Girl Dance Dance - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1940

Director: Dorothy Arzner

Production: RKO-Radio Pictures; black and white; running time: 90 minutes. Released September 1940.

Producers: Erich Pommer and Harry Edington; screenplay: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, from the novel by Vicki Baum; assistant director: James H. Anderson; photography: Russell Metty; editor: Robert Wise; sound: Hugh McDowell, Jr.; art director: Van Nest Polglase; associate art director: Al Herman; gowns: Edward Stevenson; music director: Edward Ward; dances: Ernst Matray.

Cast: Maureen O'Hara ( Judy ); Louis Hayward ( Jimmy Harris ); Lucille Ball ( Bubbles ); Ralph Bellamy ( Steve Adams ); Virginia Field ( Elinor Harris ); Maria Ouspenskaya ( Madame Basilova ); Mary Carlisle ( Sally ); Katherine Alexander ( Miss Olmstead ); Edward Brophie ( Dwarfie ); Walter Abel ( Judge ); Harold Huber ( Hoboken Gent ); Ernest Truex ( Bailey 1 ); Chester Clute ( Bailey 2 ); Vivian Fay ( Ballerina ); Lorraine Krueger ( Dolly ); Lola Jensen ( Daisy ); Emma Dunn ( Ms. Simpson ); Sidney Blackmer ( Puss in Boots ); Ludwig Stossel ( Caesar ); Erno Verebes ( Fitch ).



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* * *

Dance, Girl, Dance is one of the few films directed by a woman in what is known as the "classical Hollywood" era, when, it has been argued, the conventional narrative codes of cinema were fixed. This unique position has inevitably informed the ways in which the film has been studied. Although Dorothy Arzner herself was not a feminist, it is due to feminism that she has been reassessed. In the mid-1970s feminist critics argued that while Dance, Girl, Dance may appear to be just one example of the popular musical comedies and women's pictures produced by RKO in the 1930s and 1940s, Arzner's ironic point of view questions the very conventions she uses.

The film was made in the relative flexibility of RKO's production system, whereby independent directors were contracted to work under minimal supervision. It was in this context that Arzner was reputedly able to rework a confusing and scrappy script to focus on the ambivalent relationship between the two strong, but very different, main female characters, Judy, an aspiring ballerina, and Bubbles, a gold-digging showgirl. Bubbles, after finding work in burlesque, brings Judy's "classy act" into her show, where Judy is humiliated as her stooge. One night, Bubbles announces that she has married Jimmy Harris, a weak heavy-drinking millionaire divorcé with whom Judy has fallen in love. Consequently, in a scene that has been much discussed, Judy, overwhelmed with frustration, furiously confronts her heckling audience. The standing ovation she receives infuriates Bubbles, and they fall into a vicious fight. Judy, unrepentant, is sent to jail, but the next day, Steve Adams, a ballet director who has been pursuing her, pays her bail and summons her to his office. He intends to train her to be a professional ballerina and, it is implied, his wife.

Arzner's portrayal of the complex relationship between the two women is one of the ways in which the apparent opposition set up between art (offering "self-expression") and entertainment (imposing exploitation) is undermined. The ways in which each woman's dance numbers are presented subvert the stereotypes of a sexual Bubbles and an artistic Judy. For example, when Judy dances at the night-club, Fitch, Steve's associate, comments in surprise at her impressive (i.e., artistic) footwork. Steve, however, leers that "her eyes aren't bad either." Arzner pinpoints with terrible clarity the tension between a woman's struggle for integrity and a male gaze that by its very nature undermines that struggle. Where, then, does this leave Bubbles? When she dances at the burlesque, the ironies of her performances are a real delight for the cinema audience. When she calls and points to her audience she is challenging them, from within the licensed confines of burlesque conventions, in a way that parallels Judy's later outburst. Both women challenge, from the stage, the men who watch them, and thereby resist their passive status. So while we are invited to gaze upon Bubbles as a non-artistic spectacle, she is also knowing, controlling, with a voice of her own. It is the sheer power of this "voice," Bubbles's potent screen presence, that subverts her implied position as less worthy than Judy.

Much of the critical attention paid to Judy's furious speech has suggested that the artistic and moral criticism of the lecherous gaze of the burlesque audience also functions as a not-so-veiled attack on the cinema audience. However, the film has much invested in drawing in its audience to enjoy the display of women's bodies, and this impulse arguably triumphs over the conflicting impulse to alienate the audience, or to chastise it for its voyeurism. Judy's gesture is thus defused by being applauded, and leading into the titillating catfight. But the irony is that she has found a voice and can defiantly assert, "I'm not ashamed," not within the structures of the ballet, but in those of the burlesque.

As in Arzner's earlier work, and within the conventions of the women's film, it is the scenes featuring women that are the most striking and subtle, and in contrast, the heterosexual romance appears hollow. Although a weak love-story element runs through the film, the women's desires are channelled less towards coupledom than independence. After a date with Jimmy, Judy wishes on a star that she might become a dancer too. She wants it all, romance and artistic integrity, and the latter is never submerged in the former. Bubbles, on the other hand, desires economic rather than artistic independence. Both her dancing and her sexual desires are grounded in a cynicism about heterosexual relationships that affords her one of the film's finest throwaway lines, describing the burlesque owner as "a great big capitalist in the artificial limbs business."

However, the position of strong female protagonists in a Hollywood text is a precarious one, and it is in the final scene that this is tragically realised. Steve, in a humiliating tirade, asserts that Judy has been a silly, stubborn "girl." The incongruously huge hat that she wears in this scene hides her face until, as Steve embraces her and tells her to "go ahead and laugh," it is revealed that she is, in fact, weeping. Arzner's final irony offers the potential for a critique of the traditional boy-gets-girl resolution, and, implicitly, of the classical Hollywood text itself.

—Samantha Cook

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