Carole Lombard, thankfully not dancing.
As you can imagine, there was no way I was going to miss seeing at least one film during the Carole Lombard retrospective at Film Forum. The one I knew I couldn't miss was Bolero, a 1934 film starring Lombard and George Raft, in which they play ballroom dancers. I know, it sounds crazy--which of course was why I was interested.
George Raft was best known for his roles in gangster movies (Scarface, where he made a big impression in a supporting role, was made only two years before Bolero) but I had always read that he was supposed to be a great dancer who had gotten his start in New York nightclubs and on Broadway. He hadn't made many movies, though, where he danced, so I was curious to see him in a rare dancing role. Carole Lombard, on the other hand, wasn't really a dancer at all. Most of her dance experience came, well, from being a popular flapper on the Hollywood party circuit during the 1920s. But she was supposed to be a superb athlete who excelled at any sport she tried, so for a studio trying to figure out what to do with her, it probably seemed reasonable to test her out in a musical (it wasn't until later in 1934 that she began to hit her comedy stride with Twentieth Century). The result, as I saw today, was mixed at best.
First, the plot: Raoul de Barre (Raft) is a miner determined to make it as a dancer. With the support of his brother, Mike (played by William Frawley...yes, that William Frawley, of I Love Lucy fame. And he looked exactly the same in 1934 as in 1954) , the vain, egotistical Raoul gets some gigs in small-time New Jersey clubs before moving to Paris. He finds a partner, Leona (the lovely Frances Drake--why wasn't she a bigger star?), who becomes increasingly infuriated with Raoul's policy of not mixing business with pleasure--in other words, she's angry that he's not in love with her and particularly angry that he expends most of his flirtatiousness on the older, well-off ladies who come to the clubs to see them dance. Just as Leona is threatening to quit again, Helen Hathaway (Lombard) shows up and demands a chance to audition to be Raoul's partner. She comes to his hotel room to audition, and in one of those pre-Code moments we love (this was released in 1934, but probably made in 1933), strips down to lingerie to dance, because her dress is too heavy (you can imagine William Frawley's reaction when he walks in on this scene). Anyway, Raoul likes the way she dances, which is good, because someone has to, I suppose. He is even more impressed by her similar strict all business approach; she proposes that he can date all the rich ladies he wants while she tries to catch herself a millionaire (preferably nobility--a joke about her maybe marrying a duke, because "you know it's happened before" has to be a blatant allusion to Adele Astaire leaving the stage--and her brother--to marry an English lord). In agreement that they will never get involved with each other, they head off to London to become stars. Along the way, they perform in the same club with a character played by Sally Rand, who was famous in that time period for her "Fan Dance," which must have looked great back then, but now looks just plain silly. Just as Helen is about to marry her own English lord, though, Raoul entices her to join him back in Paris in the club he plans to open, where they can do the kind of dancing he's always wanted to do--for example, a big number to Ravel's Bolero...okay. While making a side trip to Belgium to visit his parents' grave, the two finally admit their love for each other (it is at this point that we find out that he and Frawley have different mothers, which maybe can explain how those two complete opposites can be related--maybe). But just as their opening the new club in Paris, and performing the big Bolero number, news of war breaks out (World War I, that is). Raoul stops the dance, declares he is joining the Belgian army, and announces that they will not perform their Bolero dance until the war is over. Helen is enthralled by this seemingly heroic announcement, but then repelled when she finds out that Raoul just made it because he thinks it's going to be a great publicity stunt for their act (there's an awful lot of For Me and My Gal in this aspect of the story, although that's a far, far superior movie), and besides, the war's going to last only a week, right? Well, Helen marries her English lord and Raoul comes out of the war with a severely damaged heart that is supposed to keep him from dancing, but he is determined to do so nonetheless. He opens the club again and plans to dance the Bolero with another partner, but when she shows up drunk, Mike persuades Helen, who is in the audience with her husband (played, by the way, by an unrecognizably young Ray Milland), to dance it one last time. Raoul is overjoyed, they dance, they're a smash, and as they go offstage and prepare for an encore, Raoul dies, giving Mike the chance to say what has to be one of the all-time great movie ending lines: "He was always too good for this joint."
This movie teeters between enormously bad and ridiculously entertaining. On the plus side, it's fast paced; the stars, even when they're put into ludicrous situations or given bad dialogue, show why they were stars; and the scenes where they're plainly trying not to fall in love with each other work really well. The negatives--okay, let's just get it out of the way. The dancing isn't good. As a ballroom team, they leave a lot to be desired. It's obvious that Carole doesn't really know how to dance, which means most of the choreography is reduced to him walking around her or her walking around him. She certainly can walk and she can strike a pretty pose, but Ginger Rogers never felt threatened. When Raft has a small solo in a swing number, he shows that he actually can dance, but he is definitely more of a hoofer than a ballroom partner; in his solo dance he definitely reminds me more of someone like Ray Bolger than Fred Astaire or even James Cagney (I'm so spoiled--I grew up watching Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, so maybe that makes everyone look like a bad dancer to me). But the limitations of each star aside, the choreography was just bad--Paramount didn't make many dance-oriented movies and whoever did this just didn't seem to have any good ideas; you probably could have given this choreographer (whose name I can't find) Astaire and Rogers and it still wouldn't have looked good. Also, the costumes are painfully off for the time period--there's only a vague attempt in the beginning to put people in period dress, and that becomes a problem because I kept forgetting when the movie was set. Carole was so often dressed in typical 1930s movie star clothes (though with some really bad hairstyles) that I got confused when they began to talk about how everyone was anxious about the coming war. I wondered, what, in 1934 people were talking about an impending war? The Spanish Civil war, maybe? And I was lost when they introduced the detail about Raoul being Belgian--I thought, wow, what a peculiar thing to do, make a character Belgian, why Belgian? Because that was the scene of the start of WW I, of course. Once I remembered that it made sense, but I would have helped if they'd just dressed them correctly. But this was a common crime in movies of that era; the studios just wanted to dress their stars, especially the women, in the most glamorous, fashionable clothes they could.
The best thing about this movie, though, was the chance to see it in a real theater with a real audience, instead of by myself on video. There was a good sized crowd there that was in the mood to laugh at both the intentionally and unintentionally funny parts of this movie, especially two white-haired older women a few rows in front of me who were having an outrageously good time giggling with each other; when I came home I told my best friend that that would be us in forty years, watching a screening of say, LA Confidential or something like that which we saw in the theaters the first time around.
Most of all, seeing a movie like that in a theater like that made me think of my grandmother, who used to tell me how she would go to the movies all day on Saturdays, to see a cartoon, a newsreel, a short, a B picture, and an A picture. She read magazines like Photoplay and Silver Screen and talked about her much more glamorous older sisters and how they would try to dress like the stars they saw in the movies. I like to think that if somehow I had been alive back then with her, we would have spent many long days at the movies together (I doubt either of us would have been able to keep up with the partying and clubbing of her terrifyingly sophisticated older sister Mary). I miss her very much.