Programming note: NaNoWriMo is over, and I hit my goal! That said, now I’m on the wane, so posts will be intermittent until 2022.
I’m embarrassed to say that this film wasn’t on my radar until Turner Classic Movies featured Maureen O’Hara’s monologue in one of their ‘monthly promotional vignettes’. I quickly snapped up the Criterion Blu-Ray and wow, I’m glad I did. This is a bold, brazen film from one of the most prolific women Hollywood directors, Dorothy Arzner, based on a text by Vicki Baum.
It’s the story of two dancers from a ramshackle dance troupe that specialized in burlesque which had the misfortune to be preemptively dissolved. The star of the troupe, Bubbles (Lucille Ball), goes on to have an exceptionally popular mainstream striptease career under the name of Tigerlily White, and she enlists fellow prior troupe-mate Judy (Maureen O’Hara), a woman with aspirations to be a ballerina, to serve as her ‘stooge’, where Judy dances her high art act while the audience boos and jeers here in order to tease Tigerlily White’ return to the stage.
If you only know Lucille Ball from I LOVE LUCY, she had quite the career as a supporting film actor prior to her sitcom career — she had a few stand-out roles in noirs like Douglas Sirk’s LURED (1947), and also held her own against Katharine Hepburn in the extremely entertaining STAGE DOOR (1937). While it was an earlier film for Maureen O’Hara — she was coming off of JAMAICA INN and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME — she brings her A-game to this.
Ultimately, DANCE, GIRL, DANCE is a powerful film about exploitation and appeasement and the willingness to settle, to be content to not attempt to rise above your current station, and it is not subtle or apologetic about it. For its time, hell, even now, it is an astounding work from Dorothy Arzner who, sadly, has been mostly forgotten by film academics. (Thankfully, not all.)
Dorothy Arzner was the first woman sound director and, for many years, the only woman director in Hollywood. Not only that, she was as unapologetically openly gay as you could be back then, hair shorn short and her uniform consisted of menswear. Dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan was her partner, and Arzner leaned on her skills for DANCE, GIRL, DANCE.
Despite that, she’s rarely talked about today, which is a crime because this film is Arzner using her platform to dissect the role of a viewer and the role of a creator, while also featuring a woman taking advantage of another woman explicitly because of capitalism, all without completely vilifying her. It’s a complicated work, one that also manages to be severely entertaining.
“Give ‘em all ya got, baby.”
“They couldn’t take it.”