Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

Film Review


Release Date: 6 March, 1931

Studio: Columbia

Director: Lionel Barrymore

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Ricardo Cortez, Monroe Owsley

Screenplay: Dorothy Howell, Jo Swerling

Cinematography: Ernest Haller, Gilbert Warrington


Barbara O’Neill (Stanwyck), dance club hostess, dances with any man who buys a 10 cents ticket. Going home, she finds Eddie Miller (Owsley) waiting for her. He cannot pay the rent and is sneaking away. He wanted to say goodbye before leaving. She gives him the one hundred dollar bill that rich, drunken Bradley Carlton (Cortez) had given her. She does not tell Eddie where she works or how she got the bill.

Carlton, experienced, sophisticated, and cynical after more than one failed marriage, visits Barbara at the dance hall and invites her to dinner; she accepts for a later day. Barbara asks Carlton to give her friend, Eddie, a job. At home, Barbara and Eddie are becoming lovers. Carlton sends Barbara an elegant gown to wear to their dinner. He meets her outside the club and asks her to go on an extended business trip to Europe and Asia with him. Barbara, in love with Eddie, refuses regretfully and returns the dress. Bradley checks the dress in the cloakroom and gives Barbara the ticket in case she ever wants to wear it.

Eddie learns where she works and his anger and jealousy lead him to cause a scene in the dance hall. Back at their apartment building, he proposes. He does not announce the marriage to his coworkers or friends. Several months later, Barbara is happy in their small apartment home, but Eddie is discontented. He meets an old college friend who introduces his sister, and Eddie tells them he is unmarried and an executive with Carlton’s company. He goes out to dinner with them, gives an IOU for loses at cards, and assures his friend that he will use him as a financial adviser. He complains to Barbara about his lack of a dinner suit, spends their money to rent one, and goes out to dinner with his friend’s sister. Barbara spends their money carefully to meet her household expenses. The marriage is strained by Eddie’s spending their money on himself.

One afternoon, Barbara comes home to find Eddie packing. He has stolen money from the company, and the auditors are examining the books; she consoles him and promises to obtain the money. She goes to Carlton’s apartment and waits into the early morning hours for him to come home. After he says he likes her because she has never asked him for money; she confesses she came to ask him for $5000.00. In exchange for the money he requests an immediate payment; reluctantly, she agrees. He presses her to tell him why she wants the money and decides she wants it for somebody else or she would not have agreed to the method of payment. He finally gets her to tell him that the money is for her husband who has stolen it from Carlton’s own company. He gives her the money without conditions. The next day, Eddie returns it.

At home, Eddie demands she tell him how she got the money and where she spent the night. She puts on her hat and coat and, declaring she no longer loves him and he’s not a man, leaves. Eddie confronts Carlton who scorns him and denies that Barbara paid any price for the money.

Barbara has retrieved the dress and is wearing it in the dance hall when Bradley arrives. He takes her outside, makes note of the dress, and asks her to go to Paris with him. In Paris she can obtain a divorce, and they can marry. A kiss seals her consent.


The plot is the commonly utilized story of a poor, virtuous young woman involved with two men, one rich and sophisticated, the other poor and unpretentious. The scenario details her relationship with each man and ultimate choice between them. This basic plot structure allows for a good deal of variation in the character of each man and in the relationships among the principals. The character of the woman may vary from innocent and inexperienced to world-weary and wise, but she is always basically moral and honest. Principally a "woman's film", the women in the audience empathize with the heroine’s problems with choosing the "right" man.

In Ten Cents a Dance, the rich male lead is portrayed as basically decent and considerate, although somewhat cynical and distrusting of women due to his marital experiences. Monroe Owsley, the poor man Stanwyck marries, proves himself weak and unworthy, a sniveling liar and a thief, unmanly. Stanwyck, realizing her mistake, leaves Owlsley and resumes her job at the dance hall. She recognizes Ricardo Cortez as the better man and accepts his proposal.

Another 1931 film, Honor Among Lovers, has a nearly identical plot. Claudette Colbert refuses the propositions of her rich boss, Fredric Marsh, marries Owsley, regrets the marriage, and ends up with Marsh. Owsley's character is identical and follows the same story path in both films.

The appeal of Stanwyck provides most of the enjoyment. In only her fifth film, she projects a strong screen presence. Her expressive acting brings out the character of "Barbara", uneducated, but forthright, principled, and loyal. Her denunciation of her husband as "…not a man, not even a good sample" is delivered forcefully with telling derision.

The early thirties makeup, hairstyles, and clothes do not flatter Stanwyck, whose appearance is plain and unattractive throughout the film, even when wearing the supposedly "elegant" evening gown. The anonymous writer of the short Variety article, "Columbia Lucky Barbara Stanwyck Makes Something of 10c a Dance" , pointed out her faulty appearance: "her figure should receive more careful consideration than getting from the camera and costume departments" and "avoidance of long camera shots in profile would soften defects." In fact, the straight-cut dresses of the time cling unflatteringly on her figure and accent her rather dumpy shape. In later films, her figure is smoothly curvy and her clothes more finely tailored.

Cortez and Owsley have parts with which they must have been very familiar. Cortez, urban, slick-looking, and handsome, alternated between roles as leading man (The Maltese Falcon (1931), Symphony of Six Million (1932), Broadway Bad (1933)) or as contemptible villain (Midnight Mary (1933), Mandalay (1934)). By the mid-thirties his career had declined into programmers, most often playing a villain. Owsley typically played weaklings, liars and cheaters (Honor Among Lovers (1931), Call Her Savage (1932), Hat Check Girl (1932)). He died of a heart attack at the young age of 36 in 1937.

Lionel Barrymore had a brief period as a film director. Aside from a few shorts made in the 1910s, he had not directed a film before the sound era commenced in 1929. His studio, MGM, felt the need for directors familiar with spoken dialogue to handle sound films, and Barrymore was an experienced stage actor. He had an auspicious debut as a director, the Ruth Chatterton vehicle Madame X (1929), for which he received consideration for a Best Director Academy Award. The Unholy Night (1929), starring Roland Young, and Rogue Song (1930), the debut film of opera star Lawrence Tibbett, were also fairly successful. However, His Glorious Night (1929), John Gilbert’s talkie debut, was poorly written, slow and stilted, and a disaster for Gilbert (although it made some money). Ten Cents a Dance, made for Columbia, was the final film for which Barrymore received a directing screen credit.

After the success of Madame X, Barrymore signed a contract with MGM to act and direct. He planned to direct exclusively and announced that he was quitting acting. These plans soon changed, as Barrymore proved to be a slow and methodical director whose shooting schedules were protracted. After his loanout to Columbia, MGM renewed Barrymore's contract as actor and director, but indicated he would not direct again.

In an interview with The New York Times, Barrymore noted, "I have been with pictures for 21 years and don't yet understand what the public wants. I tried, but public taste is a riddle to me … it's easy to fail." He added: "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."

During 1931, Barrymore gave a bravura performance as a neglectful father and drunken lawyer in A Free Soul and won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Thereafter, he stuck to acting.

Despite Barrymore's refusal to admit failure as a director, the slow pace, loose continuity, and weak delivery of dialogue in Ten Cents a Dance demonstrate ineffectiveness and inability to learn from experience. The unflattering appearance of Stanwyck denotes inattention to important details. Eddie Buzzell, newly signed by Columbia as an actor/director, was called in to doctor up several comedy scenes.

The film had several changes of title: Roseland during shooting, subsequently Ten Cents a Dance, then Anybody's Girl. The release title, and some elements of the plot, were taken from a popular song, Ten Cents a Dance, written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart for the Ed Wynn-starring play Simple Simon (1930) and sung by Ruth Etting in the show. Etting's recording remains very popular and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (1999) and included in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry (2012). The version in the film is performed by the Abe Lyman Orchestra.


Don’t Shout - Wire. Variety. February 19, 1929.

Lionel Barrymore Quits as Screen Star. New York Times. August 5, 1929.

L. Barrymore, Director. Variety. August 28, 1929.

Projection Jottings. Lionel Barrymore to Direct for Columbia. New York Times. September 28, 1930.

Buzzell Comedy Doc. Variety. November 15, 1930.

It’s Anybody's Girl. Variety. November 15, 1930.

To The Ladies. Columbia Lucky Barbara Stanwyck Makes Something of 10c a Dance. Variety. March 11, 1931.

Contracts. Variety. May 4, 1931.

Projection Jottings. Screen Players on the Go - Lionel Barrymore Quits Direction - Other Items. New York Times. November 1, 1931.

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