An underappreciated pioneer with a knack for crafting wonderfully feminist fare, Dorothy Arzner is a filmmaker all cinephiles should know. A successful woman director and openly gay, Arzner was, in many ways, a rarity in classic Hollywood. She became the first woman to direct a sound film, as well as the first to be in the Directors Guild of America. In 1927, she directed her debut studio film, Fashions for Women; her last would be First Comes Courage in 1943. For sixteen years, Arzner worked with other powerful, prolific women, such as screenwriter Zoë Akins and actresses Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, and Rosalind Russell. These collaborations were about women who didn’t fit the traditional 20th-century mold and thus experienced the pleasures and pain of female rebellion.
Thanks to IU Cinema, Arzner is being celebrated all semester long with her very own film series, 5X Dorothy Arzner: A League of Her Own, which includes her 1940 ode to the resilience and tenacity of women, Dance, Girl, Dance. The film follows the hardships of aspiring ballerina Judy (Maureen O’Hara), who is part of Madame Basilova’s (Maria Ouspenskaya) dance troupe with her best friend Bubbles (Lucille Ball). When Bubbles leaves to become burlesque queen Tiger Lily White, she hires Judy to be her stooge, which puts a strain on their relationship. Exacerbating this is rich, recently divorced playboy Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward), who flirts with Judy while allowing himself to be seduced by Bubbles.
Dance, Girl, Dance sparks an important dialogue in regards to female sexuality and agency, a discussion that is reinforced by the presence of the film’s strongest relationship: Bubbles and Judy’s friendship. Just because it’s strong, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t complicated. On the surface, the women are obvious contrasts. Bubbles is a materialistic, provocative flirt, while Judy is a demure innocent who loves dance more than anything else. However, as the film unfolds, we grow to understand the characters better. Bubbles seeks wealth because it gives her the security she craves. Devoid of Judy’s talent and desire for dancing, her ambition manifests itself through her sexuality. Judy, on the other hand, proves to be stronger and wiser than we suspected, illustrating that her doe-eyed romanticism doesn’t make her a fool.
Although they often appear to be enemies – which would cave in to the ridiculous idea that women can’t truly be friends with other women – Judy and Bubbles support one another in ways big and small. When Bubbles initially finds success as Tiger Lily, she pays a struggling Judy’s rent without telling her and then offers her work. While playing the stooge is far from Judy’s dreams, it does allow her to do ballet in a professional capacity and Bubbles personally negotiates her salary to get her a decent wage.
At the end of the film, Judy demonstrates her deep understanding of Bubbles when she tells a confused Jimmy that she doesn’t begrudge her friend’s egotistical attitude, reasoning that Bubbles is “like a kid who can’t stand it if another kid has one marble, even if she has twenty.” After tensions reach a boiling point and they verbally and physically attack one another in the film’s climax, the two women still remain friends. Judy won’t even let Bubbles apologize, their wordless communication evoking the idea that women need to look out for each other in this patriarchal world.
Judy’s aspiration to be a great dancer is admired by Bubbles; nevertheless, she calls her friend’s determination “dumb” because she finds it more productive to use one’s sex appeal rather than relentlessly practicing dance steps. In this film, success for the working woman is often tied to how she utilizes her body, and how she does this must conform to what is deemed fit by the male employer. This is overwhelmingly apparent with Madame’s troupe, who rely on Bubbles’s eroticism to win them engagements. When Bubbles is late for their audition with a nightclub owner, Judy offers to take her solo in their hula dance, but Madame worries that she doesn’t have the “oomph” necessary to sell their act. She appears to be right when Judy’s solo is met with a stony silence from the club owner. Filmed in close-ups, his presence is menacing as his eyes glaze over and his cigar is barely smoked, his stare challenging Judy’s timid movement.
Once Bubbles finally walks in and takes over, the man’s close-up is still intimidating, but it’s because of the unsettling leer he has now. While Judy is deemed “too classy,” Bubbles’s livelier, more sensual routine has him excitedly puffing away at his cigar, a clear symbol of the phallic power he holds over the troupe. Arzner’s camera makes sure to capture the repulsed looks that pass over Madame and Bubbles’s faces when they’re discussing terms with the club owner, demonstrating that the film’s female characters are aware of the restrictions that are placed on them and they’re not going to passively accept what is forced upon them.
While Dance, Girl, Dance is presented as a traditional narrative from classic Hollywood, replete with a messy love story, there are aspects that clash with this perspective. For Judy, being a ballerina is the foremost goal. When she tries to have an audition with ballet impresario Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), she winds up watching a number by his dancers, her close-ups highlighting how much dancing means to her. The desire on her face is akin to the look on Steve’s face when he attempts to flirt with her on the rainy street a few minutes later. As she brushes him off and starts to run home, the camera cuts to her legs and feet as she gracefully avoids puddles. When it cuts back to Steve, the viewer expects the shot to show him looking at her legs because it lines up with the conventions of shot/reverse shot, but instead Steve’s eyes are level with Judy’s head. Arzner’s choice to glance at Judy’s legs is not a fetishistic one, but rather a chance to show how nimbly Judy moves due to her training.
Ultimately, her “dumb” ambition is what buoys the film, more so than the romantic entanglements that Hollywood prioritizes. After a date with Jimmy, Judy makes a wish on the morning star, a callback to the beginning of the film when she and Jimmy first meet and he says, “You look like a star, the one that keeps shining after all of the others have quit – the morning star.” With the appearance of the star following their date, it is expected that Judy would wish for something pertaining to Jimmy, yet instead she asks “to be a great dancer.” As the film goes on, star imagery follows Judy, and Jimmy’s comparison of her and the morning star proves apt: her pursuit to be a ballerina remains steadfast and in the end, she is rewarded for it. Bubbles, meanwhile, is never seriously attached to anyone as men are just a means to a very wealthy end. Similar to how Judy gets what she wants in the film’s final moments, Bubbles finds victory by marrying and divorcing Jimmy, guaranteeing her a hefty alimony check every month.
Despite being given two different romantic interests, Judy doesn’t exactly fit with either man and, miracle of miracles, the film doesn’t say that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. Judy recognizes that Jimmy belongs with his ex-wife, an idea that the movie supports because it continually checks in with the couple as they try (and fail) to move on from one another. While Steve is portrayed as the anti-Jimmy, thus making him the correct partner for Judy, we rarely see them together. The film’s final scene could be construed as them finally becoming a couple, with Judy crying tears of happiness in his embrace, but it is imperative to note that her crying stems from Steve offering her a job as a ballerina, fulfilling her dream. Arzner’s direction assures the audience that this moment is about Judy as a person and not about her (possibly romantic) relationship with Steve. Although they are holding onto each other, the camera zooms in to make the film’s last frame that of Judy in a close-up. The bottom half of Steve’s face is still visible, but what is noticeably absent from the frame are his eyes, Arzner effectively removing his gaze before the film can fade to black.
Dance, Girl, Dance proves to be subversive in its manipulation of the romantic storyline and in its characters, who are not as cookie-cutter as they may seem, particularly the female leads. It is a movie that deals in ambiguities that remind the audience that, in the wise words of Steve’s secretary, “you can’t condemn a girl because she has to make a living,” a statement Arzner proved true during every second of her monumental, revolutionary career.
Dance, Girl, Dance will be screened at the IU Cinema on November 17 as part of the series 5X Dorothy Arzner: A League of Her Own. This five-film tribute to the groundbreaking filmmaker kicks off September 16 with Christopher Strong, a fascinating drama starring Katharine Hepburn.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.