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Review: Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance on Criterion Blu-ray

Criterion welcomes Arzner into its collection with an excellent 4K transfer of this rollicking stage drama.

3.5
Clayton Dillard

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Dance, Girl, Dance

During the opening sequence of Dance, Girl, Dance, as police raid a seedy nightclub in Akron, Ohio that’s a front for illegal gambling, dancer Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) tells an unsympathetic cop: “We’re just trying to earn our living.” The line speaks to the central theme of Dorothy Arzner’s prescient 1940 drama, which sees how personal branding and an indefatigable opportunism are, for women, necessities for achieving stardom, especially outside the confines of the Hollywood pipeline.

Judy, idealistic about ballet and certain that her commitment to artistry will win out, eventually finds herself playing stooge to “Tiger” Lily White (Lucille Ball), who flouts her sexuality and sass in an audition for the headlining act at a Hoboken burlesque club. A lesser director might have seen Lily as a one-note wretch and put her in sharp contrast to a naif-ish Judy, but Arzner doesn’t patronize either character by defining them by a single trait. And this refusal resonates with the film’s broader critique of exploitative spaces like burlesque clubs—a rejoinder that Judy explicitly delivers in a lengthy monologue near the end of the film.

The film pulls off a mighty balancing act between indulging in the sex appeal of its female characters and critiquing how men commodify it. Arzner makes Lily into a believably magnetic figure who easily excels all her fellow dancers; her audition for a lecherous talent scout (Harold Huber) follows on the heels of Judy’s uninspired take on the same hula tune. While Dance, Girl, Dance certainly takes aim at the spectacle of sweaty older men ogling and taking advantage of young female bodies, it also recognizes the undeniable eroticism of watching a physically commanding performer take control of a stage.

And speaking of sex appeal, the film belongs to Ball, nowhere more so than in a burlesque number (“Mother, What Do I Do Now?”) that plays up the thin line between girlhood and womanhood with regard to sexual prowess. It’s a raucous sequence that unfolds like a relic from the pre-Code era, when jutting hips weren’t subject to censorship. When Judy, who by all accounts is the same age as Lily, subsequently takes the stage to perform her stooge ballet routine, a male patron yells out, “Go home, little girl, your mother’s calling you.”

In this moment, Dance, Girl, Dance scrutinizes how women are expected by men to have the characteristics of innocence while displaying the actions of full-bodied women. Since Judy’s routine fails at the latter, she’s seen by the audience as merely innocent, and as such unfit for stardom. It’s a remarkable sequence, especially from a contemporary vantage point, as the sexist expectation that women must create a specifically sexualized image of themselves in order to obtain notoriety as a performer remains an issue to this day.

The weaker aspects of the film concern a pair of potential love interests. Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward) is a wealthy scion in a love-hate relationship with his estranged wife (Virginia Field) but who’s also courting Judy and Lily depending on the day. The character is, in short, a drag, transparent in his spoiled notions of privilege and excess, and while the film more or less acknowledges as much by the end, Frank Davis and Tess Slesinger’s screenplay is too tethered to the premise of having him around for the possibility of some romance. The same goes, though to a lesser degree, for Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), a prominent ballet director who Judy thinks could help her secure a big break. While Bellamy’s charm smooths over the character’s presence as it distracts from the film’s more intriguing elements, such as the dance numbers and crackles of backstage tension, Dance, Girl, Dance might have been a breathless jaunt from front to back if it had dared to kick these male figures to the curb from the start.

Image/Sound

This new 4K digital transfer looks great, with the only damage consisting of occasional scratches and artifacts at the edges of the frame, but those flaws are native to the original negative and dupes from which the scan was derived. Overall, the transfer boasts exquisite sharpness and depth of field, most notably in dance sequences where the camera stays wide at certain points. Shadow delineation is excellent, while close-ups are rich in image detail, with actors’ skin and eyes appearing particularly luminous. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack nicely balances dialogue and music into a full and even mix.

Extras

The first of two interviews included on this disc is with critic B. Ruby Rich, who outlines both the feminist and queer themes of Dorothy Arzner’s filmography, along with aspects of the filmmaker’s career, such as her being the only working female director in Hollywood in the late 1930s and early ‘40s and openly living with another woman. Though a combination of Rich’s words, clips from numerous Arzner films, and footage of Arzner herself, the interview succinctly attests to the importance of a filmmaker who’s too often reduced to a historical footnote. Notably, Rich explains how Dance, Girl, Dance creates a complicated portrait of feminine desire by toying with perceptions of masculinity and femininity, and also touches on how variations on these themes are present in other Arzner films from the same era. The second interview, conducted with Francis Ford Coppola in 2020, explains Arzner’s turn from Hollywood filmmaker to UCLA professor, with Coppola offering his recollections of being her student in the early ‘60s. Coppola, who says he can only call her “Miss Arzner” due to this relationship, shares some brief stories of Arzner’s advice and encouragement. Rounding out the package is a discerning essay by critic Sheila O’Malley that, among its other historical interests, explores how the film contains layers related to “the concept of looking.”

Overall

Criterion welcomes Dorothy Arzner into its collection with an excellent 4K transfer of this rollicking stage drama, though one wishes the disc’s extras had a bit more pep in their step.

Cast: Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mary Carlisle, Katharine Alexander, Edward Brophy, Walter Abel Director: Dorothy Arzner Screenwriter: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 1940 Release Date: May 19, 2020 Buy: Video

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