Dance, Girl, Dance: Gotta Dance

On Film / Essays — May 21, 2020

Judy O’Brien, a ballerina working in a burlesque show to make ends meet, has finally had enough. In the middle of an especially humiliating performance, the audience’s jeering reaches such a peak that she stops, walks down center stage, hands on hips, and faces the hecklers. She has been playing “stooge” to the headliner, her pal Bubbles, for months, and now her outrage boils over and she addresses the stunned crowd: “Go ahead and stare. I’m not ashamed. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your fifty cents worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you.”

This rightly famous speech comes near the end of Dance, Girl, Dance, the 1940 RKO film directed by Dorothy Arzner. Judy—played by Maureen O’Hara with a whisper of an Irish brogue—attacks the audience: “the way your wives won’t let you” is so contemptuous that the words sound dipped in poison. The layers of metacommentary are striking. Judy calls out not just the fictional audience sitting in the burlesque house but the real audience watching Dance, Girl, Dance. She calls out the dirty secret of what looking is all about, reminding everyone that the looked-at know exactly what’s going on, and may have some feelings of their own about the exchange. Judy shatters the unspoken contract between audience and performer. The scene has a fourth-wall-breaking power to this day.

Arzner’s “female perspective” was not only rare at the time but singular. The first decades of film featured many women directors and producers—Alice Guy-Blaché, Mabel Normand, and Lois Weber, to name a few. But once it became clear, post–World War I, that movies were going to be big business, women creators all but vanished, relegated to jobs deemed more feminine, such as script supervisor or editor. Arzner, a director from the late twenties until she made her final film, in 1943—under contract to Paramount until 1932 and then on her own with various studios—was also the first female member of the Screen Directors Guild (now known as the Directors Guild of America), and way ahead of the curve. She kicked down a door, and nobody else walked through it until Ida Lupino directed her first film, Not Wanted, in 1949.

This alone makes Arzner a unique figure, but once you really start digging into her life and filmography, things get even more interesting. She was around Hollywood from a very young age; her father ran a restaurant frequented by movie professionals, people such as Mack Sennett, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford. She considered other careers but got work as a typist at Paramount (then called the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation), and also began writing screenplays, many of which were produced between 1924 and ’26. Eventually, she worked as a film cutter before graduating to editor. Arzner told the story often of how she became a director. She was planning on leaving Paramount to seek better opportunities, and studio production head B. P. Schulberg convinced her to stay, promising her a chance to direct. She countered with a demand for A pictures: “I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B picture for Paramount.” Schulberg agreed, and, within a short time, she was handed Fashions for Women (1927), starring Esther Ralston. The film got good reviews, and Arzner in particular was pulled out for praise. She ended up directing sixteen feature films, working with some of the biggest stars of the day. Many of her films feature grim views of marriage (Merrily We Go to Hell, Craig’s Wife), as well as complex female friendships (Christopher Strong; The Bride Wore Red; Dance, Girl, Dance).

“This is a movie about dance, and there’s a lot of dance in it, but Arzner understood it was really about these two women.”

Arzner was not the original director for Dance, Girl, Dance, which would be her penultimate film. That was Roy Del Ruth, with experience in MGM musicals (Born to Dance, Broadway Melody of 1938), plus the Sonja Henie vehicles Happy Landing and My Lucky Star. Shooting had already begun when Del Ruth backed out, and Arzner was offered the job. But Arzner didn’t just pick up where he left off. She made some radical changes to the script, written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, based on a story by Vicki Baum (the Vienna-born novelist whose greatest success was Grand Hotel). The story is of two very different dancers’ attempts to take control of their careers, all while navigating the often prickly relationship between them. Judy has serious training and is eager to enter the ballet world, and maybe even create her own work. Bubbles—a dazzling Lucille Ball—is Judy’s polar opposite, a wisecracking showgirl (“I ain’t got an ounce of class, sugar, honest”) who has what we would call the “it” factor. Arzner’s script changes centralize the women in the film, particularly the relationship between Judy and Bubbles. This is a movie about dance, and there’s a lot of dance in it, but Arzner understood it was really about these two women, so she pared away distractions from that. Another major change, according to Judith Mayne’s Directed by Dorothy Arzner, was making the male head of Judy and Bubbles’s dance troupe into a female character, now “Madame”—a former Russian ballerina, played by Maria Ouspenskaya. This choice centralizes women even further, so much so that there are long stretches where you forget there are a couple of budding romances in the plot. Crucially, by giving Madame so many scenes in which she supports the girls, especially Judy, Arzner provides an all-too-rare example of the importance of female mentorship.

Dorothy Arzner and Maureen O’Hara on set

The story takes place in various tiers of the dance world, from traveling troupes to elite ballet companies to the burlesque underworld. Arzner’s life partner, Marion Morgan, was a well-known choreographer, and so although Arzner had never directed a musical, she was steeped in dance, and she brings that knowledge to this backstage story. The atmosphere of Dance, Girl, Dance is very lived-in—the hard work and disappointments, the cheap boardinghouses and drafty rehearsal studios, rivalries and friendships. Madame gets Judy a meeting with Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), a prominent ballet impresario, and Judy watches one of his rehearsals, agog at the skill and beauty on display. Unlike the cute little tap routines she does with her troupe, the dance numbers here—a mash-up of classical ballet and modern dance—are lavish and intricate. (Ernst Matray was responsible for all the choreography in the film). Bubbles gets a job in burlesque, where she unsurprisingly graduates to headliner status, renaming herself Tiger Lily White. She brings Judy along as her onstage “stooge”—that is, a performer whose sole purpose is being booed off so that the main attraction will appear. A man named Jimmy (Louis Hayward) hovers around both Judy and Bubbles, and Jimmy’s wife, Elinor (Virginia Field), hovers around him. Dance, Girl, Dance doesn’t have a love triangle, it has a love square, which then morphs into a love pentagon. And a love pentagon downgrades love’s importance, giving space to all kinds of other subjects. There’s a tension here between low art and high art, burlesque and ballet, that reflects the revolution going on in modern dance at the time, the push-pull between tradition and the new. The film ends not with a man and a woman falling into each other’s arms but with two very different women coming to a deeper understanding of their friendship and themselves.

Arzner had a reputation as being something of a star maker, having directing future luminaries Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn in important early vehicles. While it is sometimes challenging to delineate who did what within the studio system, it is clear that Arzner had an eye, not just for talent but for what to do with talent. (The Portland Oregonian’s review of Fashions for Women read, in part, “Miss Arzner has done what her men directorial rivals had failed to do, that is, see the humor and the charm of Esther Ralston’s character and successfully transfer them onto the screen.”) This would prove true time and time again in Arzner’s career. In Christopher Strong (1933), Hepburn’s second film, the actor plays a daring aviator, living by her own rules. Hepburn was so unlike anyone else, so fabulous-looking, so strange, and instead of shying away from those qualities Arzner leans into them, fascinated and curious. She treated Bow similarly, allowing her essence to shine. In Get Your Man (1927), for example, Bow clowns around a gigantic bedroom, knocking over furniture in a raucous pantomime that shows off her physicality and humor. And Dance, Girl, Dance features major performances from two actors who both would go on to enormous success. Arzner gave them copious space in which to play.

O’Hara had gotten her start as a child actor in the vibrant theater world of Dublin, training at the Rathmines Theatre Company as well as the Abbey. In 1938, she signed a contract with Mayflower Pictures, formed the previous year by Charles Laughton and producer Erich Pommer. Laughton had seen a screen test by the young actor and signed her as quickly as possible. She debuted in 1939 opposite Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, and later that year he brought her to Hollywood, where she made major waves, opposite him again, as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for RKO. Over the course of her career, O’Hara got tired of being typecast as spirited fiery lasses; she yearned for more nuanced material. Dance, Girl, Dance allows her to call forth all kinds of qualities she wasn’t often asked to utilize: tenderness, innocence, vulnerability, shame. In O’Hara’s capable hands, a character who could have been a simplistic ingenue is not an ingenue at all. Judy may be wide-eyed, but she’s no pushover. Most important is how much O’Hara personalizes what dance means to Judy. Her face changes whenever the subject comes up; it’s as though a light goes on inside her—she believes in her dreams, even living in a squalid boarding­house, sleeping three to a room. Her belief is sorely tested being a stooge, and her heartbreak comes not because she has thrown away her dreams but because she has betrayed them. She can’t forgive herself.

“What is extraordinary about Ball is that it was all there from the start. She was both inventive and relaxed, simultaneously. You never feel her pushing.”

Ball had been around Hollywood for almost a decade, always making an impression but never graduating to leading lady. It would have been hard to stand out in the ensemble of Stage Door (1937), alongside Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick, and Eve Arden, but Ball leaves her mark without breaking a sweat. She has just one scene in the otherwise unmemorable Bunker Bean (1936)—as a secretary taking dictation, struggling to keep up with her motormouth boss—and the film keeps waiting for her to return. She practically steals That Girl from Paris (1936) with one hilarious dance number during which she realizes—too late—that someone has rubbed soap on the bottom of her shoes. Her physical prowess was second to none. Her clowning was world-class. This, of course, would eventually be known the world over because of I Love Lucy. What is extraordinary about Ball is that it was all there from the start. She was both inventive and relaxed, simultaneously. You never feel her pushing. She was fearless with her body, whether standing still in a doorway or strutting across a room, flinging a stole over her shoulder. Acting for Lucille Ball was always a full-body affair. 

Part of the fun of Dance, Girl, Dance is watching Bubbles’s two signature numbers, the dirty-minded “Oh! Mother What Do I Do Now?” and the crowd-pleaser “Jitterbug Bite.” Ball owns that stage, so much so that she seems six feet tall. She interacts with ogling audiences but does so on her own terms. One guy yells something at her in a tone that’s a bit too entitled, so she shuts him down, reminding him of who’s in charge.

The way Ball plays Bubbles brings out additional layers in the concept of looking, and of how the experience of being looked at is different for different people. Women are not a monolith. Judy feels victimized by the leers. Bubbles doesn’t. Is Bubbles lying to herself? Can both women be right? Judy loses power on the stage, Bubbles gains it. A key scene early on shows both Judy and Bubbles doing a hula dance, and the difference between their versions is vast. Judy is the better dancer, but in the meat-market world of sex as commodity, Bubbles will always win. (When Judy asks Madame how she can get more “oomph” into her dancing, like Bubbles, Madame is blunt: “You don’t learn oomph. You’re born with it.”) To add one final layer: Judy knows that Bubbles will win in that arena, but Judy is interested in another kind of career entirely. She doesn’t try to change herself. She doesn’t try to compete. Dance, Girl, Dance is not about two women fighting for the same spotlight (their actual onstage fight notwithstanding). Their goals don’t overlap at all.

An earlier scene is arguably even more subversive than Judy’s furious speech to the jeering audience, and crucial to contextualizing the film’s interests and concerns. Jimmy reenters Judy’s life and walks her home from the theater. They share their first kiss. Judy, ecstatic, races upstairs to her room. She moves to the window, and the expression on her face is so soft, so tender, that you assume she is watching Jimmy walk off into the dawn.

She’s not. She has caught a glimpse of the morning star, and she prays to it, almost trembling with need: “Please make me a dancer.”

Jimmy’s kiss brought a glow of happiness to Judy’s face. She cares for him. She’s hurt when he dumps her. She carries around a stuffed animal that once belonged to him. But when she sees the morning star, the wish she makes is not about a future with Jimmy, about finding romantic love and living “happily ever after.” For Judy, a happily ever after without dance is not a happily ever after at all. The wish that thrums through her, igniting her spirit from within, is about her first, and maybe her only, true love.