, so needless to say it’s an excuse to show off beautiful bodies in beautiful clothes. While the “modern” girl, Diana, who is open with her affections and has no pretense is clearly hailed – as opposed to Ann’s hypocrisy that thinly veils manipulation, I found myself wondering just how different they really are. Including Dorothy Sebastian’s Bea, all three women as rather similar in their pursuits. The filmmakers gave the girls but one ambition: marriage. The distinction lies purely in ways they go about the goal. Considering that 1920 was the year female gender was removed as obstacle precluding voting rights in the United States, it is safe to assume that women then had other aspirations, as well.
Moreover, the virtue of preserving oneself for a husband is espoused. Bea’s character had an unspoken adventure, which resulted into regrets; a finger is raised for all the wild girls. Beware; even if your man is kind enough to forgive you your indiscretions, you will have to contend with consequences, such as jealous outbursts. The matrimony is really portrayed as something holy. Although, the idea of marriage out of love was still relatively novel, so advocating it can probably be appreciated as a progressive feature.
The difficulty lies in appreciating the flapper subculture the film sets out to celebrate. There is a certain ambivalence that I feel towards it. Young girls with short hair and revealing clothes were certainly progressive in pushing forth the idea that women had the same right to hedonism as men, including participation in necking parties, booze and cigarettes. These daring ladies disregarded societal norm, and ventured out seeking pleasure. They were promoting quality in mischief, if you will. However, a flapper is by definition only a brief phase in a woman’s life. Just like their male counterparts, they too only wanted to go crazy for a few years before settling down.
In tune with this idea, the film is constructed as a distraction, as pure entertainment. It depicts the world of the young jet setting crowd, whose daily routine involves horseback riding, dining on yachts, dancing the night through, and little else. Well, maybe a stroll or a little table tennis to kill time between meals. The actors are clearly selected for their attractiveness. We have no idea who any of the male characters are; their personalities could be utterly interchangeable. Cameras linger on the lead’s faces for purely aesthetic purposes.
Crawford with her short haircut, expressive mouth and gorgeous legs looks fantastic in equestrian apparel. It’s a pity all the passion and energy she brings to her role is wasted on getting the attention of a lukewarm man, who focuses on maintaining appearances.
Glamorization of flappers has its merits and its drawbacks, very much like the movement itself. Our Dancing Daughters manages to capture some of the contradictions inherent in the subculture. It is fun to watch, and the film was designed to be a visual pleasure. The glittering dresses, the crazy eyebrows, Crawford’s rouged lips in the pale face, leg-baring attires – all of this makes it a feast, for the mankind never tires of its simplest, perpetual, and universal sport of people watching. The viewing is like party attendance: you come for the drink, the gossip, to see and to be seen – but not necessarily to clock out of the rat race.
Perhaps the spending, the dressing up, the organized merry-making alerts you all the more to the nature of the world you live in. Similarly, listening to Linda Snyder-Sterne tell snippets from Anita Page’s life may not have stirred nostalgia, rather a vague feeling not dissimilar from looking at the plumbing in a house with a lovely façade. That being said, when Diana talks to her beau about her lust for life, her desire to taste it all, it is a moment that best sums up this period in history and in moviemaking.
The great achievement of the Hollywood machine and the flapper culture of the 1920s is that it gave a voice to joy in the bleak landscape of duty, responsibility and morals that grew out of the Victorian sternness: there is nothing wrong with simply enjoying oneself. We may continue to analyze how it opened the doors for the postwar consumerism, yet in itself, and at the time, this was very much a revolutionary notion. So, when you choose to watch Our Dancing Daughters, remember to have fun.