Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) offers a chance to see the directorial talents of Dorothy Arzner, one of very few women to direct films during the classic sound era. Not surprisingly, the movies Arzner directed were mostly "women's pictures," but quite a few iconic classics fall squarely into that category, and Dance, Girl, Dance has plenty to recommend it besides a nod to women's cinema history. Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball star as the two dancing girls, the first an aspiring ballerina and the second an opportunistic burlesque queen, and each gives a compelling performance that mixes humor, drama and musical numbers. Along for the ups and downs are Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy as potential romantic leads, with Virginia Field and Maria Ouspenskaya appearing in supporting roles.

O'Hara has the more sympathetic heroine in Judy, who gets by as part of a nightclub dancing troop but longs to join the ranks of serious performers. Her mentor, Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), hopes to help by introducing her to ballet producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), but a tragic twist of fate prevents the meeting. Meanwhile, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is happy to climb a different kind of ladder, embracing burlesque stardom for the money and comfort it brings. Bubbles sometimes helps her former troop mate and sometimes betrays her, depending on what Bubbles herself can get out of it. That includes poaching unhappy playboy Jimmy (Louis Hayward) and setting Judy up as a stooge in the burlesque show, where leering patrons boo her ballet routine.

It's important to note that, although the movie makes Judy and Bubbles foils for one another, it never really paints Bubbles as the villain of the piece. She can be generous and forgiving, but she is clearly a student of the hard knocks school who has learned to look out for herself. Judy is more naive, but even she is realistic enough to keep the stooge job and endure the humiliation if it means paying the rent. No character is really a bad person; even the drunken Jimmy misbehaves mostly because he misses his ex-wife, Elinor (Virginia Field), whom he really does love. Ironically, the only person Judy shuns turns out to be the one who can help her achieve her dream, and poor Steve spends most of the picture trying to get Judy to realize that he isn't another masher looking for a date. In a movie without actual antagonists, Judy is often her own worst enemy, although she and Bubbles ultimately have to resolve their differences with a spectacular fight that lands Judy in court.

O'Hara is lovely and sweet as Judy, and we feel for her struggle to preserve her dignity, especially during the excruciating stooge performances. She finally triumphs over her tendency to be a human door mat when she tells off the abusive audience in grand style and then flattens Bubbles with a couple of punches. A blonde Lucille Ball is having more fun, though, as saucy, selfish Bubbles, who has the oomph that gets gigs for the troop. The film doesn't deride Bubbles for her professional choices; she's good at burlesque and clearly enjoys it, and the role gives Ball a chance to demonstrate the comedy talent that would eventually make her a television legend. Both actresses play characters who aren't primarily interested in romance but are dedicated to pursuing their careers, and that shifts the focus of the narrative toward a feminist sense of self separate from male protection and domesticity. It leaves Louis Hayward's Jimmy as something of a red herring, to be sure, but Hayward does a fine job balancing the charm and dissolution of his character, and Jimmy's troubled romance with Elinor gives us a different perspective on the choices a woman might make about her life.

Dorothy Arzner's other films include Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Christopher Strong (1933), and The Bride Wore Red (1937). For more of Maureen O'Hara's work from this era, see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Try noir films like The Dark Corner (1946) and Lured (1947) for a different side of Lucille Ball before Lucy. Catch Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday (1940). Maria Ouspenskaya, a truly great character actress, earned two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), but most people will remember her as Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941).