Judy O’Brien’s (Maureen O’Hara) sole ambition is to dance. She wants to be a ballerina but she is part of a dance troupe managed by Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), reduced to playing gambling dens in Akron, Ohio. When the den gets busted by the police, they almost don’t get paid. Leader of the troupe is Bubbles (Lucille Ball), a brash blonde with an eye for men, especially those with money. Madame Basilova dies in an accident, and Bubbles leaves the troupe to go into burlesque, taking Judy along with her. Then they fall for the same man…
Towards the end of the film, Judy puts down an audience of hecklers with this speech:
”Go on, laugh, get your money’s worth. No-one’s going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your fifty cents’ worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of? We know it’d the thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We’d laugh right back at the lot of you, only we’re paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you. I’m sure they see through you just like we do!”
On the surface that doesn’t seem so remarkable, until you realise that this speech comes from a film that was made in 1940. I don’t know anything like it in American cinema of its era – it’s some thirty years ahead of its time.
Dorothy Arzner wasn’t the first female director, even in America. (Lois Weber, for one, preceded her.) She wasn’t, as is often claimed, the only woman to direct a film in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 1940s. (Wanda Tuchock, who was mainly a scriptwriter, co-directed the interesting-sounding pre-Code item .Finishing School for RKO in 1934.) But she was the only one in that time to sustain a directing career, which began in silent days in 1927 and ended prematurely for health reasons in 1943, when she was forty-six. She worked with many of the top female stars of the time: Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and others. Although many of her films were written by men (Dance, Girl, Dance was co-written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, from a story by Vicki Baum) they are notable for portrayals of women who are a lot more rounded in character than most. These are women with ambitions which extend beyond men and marriage: Judy lives to dance. Christopher Strong (played by Katharine Hepburn in the film of that name) wants to be an aviator. There’s an emphasis on female solidarity (the first person to applaud Judy’s speech above is a woman). Even a character like Bubbles, flighty and selfish as she is, is not a villain. And that speech, quoted above: it’s no wonder that Arzner’s films have earned the attention of feminists and, this one especially, gained a cult following.
Arzner won’t go down in history as a great stylist, but there are striking moments in this film. Jimmy (Louis Hayward) is introduced in the Akron gambling den with the light off the dancers’ top hats flashing in his eyes. (DP Russell Metty should no doubt take some credit for this.) When Judy runs away in the rain from Steve (Ralph Bellamy) Arzner aims the camera at her legs, “dancing” on the pavement. It’s easy to imagine most directors aiming the camera somewhat higher. As well as Metty, viewers looking for future talent should note Robert Wise as editor and Van Nest Polglase as art director, all three of whom would make notable contributions to the works of Orson Welles. This film is also one degree of separation from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with whom it shares producer Erich Pommer.
Dance, Girl, Dance isn’t a perfect picture: it overdoes the dance numbers in the middle and goes on a little too long. But it’s a very entertaining one which boasts some of the best work O’Hara and Ball ever did on screen.
Dance, Girl, Dance is released both singly and as part of Warner’s Lucille Ball Film Collection box set. (The others in the set are
The film was shot in black and white and, along with every other film of its time, Academy Ratio. The DVD transfer is correctly presented in 4:3, with no anamorphic enhancement. It looks just fine to me, with the right sort of contrast and a pleasingly film-like grain. Likewise, the mono soundtrack, while hardly one to test your audio setup with, has the dialogue well balanced and sounds like a film of this era should. Subtitles are available in English and French, but for the feature only.
Given that Lucille Ball is the raison d’etre of this DVD release, it’s not surprising that other people’s contributions are downplayed. Given the latterday interest in Dorothy Arzner, we could have had a knowledgeable commentary – not to mention an interview with Maureen O’Hara who is still alive as of this writing. Instead, we have a comedy short and a Merrie Melodies cartoon – both of which are pleasant but really not anything more than peripheral. The short is Just a Cute Kid (19:56), based on a story by Damon Runyan [sic]. Made in black and white, it’s in extremely good condition. The cartoon is Malibu Beach Party (8:02). Made in Technicolor, it’s faded and too soft in this DVD transfer.
Dance, Girl, Dance is a film of considerable interest, to fans of its two leading ladies and to feminists in particular. It scrubs up well for this DVD release, though I can’t help feeling that the extras are a missed opportunity.