Criterion Review: DANCE, GIRL, DANCE

Dorothy Arzner’s woman-centric 1940 comedy defies genre

I can’t believe it took me this long to see a movie in which Ralph Bellamy gets the girl. For decades I’ve heard that Bellamy always loses his gal to another man, but he wins— in a fashion — in the 1940 film, Dance, Girl, Dance. Judy (a twenty-year-old Maureen O’Hara) is in a dancing troupe with Bubbles (Lucille Ball). Judy has talent and dreams of dancing professionally, but Bubbles is in it for the attention.

The movie, which sticks to neither a romantic comedy or musical formula, follows the changing nature of their friendship as money and a newly-divorced tire heir (Louis Hayward) get in the way. Ralph Bellamy figures in as the owner of a ballet academy who becomes fascinated with Judy, even though she lacks the self-confidence to complete an audition for him.

Lucille Ball is pitch perfect as a woman who realizes how far her beauty can get her, seducing men to gain money and publicity. Bubbles is far from shy, yet she and Judy make an interesting friendship. Dance, Girl, Dance is more a depiction and celebration of their tenuous friendship than anything else.

It’s a woman-centric studio film that doesn’t include a suicide (Stage Door) and doesn’t make a cunning woman out to be a baddie (The Women); that and Mary Carlisle’s looks throughout the work lend an almost modern sensibility to Arzner’s picture. I swear if I saw Carlisle’s Sally (another member of Bubbles and Judy’s dance troupe) walking down the street wearing any of her outfits and hairstyles from this film, I wouldn’t even blink.

(Worth noting that a duo of dancers appear in blackface in a ballet performance Judy watches. It’s not super-obvious, but it still stood out to this modern viewer.)

There’s also a sharp critique of the male gaze here, as Judy — who joins Bubbles’ burlesque show as the act’s straight man, of sorts — fiercely tears down an audience for how they’ve treated her and other women on stage. She grows into her confidence, despite the jeers and heckling she faces each night from the male crowd. It’s a wonder to see Maureen O’Hara talk down to them and not be punished later in the film for doing so.

Dance, Girl, Dance joined the Criterion Collection in May; the digitally restored film — scanned from the original 35mm nitrate negative — in their package looks crisp and clear. It’s a worthwhile addition to any classic film lover’s collection, especially those happy to see women making their own stories (or who’ve always secretly wanted to see a Ralph Bellamy character meet his match).

The Criterion BluRay for Dance, Girl, Dance has:

  • a 2020 interview with Francis Ford Coppola about his former UCLA film instructor, Ms. Arzner. He speaks with fondness of her teaching style and encouragement (he studied film directing under her in 1962), and talks a little bit about how she got involved with filmmaking.
  • a 2019 introduction from film scholar Ruby Rich. She discusses Arzner’s innovations (the boom mic) as well as how her personal life impacted her film work. This video essay made me want to find a way to watch Arzner’s Craig’s Wife.
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