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Celluloid Flashback: Dance, Girl, Dance

The following is a transcript of a lecture I gave about Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance as part of Facets Multimedia’s Night School series “Heroine Addicts” in 2011.

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Hello, my name is Michael Smith and I am a “heroine addict.” It is my great pleasure to present to you tonight Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance. When Facets asked me if I was interested in selecting a movie to show for this particular series — with the only stipulation being that it had to be centered on a female protagonist — Dance, Girl, Dance was the first film that came to mind. I think this is an extremely interesting movie for a number of reasons. First of all, it came out in 1940 when the Hollywood studio system was at its peak. Yet, unlike a lot of other classic films from the “golden age of Hollywood,” no critical consensus has solidified around it attesting to its ultimate worth. This is a movie that a lot of critics and historians love while, at the same time, a lot of others do not. For instance, when Dance, Girl, Dance received its belated DVD premiere in 2007, the New York Times DVD critic Dave Kehr (a very knowledgeable historian who usually knows what he’s talking about) stated very bluntly in his review: “It isn’t very good.” However, the very same year that Kehr wrote this, Dance, Girl, Dance was also one of the 25 films chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress for its “historical, cultural or aesthetic significance.”

I think that one of the primary reasons why Dance, Girl, Dance remains divisive today is that instead of appealing to a broad general audience the way that classic movies by, say, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford or Howard Hawks do, Arzner’s film is more likely to appeal instead to different subcultures, each of which appreciates it for vastly different reasons. For instance, in the 1970s, Dance, Girl, Dance was rediscovered by the first wave of feminist film critics in America. They singled out this particular movie as as her masterpiece because it was the one that seemed to function most explicitly as a feminist text. I’ll talk more about what that means in a moment. However, these same feminist critics either ignored or downplayed the fact that Dorothy Arzner was a lesbian. So, in the 1990s when “queer theory” became popular in academic circles, Arzner’s films were reinterpreted as being critical of heterosexual relationships as opposed to just being critical of gender inequality as they had been in the 1970s. In 2007, when the movie came out on DVD for the first time, it was released as part of a five-disc DVD box set of films starring Lucille Ball. So the company that put out the DVD was essentially marketing it squarely towards fans of the T.V. show I Love Lucy and saying, “Here’s your chance to see Lucy in a rare starring role in a motion picture.”

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If you don’t care anything about feminist or queer film theory, however, and if you don’t care about I Love Lucy, I bet you guys are still going to love this movie for being an outrageously entertaining melodrama that features great dance numbers, juicy performances and a climactic cat fight between the female leads that is absolutely irresistible. In this film, you are going to see two ballet dancers who start off as friends but eventually become bitter rivals — 70 years before Black Swan, mind you! The main character is potrayed by Maureen O’Hara (in one of her earliest movie roles), and she plays the innocent ingenue type. Lucille Ball is her rival —  a ballet dancer who ends up becoming a burlesque dancer because, of course, that’s where the money is. Ball’s character is also older and more of a vamp and a mantrap than O’Hara’s character is. In fact, all you really need to know about these two women can be ascertained from their names: Maureen O’Hara’s character is named Judy O’Brien, Lucille Ball’s character is named “Bubbles.”

Dance, Girl, Dance also has a very interesting pedigree. Like a lot of great Hollywood films from this era, there was a bizarre confluence of talented people who came together to make it happen: the screenplay was based on a story by Vicki Baum who wrote Grand Hotel. It was produced at RKO Pictures by none other than Erich Pommer — the great German producer who got his start in the silent era producing such classic Expressionist movies as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis. (Like a lot of people who worked in the German film industry at that time, Pommer ended up immigrating to the U.S. in the 1930s to escape the rise of Nazism.) The cast of the movie is also great. Ball and O’Hara would, of course, go on to greater success: Ball would have her legendary career in television, and O’Hara would become John Ford’s favorite leading lady. In 1941, the year after Dance, Girl, Dance was released, Ford cast her in How Green Was My Valley and he would use her repeatedly over the next 16 years as his ideal representation of Irish femininity in films like Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Long Gray Line and The Wings of Eagles. The men who play the romantic interests here are very good too. They are Louis Hayward, the suave British actor best known for playing “The Saint” in a series of spy movies from the 1930s, and Ralph Bellamy, who is probably best remembered for playing losers in screwball comedies like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Fortunately, Bellamy didn’t always lose the girl (as you will see tonight).

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Finally, I’d like to say a few words about Dorothy Arzner, who I think was a great director. She was the first woman to direct a talkie and she was the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America. She was not, however, merely a pioneering female director, she was a pioneer period: Arzner invented, for instance, the “boom microphone” when she was directing an early Clara Bow talkie entitled The Wild Party in 1929. Arzner wanted Bow to be able to move freely about the set while delivering her lines instead of having to stand in one place. So Arzner had her sound crew attach a microphone to a fishing pole so that they could follow Bow around with the mic dangling over her head. I think the most remarkable thing about Arzner’s work though is just how she was able to stamp her distinctive personality onto her films — because there is a pronounced stylistic and thematic continuity between them. Her movies very explicitly examine the role of women in society, a quality that is apparent even in their titles: The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Working Girls, Craig’s Wife, The Bride Wore Red and, of course, Dance, Girl, Dance. These films focus on the struggles of independent women and it is interesting to note that Arzner had a knack for casting great actresses and proto-feminists in their first starring roles (e.g., Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong and Rosalind Russell in Craig’s Wife).

The most strong-willed female character Arzner ever created, however, and the one who is probably best defined as a feminist, is Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance. There is a scene at the end of this movie that feminist critics love because O’Brien verbally criticizes the male spectators of the dance performances within the film using language that seems quite forward and shocking for 1940. This climactic speech has been interpreted by many as Arzner’s implicit critique of the male spectators of Dance, Girl, Dance as well. The most important concept in feminist film criticism is Laura Mulvey’s formulation of “the male gaze” (i.e., because the vast majority of movies are directed by men, they presuppose a male viewer). What Dance, Girl, Dance does, in a way that I think is not only aggressive and radical but delightful, is to subvert the traditional male gaze of the director and viewer in various ways. This is most obvious in Judy’s astonishing speech, which I’d like to quote for you in its entirety:

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 get your 50 cents’ worth. 50 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 be 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!

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The last thing I’ll say about Dorothy Arzner is that, towards the end of her life, she was interviewed a lot and she frequently spoke about the compromises she had to make throughout her career. For example, she once said, “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.” So Arzner often spoke of Hollywood as the kind of place where she had fought and lost a lot of battles. But, from my perspective (as an independent filmmaker in the 21st century), I’d like to say that I only wish I could lose the kind of battle that would result in a movie like Dance, Girl, Dance being made. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy the show.

You can watch Dance, Girl, Dance in its entirety via Warner’s Video on Demand program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it0xtwy9LKQ

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

4 responses to “Celluloid Flashback: Dance, Girl, Dance

  • Mitchell

    Delighted to see this posting. I caught Dance, Girl, Dance a short while ago on Turner Classics (I still don’t understand how you live without TCM!).
    I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was one of the films that made me think “For all of its supposed strait-jacketing of artistic impulse, the studio system sure knew how to turn our some mighty fine pictures.”

    Not enough is said about Lucille Ball as a film actress. She is terrific in whatever she is in, especially this film, The Big Street and Lured by Douglas Sirk of all people! Her face is so iconic as the face of Lucy Ricardo, that we become oblivious to just how beautiful she was. Imagine having Maureen O’Hara and Lucy in the same film. A beauty fest!.

    Hope your posting leads to more people watching this little gem.

  • martin fennell

    I saw Dance girl Dance years ago on tv. Yes, the speech you quote is very telling, but on the whole I found the movie just average. I’m sure I thought Lucille was terrific though.

  • John Charet

    I have heard a lot about Dance Girl Dance, but I have never seen it. I have got to put that on my to do list. Sad to hear than Robin Williams died yesterday:( And you are right, God will always bless Sweethaven:) Also, in the news recently, two new photos have been posted online from Tim Burton’s new film Big Eyes (being released on Christmas Day). The film is a biopic on female artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) who was the real genius behind those drawings of saucer eyed children during the late 1950’s and not her husband Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). The reason I bring this up is because even though you are not a super big fan of Tim Burton, you will be pleased to hear that this is the second time he has not worked with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (his last film was the animated Frankenweenie) and the screenplay is penned by the same guys who wrote Ed Wood, which was Tim Burton’s very best film for a lot of people. Regards:)

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