in Criterion Month

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Like a lot of somewhat snobbish institutions, it seems that Criterion has made an effort to make representation a cornerstone of its business in the past few years. This is what has (thankfully) led to an overlooked director like Dorothy Arzner having some of her films recently enter The Collection, as Arzner was essentially the only female director working in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s. This could lead one to ask whether Arzner’s work is only worth revisiting just because she was the first to do it. However, that question becomes silly when you take into account that most barrier-breakers are able to do so because they’re so impeachably talented that the gatekeepers of their industries are forced to reckon with them.

This absolutely seems to be the case with Arzner, as she had worked her way up first as an editor and scriptwriter during the silent and early sound era, and clearly understood the language of cinema. So much so that you can’t help but be dismayed by the fact that this was her second-to-last film before her early retirement from filmmaking, possibly due to the sexism and homophobia within the industry. After that, she spent much of her later years teaching both theater and film, while one of her film students at UCLA was Francis Ford Coppola (who talks about Arzner a bit on one of Dance, Girl, Dance’s special features).

As you might guess, Dance, Girl, Dance centers on two women with aspirations of making it as dancers — Judy (played by Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball). The film starts at one of their gigs in a smoky Ohio dancehall filled with gambling before the cops raid the place. After the raid, they have a chance encounter with a wealthy louse named Jimmy (Louis Hayward), who the girls intersect with several times over the course of the film. Cutting their losses, Judy and Bubbles move back to New York, where Bubbles quickly takes a job as a burlesque dancer while Judy is looking to be taken seriously as a ballet dancer. She gets an audition with ballet impresario Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), but is derailed when her manager (who noticeably has the same butch fashion sense as Dorothy Arzner) is killed in a car accident.

Judy is then forced to take up a job with Bubbles’ burlesque show, where she must act as “the stooge” in the show. This consists of Judy following Bubbles’ vivacious performances by doing ballet for the show’s horny, rowdy audience, which is met with boo’s and objects being thrown at her. Judy and Bubbles then have a bit of back and forth with Jimmy, as he re-enters their lives and the both of them seem to be attracted to him, though the more compulsive Bubbles ends up marrying him. Judy, on the other hand, becomes fed up with the rejection of being berated by audiences, which results in perhaps the film’s most memorable moment, where she stands up in front of an audience and instead of performing she lectures them about how disgusting they are and how little respect they have for women. Steve, the ballet director from earlier, happens to be in the audience and is taken with Judy’s bravado, which leads to her being offered a job with his ballet company.

As you might expect from an early feminist film, what’s remarkable about this movie (especially considering its time period) is how it allows the women in it to just… exist. They’re not simply forced into being traditional female archetypes like love interests, femme fatales, or villains, though they do often inhabit these roles over the course of the film. While there is a bit of a love triangle element to the story, it mostly focuses on these women’s careers rather than their romances, and how the types of women they choose to be influences their careers. Judy is the kind of woman who holds on to her morals and integrity but ends up getting shit upon by men in the process. Meanwhile, Bubbles uses her talents to give men exactly what they want in her act, while things like “dignity” or “respect” are completely overridden by her ambition and desire to be loved.

This also plays into how the film is a commentary on “the male gaze”. In the film’s very first dance sequence, we see in close-up the way the men in the audience look upon Judy and Bubbles while they’re performing and this same visual motif pops up throughout Dance, Girl, Dance. Maybe this is starting to sound too much like a college essay on feminism in film, but you could look at this aspect of the film as a way of turning the camera back onto the type of men who watch movies solely to see beautiful women onscreen. For a longtime fan of Golden Age Hollywood films, it’s a little hard to let your brain process this type of decidedly female interrogation onscreen in an era that was shaped so much by male voices, but in the end, it can’t help but be fascinating.

Apart from what’s compelling about the unusual gender politics behind Dance, Girl, Dance, I like that the film is also hard to pin down in terms of genre. It’s never quite gaudy enough to be categorized as a melodrama, but the bigness of the performances lends it to this genre. The film’s dialogue also has some of the zip of a screwball comedy even if the film’s main goal never quite appears to be evoking laughs. Then on top of that, you’ve got a bunch of musical numbers that are far more extensive and well-choreographed than you’d expect from a film that focuses so much on the backstage aspects of show business. Yet the film is a little too grounded to feel like a musical.

The whole cast is perfectly attuned to this odd tone, as Maureen O’Hara does a great job of handling the dramatic and musical elements of the film, to the point where I’m not even sure if they used a body double for O’Hara’s dancing. Meanwhile, Lucille Ball maintains an overall air of gusto and charisma that makes it all a little surprising that it took the advent of television to make her a household name. But hey, if the film teaches us anything, it’s that it’s easy for a woman’s talents to be overlooked, no matter how apparent.