Bright Lights Film Journal

Ten Cents a Dance!


TCM had another one of their Stanywck days today, and tivo nabbed me TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931). Stanwyck is on a great slow burn here, starting out as a prematurely world-weary dance hall girl and ending as a wizened world-weary dance hall girl. She exchanges lots of great double entendre dialogue with a newcomer. The newcomer is explaining what the Haye’s Office-style matron of the hall, Miss Blanchard, told her about dancing with the guys: “She said be very careful, but not so careful. She tole me to be inna… inamit..intimate but lady-like. Now what do you make out of that? To feel my way along until I got the hang of things…”

Hmm, re-reading it now, it’s not so tawdry. But it’s how she says it, and where, in the context of crowded pre-code dance hall, feeling your way until you get the hang of things is not only a double entendre, it’s site-specific! We all snug in our masturbatoriums at home don’t have to worry about it, but there was a time when people lived with no privacy, a time when several generations lived under the same roof and no bed however small wasn’t guarded by at least some embittered virgin equivalent of an East German Stasi. You do the math, especially when you hear Babs explain to her rich suitor the job of glowering matron Mrs. Blanchard as “keeping it hot enough to avoid bankrupcy and cold enough to avoid raids.”

The whole issue of censorship codes and codes of conduct for ladies and gentlement itself was, these films slyly reveal, once NOT fixed in the stars. Nowadays we’re so trained by post-code Doris Day systematic abuse that we never even think to, for example, whip off our clothes and have sex in public, or grind up against a sailor during one a’ dem slow ballads. Apparently it was not always so. Apparently, the mangy bigfoot of “the code” hangs in the middle of Hollywood history, obscuring both sides of what should be an uninterrupted stream of sexual how-tos and do’s and doesn’ts.

Take the loser Babs weds, for example, she hasn’t been schooled in how to spot a social climbing drifter, so she passes over the amiable, slightly besoused rich business guy bachelor who “sees something very special in her,” and marries a talentless Mr. Ripley who proceeds to insult her cooking, her choice in wall colors and her dresses as she scrimps and saves on the nickels he throws her from the job she got him. Naturally when he embezzles money for his social climbing (he’s a terrible bridge player) it’s saintly Miss Stanwyck who goes back to the bachelor–now her husband’s boss–to “earn” her husband’s freedom.

(read the rest of this torrid rant here!)