When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

Here’s another example of studio roulette: Warner Home Video has released DANCE, GIRL, DANCE, a neglected and challenging RKO movie from 1940 which was the penultimate feature film directed by Dorothy Arzner.

Dorothy Arzner


As an A-List female director in classic-era Hollywood, Arzner was virtually the only one in town (Lois Weber directed silents; Ida Lupino directed in the post-studio days).  She was a butch lesbian (I heard Pauline Kael say that meeting her was like meeting a truck driver), whose longterm partner Marion Morgan choreographed the DANCE, GIRL, DANCE musical numbers.  The film’s songs and dances however are not presented as the film’s audience-pleasing high points as they would have been showcased in a standard musical of that era; but instead they feed the audience information:  as personality identifiers, as symbols of social class, and to demonstrate the limited career options for women of that time.  This is what nails the movie as an Arzner film, and what gives a contemporary viewer a helluvalot to think over in the post-viewing evaluation period.  Only a woman who had broken through the glass ceiling of sexism in the industry, and who was emotionally and sexually detached from patriarchial gender roles, could have observed so much and ingeniously undermined the usual boy-meets-girl tropes of 1940 cinema.

The movie has a theme of opposition:  Bubbles (Lucille Ball) and Judy (Maureen O’Hara) are chorus girls stranded in Akron.  Judy is an aspiring ballet dancer who only lives for her “ahrt” while Bubbles has her scanner set for a sugar daddy.  In their separate searches for rides back to NYC, Bubbles opts for a comfy ride in a lecherous traveling salesman’s car, while Judy hitches and walks the whole way (and arrives in Manhattan l-o-n-g before Bubbles does…wink, wink, wink).  In New York, Judy is down to her last dime and behind in her rent, while Bubbles changes her name to “Tiger Lily White” and becomes a burlesque stripper.  Judy, still wanting to be a serious ballet dancer, has a series of near-encounters [in that frustrating An Affair to Remember kind of narrative] with the man who could make her a star, while Bubbles feathers her nest with furs and other gifts from gentlemen admirers.  As a part of Bubbles’ act, they hire Judy as a stooge who dances ballet between strip shows for the dirty old men to laugh at and jeer.  There are signifiers thrown out to the viewer that the audience is supposed to identify and have empathy for the O’Hara character, yet thanks to Arzner, Bubbles is never looked down upon.  They are two women trying to get ahead by earning a living — a point underscored in dialog delivered by another working woman:  the ballet producer’s secretary who defends Judy’s slide from ballet to burlesque as a means to earn a paycheck.

Both girls reach their goals (Judy = member of a ballet corps / Bubbles = financial settlement from a sugar daddy).  Yet in a radical break from the usual catechism of Women’s Pictures, the female audience is not given a condescending and patriarchial guide as to how to behave in society:  neither woman is “punished” for her personal choices or situations in DANCE, GIRL, DANCE

Despite the buildup of O’Hara’s character, by today’s standards Lucille Ball is the one to root for:  O’Hara’s ‘Good Girl’ character translates as prissy and clueless.  Lucy’s character on the other hand has the smarts and works the system to her advantage.  And Ball was absolutely gorgeous in this film.  She put her all into the Dirty Dancing numbers on the burlesque stage while unfortunately, O’Hara’s ballet moves reminded me of an Oklahoma oil derrick I glimpsed once on a road trip.

This was the third American movie for Maureen O’Hara.  After appearing with Charles Laughton in Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN, Laughton put O’Hara under personal contract and brought her to Hollywood to co-star with him in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.  In DANCE, GIRL, DANCE, she was barely twenty and still photographed with baby fat.  Soon she’d be picked up for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY by Fox studios, where her sex appeal rapidly was developed in costume epics.nbsp; A decade later, she was so entrenched as Cinema’s Lusty Wench that when her name was brought up as a possible choice to play the lead in THE KING & I, composer Richard Rodgers quickly nixed the notion of the schoolmistress part being played by a “pirate queen.”

Lucy met Desi while shooting this film.  According to I Love Lucy chronicler Bart Andrews, Desi was introduced to her while she was in makeup for the post-catfight scene in the movie.  He didn’t think much of her because she had a fake black eye, a bandage across her face and her hair was untamed.  A couple of days later, he saw her on the RKO lot out of costume, looking glorious, and later said to a friend, “What a hunk of woman!!”  It’s a groove to see her in the black eye scene and know that in a few hours a life-altering moment will occur for her.

Pretty boy Louis Hayward before his stint as a Marine Captain

Pretty boy Louis Hayward before his stint as a Marine Captain

And speaking of prissy, leading man Louis Hayward, who came across very fey in this film, was on his way to becoming the highest decorated of all U.S. film actors during WWII (as a Marine Captain, he was awarded the Bronze Star).  Having been at Tarawa Beachhead, where over 5,000 soldiers were killed in less than 3 days, Hayward suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of his life.  He was head of the first crew to be embedded in battle, and despite the carnage around him, reportedly none of his crew was killed.  The documentary won the Oscar, and can be seen on YouTube.

AND ONCE MORE as in most films of quality, you can catch a glimpse of Queen-of-the-Extras Bess Flowers in a nightclub scene in this movie.

The DVD has no commentary tracks but includes a two-reel comedy starring Cliff Edwards (the voice of Jiminy Cricket in PINOCCHIO from the same year) and a Warner Brothers cartoon, Malibu Beach Party which features caricatures of leading stars of the film colony circa 1939.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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