Tuesday, March 14, 2017

OVP: Cain and Mabel (1936)

Film: Cain and Mabel (1936)
Stars: Marion Davies, Clark Gable, Allen Jenkins, Roscoe Karns, Walter Catlett
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Dance Direction)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I sometimes watch movies and can't concentrate.  This is occasionally because I'm bored or because I am insisting that I am capable of doing two things at once when one of them involves a movie (spoiler alert: I can't), but there are times where I'm distracted by what's going on onscreen.  This was the case recently when I saw Cain and Mabel, a forgettable boxing musical (that wasn't a typo, it's actually a boxing musical), about a vaudeville star who falls in love with a boxer at first for the tabloids, and then for herself.  The distracting part was that it starred Marion Davies, far more famous for her off-screen romance with William Randolph Hearst, and I couldn't help but spend most of the film thinking of Citizen Kane, comparing every little dance number to her more famous fictional counterpart.

(Spoilers Ahead) This ended up being a bit unfair to Davies, as it's not really appropriate to spend a movie trying to see if the leading lady specifically is talented, and not just well-suited for this part, but honestly the movie itself is a pretty forgettable trifle.  The film follows an almost ludicrously cliched plotline (even for 1936), with Davies playing Mabel O'Dare, a down-on-her-luck aspiring dancer who catches her big break after a random diva has a tirade and the chorus girl off the street gets her spot.  She practices every single day, and eventually drives her downstairs neighbor Larry Cain (Gable) crazy by continually tapping on the ceiling all night long, but the two of them are paired up to gain publicity for their respective careers, and suddenly they start falling for each other.  The movie's climax is them headed to be married, and then whisked away to live in happiness, but their PR teams leak it to the press, having both parties assuming the other one was truly "just in it for the fame."  The film ends with Gable losing his boxing match, but winning his girl (and also, with it, a stack of cash as she in anger bet all of her fortune on his opponent).

It's a silly movie, as far as silly movies go, but there's a lot of problems because that thing I was looking for with Davies-talent-isn't as apparent as it should be; she's not very good in this movie.  Don't get me wrong here-I think that history has exaggerated her pitfalls, particularly in terms of acting ability as she has solid comedic chops even if she's no Kate Hepburn or Constance Bennett, but she's not a very good dancer.  When she becomes a headliner, it feels like when everyone was trying to say Katherine McPhee was better than Megan Hilty on Smash-she's not special just because you say "she's special."  It's worth noting that Gable isn't particularly good either, and is about as convincing as a boxer as Rue McClanahan, but Davies is more problematic both because Gable at that point had proven he was a major talent and because of the film's sole Oscar nomination.

It was only for a few years (I'm curious if anyone knows why they eliminated Dance Direction as a category-Choreography could have run as long as they had Song Score, at least), but the dancing was the only nod for this film, and it's kind of comically bad compared to pretty much everything else that was happening then.  In an age where Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire are your competition, you have to be a supernova in order to compare, and Davies is merely adequate in terms of her timing and dancing.  Like I said, she had comedic skills, but the dancing here by a professional marker is genuinely bad-she's regularly outdone by her partners and by the chorus line, and you don't really understand why someone would be paying for her to be the headliner compared to a truly accomplished hoofer.  It's a mean focus, and admittedly I probably didn't go into this movie with a great attitude, but my impression of Davies after this film is that Orson Welles had it right.

Those are my thoughts-how about yours?  Has anyone out there already seen Cain and Mabel?  If not, what do you think of Davies in general?  And who was the best Golden Age Hollywood dancer?  Share below!

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