Monday, October 20, 2014

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Director: Dorothy Arzner


The burden of success in show business complicates the judgment of many performers on how far they will compromises their own character and art to find acclaim. RKO’s production Dance, Girl, Dance tells the tale of female dancers and the juggling of morals and business, starring two actresses that were at the beginning of their rise in their stardom. The film would be a failure for the studio, but decades later would prove to be one of the more influential woman pictures led by its female director, Dorothy Arzner, and its message about women standing up for their ideals.

Dance, Girl, Dance is a musical drama about two female dancers, friends yet rivals, and their separate ways of handling their morals as they attempt to find ways to success on the stage.   Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball) are two dancers in a small dance troop that struggle to find steady work. Judy had always been seen as the finest dancer with her classic ballerina training, but Bubble has that “oomph,” a fun loving sex appeal despite lesser skill, that grabs the attention of men and lands her starring role in a hit burlesque show. Bubbles hires Judy to perform at her show as a stooge act with intention that Judy will be booed off stage by the male audience looking for the titillating revue of Bubbles’ “Tiger Lily” act.

Judy struggles with the comprise she has put herself in while she dreams of legitimate dancing, but in the mean time she finds comfort in a budding romance with one of show’s suave patrons  Jimmy Harris, a divorcee with his own emotional issues. Not to be outdone Bubbles attempts to claim Jimmy as her man when she discovers Jimmy to be wealthy. Judy’s emotional struggles with comprising her skill and her treatment from others lead to her standing up for herself. In mid show Judy confronts the booing burlesque audience about their degrading view towards women in a female empowering scene as she eventually finds her way into a highly thought of ballet company.

The picture bursts out of a usual Hollywood mold and creates a story with heavy themes in female empowerment. At first Judy is a down on her luck dancer with dreams of future, but compromises her values to makes ends meet. The emotionally hardship that comes from the forced degradation of her craft coupled with troubles in relationships with both her now successful friend and her lover causes her to emotionally boil over and stand up herself as a beautiful woman and her beautiful talent.

Directed by one of the very few enabled female filmmakers in Hollywood at that time, Dorothy Arzner, this picture feels different from the usual female films of Hollywood. The movie is not just a story of a woman trying to achieve a dream or a love story couple with a fight with a good friend rather it is a film of a woman that recognizes a world where men fawn over sex in the place of talent and grace.  Arzner’s modest direction focuses more on the truly emotional struggles of the inner woman as she attempts to make it on her own.

The film employs a wonderful cast headed with two main actresses Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in their budding years in of stardom. O’Hara was still fresh off the boat from English movie screens and at this time would have only been recognizable for her role as Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. Lucille Ball was still decade away from being the lovable redhead of American television as here she is still a blonde dancer with small notable appearances in popular 1930s musicals in small supporting parts and roles in B-movies.

The two actresses would grow a friendship on the sets of Dance, Girl, Dance that would last their lifetimes. Legend would have it that one day while the two actresses were eating lunch at the studio during filming Lucille Ball would spot the man she would eventually marry, Desi Arnez. Eventually the two would marry and start the wildly successful classic television show known as I Love Lucy. Together they produced their and other shows under their Desie and Lucy’s own company, Desilu Productions who would own the very RKO lot Ball was contracted with at the time in her career.

O’Hara provides innocence to the character of Judy that makes her the sympathetic character that eventually comes to stand up for herself in a very powerful way. Ball, even though it is hard to separate her from her comedic future persona, is spot on as the vamp-like character that does anything to rise to the top. Louis Hayward as the film’s main male character in Judy’s love interest Jimmy is just as emotionally complicated as any of the other characters in this female dominate cast. Known mainly for his period films Hayward’s performance adds a complexity to Jimmy. The audience never seems to get to know him completely, but we root for him to be with Judy, despite all his own flaws, making him a rather likable character.

The film also features Ralph Bellamy as a ballet instructor for the prestigious company Judy dreams of joining and the incomparable Maria Ouspenskaya as Judy’s instructor. Ouspenskaya’s character is greatly intriguing as serves somewhat as a motherly figure to Judy, the only one that sees Judy for her great talent, but is burdened by the reality that her talent will be outweighed by the sex appeal craved for by the male ran industry.

A serious picture assembled so modestly with great talents behind it, including editor Robert Wise whose next film would be a novice director in Orson Welles called Citizen Kane, the film was not necessarily intended as a major feature for RKO, but the film fell even below that expectation. Critics tended to overlook this female empowering feature and audiences at its time of release found no draw to go and see the picture. Financially Dance, Girl, Dance was a failure losing RKO hundreds of thousands of dollars in its run.

As the feminist movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s began to rise new female audiences discovered this near forgotten feature. With its strong woman story about female enablement and directed by a female filmmaker, a rarity in the male dominated business. Dorothy Arzner was a liberal woman for her day and would be one of the first females to join the Directors Guild of America. A lesbian in a time when America shunned homosexuals, Arzner would later be looked at as a pioneer for females in the movie industry in the United States.

Women during the feminist movement rallied behind such a feature and reintroduced the film to contemporary audiences who, under new eyes, saw the picture as one of the finer films of its time. In 2007 Dance, Girl, Dance was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, an honor held by a select few films in American history. The picture stands as a film ahead of its time in light of female empowerment, and manifests how there were different views still in Hollywood in 1940 as this feature stands out from the others.

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