According to her IMDb credits, Dorothy Arzner’s Hollywood career lasted from 1920 to 1943. She was the only woman to direct a sound picture in Hollywood until Ida Lupino started her directorial career in 1949. Because of her singularity, Arzner has become a figure of great fascination to feminist and queer theorists (Arzner was a lesbian), although as far as I can tell she’s still not particularly highly regarded by auteurists or general film historians or for that matter film buffs. When the DVD of Dance, Girl, Dance was released in 2007, Dave Kehr said of it in his NYTimes review, “It’s not very good.”
I’d say it actually is pretty good, although having only seen this one of Arzner’s films, I have no idea how much she brought to the production. Certainly it had some other interesting people working on it. Producer Erich Pommer had roots in the Weimar film industry, where he produced many films by Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, not to mention Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. Art director Van Nest Polglase worked on many of RKO most famous films, and director of photography Russell Metty was one of the greats of the studio system. The story the script was based on was by Vicki Baum, who was most famous for writing the play, Grand Hotel. The editing was by Robert Wise, who went on to become an Oscar-winning director after editing such classics as Citizen Kane.
With all this talent involved Dance, Girl, Dance looks great. It has that high studio gloss that you could find in other RKO musicals, like the Astaires/Rogers films. But it’s also an interesting story, even though it it’s also a typical Hollywood story. Two dancers, Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball), embody two different types: the serious artist and the entertainer. Bubbles, renamed Tiger Lily White, gets a high-paying job in a burlesque show, and when Judy decides she doesn’t have what it takes to make it as a ballet dancer, she accepts a job playing “stooge” to Bubbles: the serious dancer the crowd boos because it wants to see Bubbles take it all off. Meanwhile both women are in love with a rich, dissolute married man (Louis Hayward), while off in the distance nice guy dance producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) doesn’t know that when he was flirting with Judy in the rain, he was flirting with a dancer of promise.
None of these story elements is original or particularly interesting in themselves, but I liked the way the film worked. It has a couple of big musical numbers that are handled a little bit like a backstage musical, and the big ballet sequence that convinces Judy she isn’t a good enough dancer for ballet is very striking in the way that it’s put together and executed for the camera. It reminded me of the ballet from Singin’ in the Rain, although it’s not as extended as that one. The dancing by Vivien Fay puts all the other dancing in the film to shame. On that score, both Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball are fine at selling their parts as dancers, but in the scene where both dance the hula and I’m supposed to conclude that Ball has more sex appeal, I had to take it as a given. Ball’s big burlesque number is funny and risque, but she sure didn’t have anything on Rita Hayworth in the sizzle department.
But it doesn’t really matter, because the film isn’t strictly a musical and is more about the relationships between the characters. Apparently the feminists have loved the fact that the relationship between Judy and Bubbles is at the center of the script, and the two male love interests are secondary. In fact, the romantic relationship that gets the most attention in the movie is that between Louis Hayward and his estranged wife, played by Virginia Field. They are clearly drawn to each other like moths to a flame, but they’re constantly and unhappily sparring when they’re together. Hayward flirts with Judy and Bubbles, and while Judy innocently thinks he might be the real thing, Bubbles is only interested in him for his money. Maybe it’s that unromantic view of romance that appealed to me the most, along with the oddball structure that basically keeps the supposedly true lovebirds apart until the final two minutes of the film. The one thing that seemed a little underdeveloped to me was the way that Judy suddenly discovered a more pugnacious attitude in the end, climaxing in a hair-pulling, eye-punching fight between her and Bubbles. It seems out of character for the demure mouse she’s played up until then, although it’s prefigured by her surprising tirade (much beloved of feminists) against the men in the audience at the burlesque theater, who “go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute.”
The film is full of surprising touches like that. Another one is Maria Ouspenskaya playing a pretty damned butch dance instructor or agent — I was a little unsure what her actual role was. Another RKO film I was reminded of was Gregory La Cava’s great Stage Door (1937), which is also about the struggles of women trying to break into show business, features two sparring female friends (played by Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn), and coincidentally also has a great part for Lucille Ball. Dance, Girl, Dance lacks the witty dialogue of that one, but on the other hand it has even more Lucille Ball, which is no bad thing. I loved the way her gold-digger character gets exactly what she wants, and it ain’t the man. From what I’m reading about Arzner, all of her movies were about strong women, and based on this one I’m curious to see more.