September 3, 2020  (Web Review)

Dance, Girl, Dance

Criterion, 89 min., DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99, May 19

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Dorothy Arzner, who helmed 16 films between 1927-1943, was not only the most prolific female Hollywood film director, but during her career, she was also the only female director working in Tinseltown. Sporting a short haircut and mannish wardrobe, Arzner would not have looked much out of place on the set, but she brought a distinctly feminist perspective to her storytelling. On the surface, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is a backstage musical melodrama centering on two very different chorus girls who are initially part of a troupe managed by Madame Lydia Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya, most well-known as the gypsy woman in The Wolf Man). Judy (Maureen O’Hara) is a shy, serious dancer drawn to classical music and ballet, while Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is a loud, earthy opportunist who knows how to shake her stuff to get ahead. When Bubbles is transformed into burlesque queen Tiger Lily White, she offers Judy a costarring position that disappointingly turns out to be a stooge role. Tiger Lily initially rouses the male crowd with singing and partial stripping (a wind machine blows her dress up during her routine, prefiguring Marilyn Monroe’s famous scene in Some Like It Hot) and then exits as Judy takes the stage to perform ballet moves that invariably provoke heavy booing from the audience, along with calls for Tiger Lily to return. Although there are romantic subplots involving the duo and costars Louis Hayward, Virginia Field, and Ralph Bellamy, the narrative focus remains on the two women. Ball is naturally excellent as the charismatic burlesque star, easily mixing sexy and funny to command the stage, but it is O’Hara who steals the show when she stops dancing to deliver a blistering critique of the male gaze, berating the audience as a bunch of mean and cowardly perverts. It’s hard to imagine this scene (or the fact that Bubbles does not pay a heavy price for being a woman who uses sex to advance) appearing in a male director’s film from the period. Presented with a sparkling black-and-white 4K digital transfer, extras include an introduction by critic B. Ruby Rich, an interview with Francis Ford Coppola (who was a film student of Arzner’s), and a booklet with an essay by Sheila O’Malley. Recommended. (R. Pitman)