At the time of its release, Dance, Girl, Dance lost money. Dorothy Arzner’s penultimate film was a flop, dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences.
Yet today it is undoubtedly Arzner’s most well-known and respected film. It was rediscovered in the 1970s when scholars praised its “female gaze” point of view and crowned Arzner a feminist icon.
The film is neither as bad as the critics of 1940 said, nor is it the tale of empowered womanhood that modern feminists want it to be.
Arzner took over the film when its original director, Roy del Ruth quit over creative differences with producer Erich Pommer. Arzner could see that the script lacked direction, and worked with the writers to focus the story on the differences between two up and coming dancers.
Frenemies Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball) dance together under the tutelage of Madame Basilova. Judy is a gifted ballerina who wants a serious and respected career. Bubbles has less artistic talent, but she’s got a nose for what sells and eventually starts raking in the money playing “Tiger Lily” at a burlesque theater.
When Judy falls on hard times, Bubbles offers her a part in the show, playing the stooge—July does her ballet routine to a crowd that boos and demands the return of Bubbles.
Resentment simmers between the women, and boils over when they both fall in love with the same louse, Jimmy Harris, who is himself still in love with his ex-wife.
The film earns its feminist street cred when a fed up Judy stops in the middle of her act to lecture the heckling crowd:
“I know you want me to tear my clothes off so’s you can look your fifty cents worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wife won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here—with your silly remarks your mothers would be ashamed of?”
She goes on (and on) in the same vein before ending with:
“…so you can go home when the show’s over and strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you just like we do.”
It’s a stinging indictment and makes for a great isolated YouTube clip, but it feels wildly out of character for Judy and out of place in the film.
And it seems doubtful that a room full of men in a 1940s burlesque club would give her a standing ovation as they do in the film.
This lauded display of feminism is immediately followed by an epic on-stage cat fight between Bubbles and July (Bubbles is jealous of Judy’s ovation, and Judy is tired of playing second fiddle to Bubbles). They slap, punch, kick, pull hair and roll around on the floor in front of a stunned crowd.
It’s funny, it’s truer to the characters, and it winds them both up in night court with black eyes and eventual apologies.
In the end, they both get want they want—Bubbles tricks a drunken Jimmy into marriage and makes a fortune off their quickie divorce, and Judy finds love and creative fulfillment when she meets kindly Steve Adams, who offers her a role in his ballet.
It’s a good, funny film that should be enjoyed as such.
It’s not a polemic against male chauvinism, and the truth is the film would be better if Judy’s scolding speech had been left on the cutting room floor.
But if it had, we likely wouldn’t be watching Dance, Girl, Dance today.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
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