Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Director: Dorothy Arzner                                Writer: Tess Slesinger & Frank Davis
Film Score: Edward Ward                              Cinematography: Russell Metty
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, Louis Hayward, Lucille Ball and Ralph Bellamy

Dance, Girl, Dance is another RKO women’s picture, right down to the female director and writer. Arzner was the most prolific female director of the golden era with a scant twenty-one films to her credit but still has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, and Slesinger was nominated for an Oscar five years later for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even so, the picture is a little hard to warm up to. A troupe of chorus girls is stranded in Akron when the club they are playing at is raided. Sitting in the club at the end of the night is a brooding Louis Hayward, gloomy because of his impending divorce from Virginia Field. Not the makings of a gripping drama.

Things pick up, however, after the girls hitchhike their way back to New York. The great Maria Ouspenskaya is a combination dance instructor and agent for the girls. A nightclub needs a hula dancer and the beautiful and innocent Maureen O’Hara begs to try out for the job, but her dancing bores the owner. It’s not until Bubbles shows up, in the form of Lucille Ball, that his eyes bug out and she gets the job instead. O’Hara is really a ballet dancer, though, and Ouspenskaya begs an audition for her with Ralph Bellamy, the head of a New York ballet company. When O’Hara gets cold feet, Ball gets her a job at the burlesque show she’s working, unbeknownst to O’Hara, as her stooge. But O’Hara sticks with it for the money and the show becomes so popular it eventually moves to Broadway.

It’s great seeing Lucille Ball outside of her television persona. She still has the humor and the great comic timing, but she’s also a lot more salacious in her role and it’s quite captivating. Maureen O’Hara is wonderful as the innocent dancer who is still wide-eyed with delight even after all of her disappointments. Louis Hayward is a strange casting choice, but only in retrospect as he looks a little like Desi Arnaz, which is quite interesting with Ball chasing after him when he returns to New York. Unfortunately when the story focuses on Hayward’s divorce, the entire film bogs down. And then the whole thing devolves into a brawl over Hayward until it becomes difficult to understand what the whole point is. It’s not a musical, because the numbers are few and not that interesting. It’s not really a comedy either, because of the over earnest attempt at seriousness. And as a romantic comedy it’s also lacking.

Alas, Carrie Rickey is at it again in The A List, praising the film for its place in history rather than any intrinsic entertainment value it might have. She claims the film as a feminist first, primarily due to Arzner’s direction, and emphasizes the speech that O’Hara gives to the Broadway audience who is there to see some skin. In reality, the speech is embarrassingly moralizing especially when, by the end of the film, the female characters are still dependent on men. She wrongly attempts to applaud O’Hara’s speech, cheerfully ignoring the fact that immediately afterward O’Hara launches into a catfight onstage with Ball, completely undercutting her message. And the ludicrous notion that Ball controls the power balance in her relationships by prostituting herself is one that I continue to read with dismay in film analysis.

At the outset of her review, Rickey admits that Dance, Girl, Dance tanked at the box office, losing RKO hundreds of thousands of dollars, and no doubt ending the career of Arzner as she only directed one more film. But then she claims that, Phoenix-like, the film has become incredibly popular ever since the seventies, daring to compare it to It’s a Wonderful Life which suffered equally at the box-office. But Dance, Girl, Dance has nothing close to Capra’s magic and, in the end, it is exactly what the studio that made it considered it: an “unassuming B movie.”

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