Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dance Hall Days

People who grew up in the 80s as I did will probably remember a silly little song called "Dance Hall Days". That song really has nothing to do with the movie Dance Hall, airing tomorrow at 6:00 AM on TCM, other than sharing a title.

The movie was made back in 1929, when young people in smaller towns didn't have all that much to do at night to entertain themselves and meet each other besides going out to a place like a dance hall. Tommy Flynn (future Dagwood Bumstead Arthur Lake) is one of those people. He's an adult who still lives with his mother, since this was common back in the 1920s, and goes out to the dance hall because he's a good dancer. Indeed, he's won trophies at the competitions the hadd runs from time to time, and has them up on the mantel to prove it. Tommy enters those competitions with Gracie (Olive Borden). They like each other, and it would probably be more than that, except that Tommy is too shy to tell Gracie how he really feels about her, and women of the day weren't supposed to be so forward.

Into this small town flies Ted Smith (Ralph Emerson). Literally, he flies into town, because he's a pilot. This being the 1920s, being a pilot is a job that has a high status among a certain section of the population, because it's new, uncommon, and either risky or adventurous, depending upon your point of view. It's only natural that the ladies would find the flyboys attractive, and the flyboys can have whomever they want. Ted sees Gracie, and decides that he wants her, at least as long as he's in town. So he puts the movies on Gracie, and since Gracie has concluded that Tommy is never going to express his feelings for her, she decides that she's going to go with the dashing pilot for a while. What she doesn't know is that Ted really doesn't care that much for her; she's just the equivalent of a navy man's girl in every port.

So Ted flies off to his next destination, but the plane encounters technical difficulties or something, because news reaches town that the plane may have gone down. This is News because it's a small town and the 1920s, when small towns apparently followed the exploits of those adventurous pilots because... well, I don't know why they did, but it seems to be a trope in early talkies. But Gracie takes the news very badly. Ted is of course safe, but at the same time he never had real feelings for Gracie anyhow. So he doesn't particularly care about how hard Gracie took his putative disappearance and abandons her. Tommy is the only one who can help her, leading to the inevitable conclusion that Tommy and Gracie are going to be together at the end of the movie with a loving mother-in-law in the picture, which is how they should have been in the first reel already.

Dance Hall is one of those trifles that dot the early talkie landscape, telling a frivolous little story that's incredibly dated for those of us looking at it 85 years or more on, but also offering a window into a world that's long gone. The titular dance hall here probably turned into the sort of place Marty goes where he meets his teacher girlfriend, and then morphed into the disco of Thank God It's Friday, but the innocence in a movie like Dance Hall. Pilots still had if not a surprisingly high status in films through the 1960s, then at least the reputation for being a bit glamorous and sophisticated for being able to go all over the world. I have a feeling it was the Carter-era deregulation that changed all this. But even in 60s films like Sunday in the Park or Boeing, Boeing people don't care about pilots the way they do in these early talkies.

The plot of Dance Hall is creaky and predictable; the sound is a mess; and the acting is, well, passable at best. But Dance Hall is still an interesting movie that's well worth a watch. I don't think it's available on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the rare TCM showing.

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