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Out of the Vaults: “Ten Cents a Dance”, 1931

The start of talkies in 1929 in Hollywood jumpstarted Lionel Barrymore’s brief career as a director as studios required an experienced hand with spoken dialogue and Barrymore had had great success on stage before he became a movie actor. Ten Cents a Dance was the last movie he directed, and he was offered the job after being nominated for a directing Oscar for Madame X in 1930.

The shoot was plagued with difficulty including health problems for the director and star. Barbara Stanwyck, the leading lady, fractured her pelvis and was sidelined for a few days. But Barrymore suffered from chronic arthritis and was in constant pain. In the biography “The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood,” author James Kotsilibas-Davis writes, “Heavy medication dulled his pain and his direction. ‘You’d start a scene and look around and find he’d fallen asleep,’ leading man Ricardo Cortez states. ‘He tried his best,’ recalls Barbara Stanwyck. ‘As a performer, you just had to try harder.’ At the Hollywood preview, somebody transposed the reels, and the picture was run backward. Rumors circulated that Barrymore had lost his wits. Eventually, hung together correctly, Ten Cents a Dance became a personal success for Columbia’s new star.”

But Barrymore was disillusioned with directing and returned to acting, something he referred to as “the family curse.” In a New York Times interview in 1930, Barrymore said, “I have been with pictures for 21 years and don’t yet understand what the public wants. I tried, but the public taste is a riddle to me. It’s easy to fail … Mind you, I don’t admit failure as a director, I don’t think I did, but I refuse to assume the burden of production. It wears a man down too fast.”

He would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year for A Free Soul.

Barrymore did Ten Cents a Dance no favors. Graced with a winning actress and a very good writer, Jo Swerling (who also wrote Platinum Blonde, The Pride of the Yankees, It’s a Wonderful Life and the Tony-winning Guys and Dolls on Broadway), the Pre-Code film is badly paced and misses every opportunity to show off Stanwyck’s natural talent. (Eddie Buzzell, a Columbia director, was hired to punch up the comedic scenes.)

Stanwyck plays Barbara O’Neill, a worldly-wise taxi dancer at a dancehall who attracts the eye of rich Bradley Carlton (Ricardo Cortez), who is willing to tip her $100 just to talk to her. Unfortunately, as whipsmart as Barbara is at the dancehall, her brains turn to mush when she meets a fellow lodger at her boarding house, college student Eddie Miller (Monroe Owsley). Eddie gives her a sob story, she gives him her $100 tip, and before you know it, the two are married. Eddie starts out no good and progresses to being worse. Barbara asks Bradley to employ him, the two hide their marriage from everyone, Eddie makes her leave her job at the dance hall, then he loses their money with some shady deals with shady friends on the stock market, embezzles from Bradley, tries to skip town, is saved by Barbara who tries to sell her virtue to Bradley for $5,000 and when Eddie ungratefully takes the money and then tries to blackmail Bradley, then Barbara’s eyes are opened, and she leaves him for Bradley.

But the movie does have its pleasures. Stanwyck is completely appealing as Barbara and is given a lot of snappy dialogue. “What’s a guy gotta do to dance with you girls?” asks a sailor of Stanwyck. “All you need is a ticket and some courage” is her comeback. Describing the manager of the dancehall, she has this to say to Bradley: “She’s got to keep the place hot enough to avoid bankruptcy and cold enough to avoid raids.” When things unravel between Barbara and Eddie, she retorts, “You’re not a man. You’re not even a good sample.” And when Barbara asks Bradley for the $5,000 promising to pay him back, he says incredulously, “At ten cents a dance? That’s 10,000 dances!”

The original poster had this tagline in all caps: SHE WAS A DANCE HALL HOSTESS BUT THE BAND NEVER PLAYED ‘HOME SWEET HOME’ FOR HER! Stanwyck, with top billing above the title in only her fifth movie role, poses in an evening gown, one strap of her bodice falling off her shoulder. Other ads were even more metaphorically bodice-ripping. ‘With a lump in her throat and a pang in her heart … SHE DANCED!’ screamed a print ad in the Toledo News Bee of April 3, 1931. ‘BLISS FOR A MOMENT… AND THEN REMORSE!’ was another one. ‘She dreamed her way to paradise … but danced a path to torment’ was yet another.

Ricardo Cortez was the stage name for Jacob Krantz, the son of Austrian immigrants, who jettisoned his Jewish name in favor of one bestowing a Latin lover persona to match his dark good looks. After all, this was the time when Rudolf Valentino and Ramon Navarro were matinee idols. Cortez mostly played villains in his career and is best known for playing Detective Spade in 1931’s The Maltese Falcon. (By the way, Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens.)

Owsley, who died of a heart attack at age 36, was Hollywood’s go-to guy when they were casting a cheating liar. In fact, he played another such cheat in another 1931 film with a similar storyline. In Honor Among Lovers, Claudette Colbert lives to regret her marriage to Owsley and ends up with her boss Frederic March.

The movie started out with different titles – Roseland was one, Anybody’s Girl was another. But the release title was taken from a popular song of the time written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart for Florenz Ziegfeld’s play “Simple Simon” and sung by Ruth Etting in the 1930 production. Her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. It was also inducted into the National Recording Registry in 2011. As an aside, the song was actually written for a different singer, Lee Morse, who was unable to perform it when she showed up drunk at the Boston tryouts. Etting stepped in for her at Ziegfeld’s request, and history was made.

The film was preserved with funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in association with The Film Foundation. The source material for the preservation was the nitrate original picture and track negatives. Picture and sound master positives were made from these negatives as were two show-quality access prints.