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.”
“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.”