Dorothy Arzner has certainly earned her place in the history of motion pictures. Decades before Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion or Nora Ephron, Arzner worked in Hollywood doing what few women were allowed to do in the Studio System of the Golden era of the movie capital—make films as a director. It is appropriate in Women’s History Month to examine the works of some of these fine directors, including Arzner’s 1940 hidden Gem: Dance, Girl, Dance.
Made by the less prestigious RKO Studios, Dance, Girl, Dance is a deceptively simple melodrama about struggling dancers, aspiring ballerinas, and burlesque divas. Written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, based on a Vicki Baum story, the film hides a feminist subtext and wallops a terrific message in its last reel about the hypocrisy of men who use women for entertainment. Maureen O’Hara stars as Judy O’Brien a struggling ballerina from Akron, who loves her art, but realizes jobs are hard to find. She rooms with several fellow dancers, including a flirty vamp named “Bubbles”, played by a very young and glamorous Lucille Ball—a role nothing like her ditzy television image from later years. Bubbles knows that the style of dancing that gets jobs flaunts what men want, and it’s not ballet.
When Bubbles gets a job in a burlesque show that takes her to New York Judy follows taking a job as a serious dancer of interludes dances between the more racy numbers that the audiences long for. Of course, there’s a romantic subplot. Bubbles, who is now known as Tiger Lily White is a gold digger who pursues Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward), a frequently drunk rich guy who is about to finally be freed from a demanding estranged wife (Virginia Field). Jimmy once dated Judy and likes her. Ralph Bellamy, (who made a career in early Hollywood always playing the guy who doesn’t get the girl), is dance director Steve Adams, who was recommended to Judy by her late ballet instructor Madame Basilova.
Judy’s pursuit of artistic integrity and romantic interests culminate in a unique speech. One afternoon after suffering humiliating jeers from a crowd of mostly male patrons, Judy lashs out, “Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you… What do you suppose we think of you up here? With your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of; what’s it for? So you can go home when the shows over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play the strong sex for minutes?” Remarkably the story has a happy ending, but hidden beneath a rather mundane plot Dance, Girl, Dance offers a unique story about female integrity and empowerment. Arzner’s professional career continued mostly in television in the 1950s before she dedicated her time to teaching directing and screenwriting at UCLA film school, where one her most successful students was Francis Ford Coppola.