#304) Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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#304) Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

OR “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?”

Directed by Dorothy Arzner

Written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis. Story by Vicki Baum.

Class of 2007

No trailer, so here’s Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball dancing the hula!

The Plot: Judy and Bubbles (Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball) are two chorus girls with aspirations of making it as dancers. Judy is studying to be a ballerina with the esteemed Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), but blows a chance to audition for the renowned dance producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy). Bubbles finds success as a burlesque stripper with the stage name “Tiger Lily”, and procures work for Judy. The catch: Judy’s ballet will serve as a stooge for Tiger Lily, with a male audience that will objectify her as she dances. There’s also a subplot about Jimmy (Louis Hayward), a potential suitor for both women, because ‘40s audiences weren’t ready for this much emotional complexity and female empowerment.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives the film (and director Dorothy Arzner) its proper historical context, and calls the film “a meditation on the disparity between art and commerce.” There’s also a thoughtful essay by film critic Carrie Rickey.

But Does It Really?: “Dance, Girl, Dance” is exactly the kind of movie I’m looking for while working on this blog. There are always the indisputable classics, but I love when the NFR makes room for a well-made movie that was ignored in its day. In addition, the film’s NFR induction is a representation of Dorthy Arzner, the only female director in the Hollywood studio system. “Dance, Girl, Dance” is the kind of female-driven character study that was common in the ‘70s and ‘80s, trapped in the cookie cutter production line of a ‘40s studio film. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering this movie, and I’m delighted “Dance, Girl, Dance” has found a place on the list.

Shout Outs: Be on the lookout for a quick shot of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” playing at a Times Square movie house.

Everybody Gets One: Raised in Los Angeles, Dorothy Arzner was familiar with the film industry (her parents’ restaurant was frequented by the likes of Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett), but her career goal was to become a doctor. After a disheartening experience working in an ambulance unit during WWI, Arzner changed course and found a job at the Paramount script department. She worked her way to editor and eventually director with 1927’s “Fashions for Women”. Her being the only female director in a sexist system didn’t seem to matter as long as her films did well at the box office.

Wow, That’s Dated: We have a BLACKFACE WARNING, this is not a drill!  Two of the ballet dancers appear in blackface during the troupe’s first number.

Seriously, Oscars?: Nothing. Not a single nomination. RKO’s big Oscar contender that year was Ginger Rogers’ post-Fred vehicle “Kitty Foyle”. Dorothy Arzner never received an Oscar nomination during her career, but did receive her share of awards and tributes when her work was rediscovered in the ‘70s.

Other notes

  • First things first: that is one misleading title. I went into “Dance, Girl, Dance” assuming it would be a frivolous musical comedy. I’m delighted I was wrong, but still, I can only imagine how misled 1940 audiences must have felt. The film’s working title was the slightly better “Have It Your Own Way”, which I’m claiming for my script about the founding of Burger King.
  • Both of the film’s leading ladies were not the icons they are known as today. Maureen O’Hara had just moved to Hollywood following her breakthrough performance in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and Lucille Ball was an RKO contract player/radio performer trying to catch a break.
  • Lucy’s a natural blonde!? What else from my pop culture knowledge is a lie?
  • Jimmy says Judy looks “like a star. The one that’s shining when the others have all quit.” That may be the best description of Maureen O’Hara.
  • Shoutout to children’s book character/effeminate Disney cartoon Ferdinand the Bull. At the time, Disney features were distributed by RKO, so the plush Ferdinand is nice little piece of synergy.
  • Maureen O’Hara confessed years later that she wasn’t much of a dancer, and it’s pretty obvious that she’s doubled in the wide shots.
  • Dorothy Arzner’s partner Marion Morgan choreographed the dance routines in this film. In an era when homosexuality was never discussed or acknowledged, Dorothy and Marion maintained a 40-year partnership.
  • Lucille Ball is being sexy and I don’t know how I feel about it. Is this why Ricky never let her be in the show?
  • Unsurprisingly, “Dance, Girl, Dance” passes the Bechdel test left, right, and center.
  • American burlesque was on its way out by 1940, “Dance, Girl, Dance” may be its dying breath.
  • Is this what made Lucy think she could do “Wildcat” and “Mame”?
  • Like many proto-feminist films, our two female leads fight over a man. It does take some of the bite out of the film’s proceedings.
  • Jimmy says multiple times that he is enamored by Judy’s blue eyes. Good thing this is a black and white movie: Maureen O’Hara’s eyes are green.
  • For those curious about the film’s progressive viewpoints, look no further than the scene where Judy scolds the primarily male audience for objectifying her. Right on, Maureen!

Legacy

  • “Dance, Girl, Dance” was a critical and commercial flop, and Dorothy Arzner only made one more film, 1943’s “First Comes Courage” before leaving the studio system for good. She divided her time between directing commercials and other short films, and teaching film at UCLA.
  • Fortunately, Dorothy Arzner lived long enough for “Dance, Girl, Dance” to be reappraised by film students during the feminist movement of the early ‘70s.
  • Perhaps the film’s most impactful legacy: it was during production that Lucille Ball met her future husband Desi Arnaz on the RKO lot. Years later, when RKO folded, the sound stages were sold to Lucy and Desi’s production company: Desilu.

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