Reviews and notes
Dorothy Arzner, the sole woman to work as a director in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and early ’40s, brings a subversive feminist sensibility to this juicily entertaining backstage melodrama. A behind-the-footlights look at friendship, jealousy, and ambition in the ruthless world of show business, Dance, Girl, Dance
follows the intertwining fates of two chorus girls: a starry-eyed dancer (Maureen O’Hara) who dreams of making it as a ballerina, and the brassy gold digger (a scene-stealing Lucille Ball) who becomes her rival both on the stage and in love. The rare Hollywood picture of the era to deal seriously with issues of female artistic struggle and self-actualization, Arzner’s film is a rich, fascinating statement from an auteur decades ahead of her time.
Dance, Girl, Dance
, a glorious and subversively feminist film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, had inauspicious beginnings. In 1940, RKO had a film in production that was going off the rails – a romantic comedy, with a handful of musical numbers, about two young hoofers dreaming of fame, fortune and fabulous love affairs. It was exactly the kind of story Hollywood doled out by the dozen, but no one was happy with how it was progressing, so producer Erich Pommer pulled Roy Del Ruth, one of the industry's heavyweights, and a master of the musical from the director's chair. Dorothy Arzner, who was freelancing at that time, picked it up instead. Although shooting had started, she went back to script stage and reworked the movie from the feet up.
At this point Arzner had been making movies for more than a decade, and she was the only female director of any prominence in Hollywood. Given a dance movie, she seized the chance to make something entirely more singular. Dance, Girl, Dance
is about what happens when men look at women and, more importantly, what happens when women confront that dynamic, take ownership of it or call it out. The film's appearance in the Criterion Collection slate is a nod to its importance both in the annals of classical Hollywood and as a landmark in the history of feminist cinema.
Two fantastic lead performances anchor the film, from a delicate Maureen O'Hara and a wickedly funny Lucille Ball. Judy O'Brien (O'Hara) has firm morals, a rigorous work ethic and artistic aspirations; Bubbles (Ball) has what her agent calls 'oomph!', as well as what she calls "brains", which is the savvy to make the most of the former. The two women are friends, but while Judy is the better dancer, Bubbles gets all the gigs, and all the dates. Those dates are mostly with wealthy men who pay for her furs and taxicabs, but also with Jimmy (Louis Hayward), a Manhattanite drinking his way through a protracted divorce, who spots the girls doing a shimmy when he's slumming it in Akron, Ohio. It's Judy who catches his eye, but it's Bubbles who glides out of the club on his arm.
The film isn't really about the competition between the two women, though, but how they negotiate their job, which isn't just to dance, but to display themselves for a male audience. Bubbles knows how to make this work for her. When she dances a hula in an audition, close-ups of the man appraising her reveal his sweaty face and boggling eyes – he practically drools, and she gets the job. When she becomes successful, she renames herself Tiger Lily White, and writes the captions for her own paparazzi photographs. She may be performing in a burlesque hall to crowds of men who have come to admire her figure rather than her dancing, but she sets the terms of the deal.
Judy is a lot harder to look at. She dances in private, she runs from an audition. When Jimmy first sees her in Ohio, he is dazzled by the reflection from her sequins. It's the first time in the film we see a man looking at a woman, and Arzner makes it awkward. Eventually Judy will take a demeaning dance job as Bubbles's warm-up act, which will make her seethe until she delivers the film's most famous speech, a righteous demolition of the male gaze: "I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your 50 cents' worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won't let you... 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!"
Dance, Girl, Dance
lands this blow smartly, not just because the whole story has been leading up to this outburst, but because endless characters in any number of Hollywood backstage musicals might have voiced the same opinion, but they didn't. It's a small film with big ideas. There's a queer aspect too: the dancers' elderly agent Madame Basilova (a touching performance by Maria Ouspenskaya) is something of a stand-in for Arzner and her partner, the choreographer Marion Morgan – she's a butch woman who caves into conventional femininity at her peril.
- Pamela Hutchinson, Sight & Sound, Summer 2020.
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