We're in an empty nightclub, it's late afternoon. The club is owned by a gangster called Frankie Terris, who runs the town's numbers rackets and is only a few scenes away from being sent to Alcatraz for murder. No one's around, except for a young dancer, Maxine, rehearsing for that evening's show. She strikes a series of oddly stilted poses, awkwardly turning and swaying in a manner that falls some way short of graceful.
Very few of the performances in Prison Train (1938), a cheap, hour-long supporting feature, are noticeably professional -- or even good -- but this seems particularly amateurish. Could she have been deliberately cast for her bad dancing? Perhaps we need someone to be callously fired by the gangster boss and thrown out on the street like cheap trash, only to resurface at the end of the film, pistol in hand, as a vengeful plot device -- the wronged hard luck girl who, by plugging the gangster, will resolve the film in a way forbidden to our morally upright hero. It's possible. However, this turns out to be her only scene, and she contributes nothing to the plot. We have to assume, therefore, that the poor woman was just a bad dancer but no one cared. Why did no one care? Because she's Faith Bacon, the most beautiful woman in the world (according to Florenz Ziegfeld) and the supposed inventor of the fan dance.
When she was 20, Faith Bacon got a job in Broadway, as a chorus girl in Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1930. Carroll, a bigtime Broadway producer who, in his day, gloried in the snappy nickname, "the picker of pulchritude", was anxious to come up with a new way of getting some naked female flesh up on stage as part of the show. In New York, it was legal to have nude women on stage as long as they didn't move, so shows often featured artistic tableaux with an array of stationary nudes. However, that wasn't good enough for the pulchritude picker, who found himself in a creative crisis. There had to be a novel way of flashing some skin without getting arrested! At this moment of emergency, according to Faith's publicist -- clearly a fan of 42nd Street (1933) -- "a chorine stepped out of line and offered a suggestion." It was Faith, of course, taking a reckless chance to pitch her idea to the top man. "Mr Carroll," she said, "Why can't we do a number where I'm covered when I move, and undraped when I stop? For example -- let's say the orchestra plays a waltz. I dance around, but on every third note, the music stops and I stand still and uncover!" (1)
Carroll was impressed, and asked what she thought she could use to cover herself during the waltzing interludes. She suggested that ostrich feathers would be ideal, and so the fan dance -- truly, the zenith of American pre-war culture -- was born.
Faith toured America for the next few years, standing still on every third note, getting lots of ink in the gossip pages and occasionally getting busted by the police for outraging public decency (the busts always went down in such a way as to publicise, not shut down, her show).
So how come she dances so badly in Prison Train? Indeed, what's she even doing in this low-budget poverty row production at all? A short syndicated news story from the year before the film came out might help to explain things. It bears this unhappy headline:
In the story, Faith describes what happened during a performance at Chicago's State-Lake theater in December 1936:
"I was taking a pose in the finale. The Show was called 'Temptations' and all the girls were supposed to be temptations, you know, temptations of man. One was power, another was wine, another was pearls and so on. I was beauty.
"I was told to stand on a glass box and the last part of the number came when they parted the curtains and showed me there in the nude. I was wearing a special spray, which brings out the better points of the body, and there were lights shining on me up through the top of the glass box.
"Well, the curtains parted and I crashed through the box. All the girls started screaming for a doctor and running around the stage, but somehow I climbed out of all the broken glass and danced."
She danced for a short while, naked and covered in blood, before collapsing. I can't imagine what the audience made of it. Exactly what temptation of man might they have assumed was being portrayed?
Someone picked her up from the stage, covered her eyes and warned her not to look down. She spent a month in hospital and was left with "deep and ugly scars" on both legs. "It was two months before I could dance again," she said, "and I still can't toe dance. I even had to learn to walk." (2)
She continued to perform, but in less and less wholesome venues (not to mention Prison Train), eventually ending up in bars and carnivals in small towns. By 1948, things had got so bad that she sued a carnival boss who she claimed had tried to get her to break her contract by throwing tacks on the stage while she danced barefoot.
She doesn't appear in the press again until she's 47 years old. On September 27, 1956, papers across America ran this story:
Apparently, Faith had been out of work for some time and had gone to Chicago to look for work in skid row striptease spots. One night, after three weeks of refusals, she had an argument with her roommate about her decision to go back to live with her family in Erie, Pennsylvania. The argument ended when she ran from the room and threw herself from a third-floor window in the hallway. The next day, her roommate told reporters, "She wanted the spotlight again. She would have taken any kind of work in show business." (3)
The police inventory of her belongings listed: "Miscellaneous clothing, one white metal ring, train ticket to Erie, Pa., and 85 cents". (4)
Faith's scene in Prison Train ends when the gangster's sister comes to the club and asks where her brother is. Faith says he'll be back soon and that the sister can wait, if she likes.
This scene just happens, by complete accident, to show these two women, both roughly the same age, at the moment their careers cross over. Dorothy Comingore, sensibly dressed in a coat and hat, is only a couple of years (and a few more bit parts) away from her role as Susan, Kane's second wife, in Citizen Kane (1941). Faith, standing around in her underwear, has already had her best years; for her, this crummy movie is just a humiliating detour on the way to that third-floor window.
Sources -- www.imdb.com; www.newspaperarchive.com ((1) King Features Syndicate, 1938; (2)The Hammond Times, Feb 25 1937; (3)Aiken Standard and Review, September 27, 1956; (4)The Lowell Sun, Sep 27, 1956); Studio photograph of Faith (c) Photocave Gallery; Stills from Prison Train, public domain.)