Anna Devereux: Dorothy Arzner holds the record of the largest body of work obtained by any woman director within the studio system. To give an idea of her significance in Hollywood Her 1940’s classic Dance, Girl, Dance is cited as being the launch pad of Lucille Ball’s career. At the time of its release the film suffered poor reviews, the New York Times mocked it as “a cliché-ridden, garbled repetition of the story of the aches and pains in a dancer’s rise to fame”, and was generally a flop amongst cinema-goers. It was not until the 1970s and the rise of the feminist movement that this film found a truly welcoming audience. Arzner was reclaimed by feminist critics, and her films, in particular Dance, Girl, Dance, were discussed as early feminist pieces thanks to their representations of empowered and headstrong women, and to the strong emphasis Arzner’s films placed on the complexities of female relationships. The film’s protagonists Judy and Bubbles flit between female competition and a search for independence, and there are certainly moments in which Dance is decidedly unfeminist in its plot. Do you think Arzner had any kind of feminist agenda when creating her work? Do you think that was possible in 1940s Hollywood?
Ben Flanagan: Absolutely. The 40s is full of studio films that find creative ways to subvert the strict Hayes Code, from the quietly progressive melodramas of Douglas Sirk, to Preston Sturgess, the master who managed to away with more than most by lacing his Romantic Comedies with sharp satire, class critique, and unashamed sexuality. This classic scene from Preston Sturgess’ The Lady Eve. in which Barbera Stanwyck strokes Henry Fonda’s hair, actually reveals far more intimacy than the three second limit on kissing could have permitted at the time. The key way to get around the code was subtext, a currency which Dance, Girl, Dance trades in to terrific effect.
From the first shot, a dolly into the girls dancing in full focus, luminated by the same lights that cast the club’s predominantly male audience in shadow, this film announces its themes and its intentions. The women are in full focus: the core of Dance. The men stare, as they do throughout the film. A faceless majority that dictates the successes and failures of Maureen O’Hara’s Judy and Lucille Ball’s Bubbles. This scene also establishes the central conflict of the film, between Art v Commerce. The female need for self-expression is overpowered/suppressed by man’s desire for sexual gratification. Money is to be found in the indulgence. Bubbles knows this and has learnt how to exploit it. Her use of Judy as a ‘Stooge’, a real dancer to be booed offstage in her burlesque show explores how art can be brushed aside. She uses Judy as a tease before supplying the goods, but Judy is up for the challenge. In this respect Judy represents the super-ego to Bubbles’ id, an idea which posits the pair as an interesting exploration of the female psyche at the time.
The Hula scene, in which Bubbles is chosen, is another brilliant summation of Arzner’s viewpoint on the art and sleaze clash. The gaze of producer in close up is countered by wide shots of the ladies performing. He judges them and their careers depend on it. She isn’t the best dancer but the most outwardly flirtatious and willing, hence her success. What’s great is how much of the story is told as much through glances and trailed off sentences as through dialogue. This is the strength of the subtext, and also the performances, that Arzner’s intentions are always clear. Judy silently ‘puts up’ with her mistreatment, until she doesn’t. In the last act she gives a speech which throws away subtlety but is empowering, and pays off with her decision in the court scene to take 10 days in prison.
Despite the challenging work mentioned above, it is remarkable that Arzner refuses to toe the line and creates a film that discuss the interior lives of women and have her characters make openly defiant, feminist statements while still working in the studio system. You mention that there are moments in which Dance is unfeminist in its approach, are you talking about the presentation of Bubbles (a magnificent performance from Ball at the very least), or is there something rotten going on here that I missed? At the very least I’m sure you agree this is an anomaly for the time.
AD: Certainly the film has very view faults in terms of its feminist values, especially considering the constraints of that period. The only scene to which I refer is the court scene. The judge’s immediately obvious unprofessional preference for Judy, despite the absolute truth that she did fight Bubbles, is clearly due to the difference in appearance and manner of the two women: one is polite, well spoken and “respectfully” dressed, the other has a far less polished accent and is most importantly a burlesque star. The film does redeem itself to a large extent in Bubbles’ exit, ultimately she displays the genuine kindness that the audience had been continuously waiting for when she reunites Jimmy Harris with his ex-wife. She also champions a situation which could easily have been humiliating by setting her own terms of $50,000 for her troubles (a small price to pay when we consider Jimmy’s awe-inspiring fortune alongside the emotional disruption he has caused both his ex-wife and Judy). Whilst Bubbles’ actions previous to this are hardly kind, the judge’s choice to disregard her statement – which to be fair to her is accurate – because she is a less respectable type of woman in his eyes is uncomfortable. This for me is where the art versus sleaze theme crosses a line into problematic treatment of class and sexuality. Luckily he hardly appears intelligent in that scene regardless, due to his somewhat patronising response to Judy’s fantastic refusals to defend her own character, and despite this small criticism the film is unarguable, even in this scene, fantastically forward thing considering the barriers present in the studio system at this time.
Arzner’s depiction of men as observers is possibly the most surprisingly modern aspect of Dance. Steve Adams, for instance, is introduced as a big, important name: we expect to observe Judy’s attempts to impress him whereas actually what we are shown is him being continually forced to sit back and observe her. Their relationship is not on his terms, she never actually auditions for him, he must seek her out to observe Judy’s movements on her terms and at her pace.
For the majority of the film all we see of Steve is his eyes lighting up as Judy gets on with her work. In Judy’s speech scene – a speech which is fantastic not least for its refusal to condemn the burlesque dancers and rather focusses on the audience of men – the men are made silent by our protagonists determination and ruthlessness. A whole room full of men are controlled by the voice of one woman. No matter how unrealistic the mass of applause at her reprimands of them is, the whole scene is a triumphant moment for women in cinema essentially because Arzner has created a space, no matter how fictional, in which a woman holds the highest place of power in a sea of men.
BF:That speech is probably the least realistic part of a surprisingly realistic movie, but it still feels earned. The direction by Arzner is great here too, that long shot of Judy walking across the stage as the camera looks out to the audience, and the tension of that silence as she takes them all in before beginning her rant. It’s all perfectly pitched. I like your interpretation of Bubbles’ redemptive arc, although one could argue she makes a narrow escape from the magnificent bastard that is Jimmy Harris. Louis Hayward, a sort of Orson Welles by way of Peter Lorre, has such smirking theatricality of voice and face that it’s no wonder he was a Noel Coward protege. I can’t even work out if he’s a good actor, but he’s certainly a memorable one. In the penultimate act it he threatens to steal the spotlight completely when the film almost stops following the girls and becomes about Louis. For a moment I thought their agency was forgotten as we see his post-divorce dating life. Although it involves both of the girls, these scenes are mostly shown through his perspective, leaving me worried that Arzner was trying to win him over to the audience and the film would result in one of our heroines ending up with this slime (still so glad for Judy and the very integrity of the film that she doesn’t accept his payment in that trial). Following Harris in this way works to make us realise what a selfish sod he is at the same time that Judy does, which actually puts you further into her mindset by a sort of reverse engineering.
Dance, Girl, Dance is constantly using its visual language to make the audience understand the mindset of an opposing force. When we see that bemused audience of men during Tiger Lily’s first performance, the cutting is similar to the opening credits of F For Fake. That sequence in Welles’ film confronts the Male Gaze to humorous effect, and Dance, Girl, Dance is very funny too. But its humour is warm, derived from our relationships with the characters. This comes a year before Citizen Kane’s innovations would visually open up the world of cinema, which might explain the terrible back projection and general lack of detail (which actually adds a certain evocative feeling in its brutalist sparseness) but the camera still swoops like the musical that this half is and the frame is always well composed, being alternately packed and empty, telling its emotional story through space and expressionistic blocking.
This has often been called a musical, and though there is some of that DNA inherent in a story of showbusiness, Arzner isn’t interested in any Busby Berkley style dance numbers. The dancing is filmed with a distant functionality, but a fascination nonetheless. The way that Azner cuts the dance sequences with reaction shots, of Judy, of that lustful audience, or most effectively on the Grandmother who watches from the stairs as the troupe practice, wistful of her past as a ballet dancer in Russia, focuses our attention on the romantic escapism that the characters feel rather than allowing us to feel it ourselves.
This must be one of the first movies to pass the Bechdel test right? I’m sure it’s a very early example of one of my favourite sub-genres, the ‘gals in the city’ movie. But it is also about how women don’t always fight for the same cause. Do you think Bubbles qualifies as a ‘bad feminist’ with her power, or is she something else entirely?
AD: No, I think Bubbles has some fantastic moments. Firstly I’m not sure this film is about feminism, it just presents ideas which are relevant to the feminist movement. Bubbles’ outrage at the sleazy businessman who refuses to hire all the hula dancers for his show appears to be genuine. She is simply a woman of her time: her industry sets her up against other women and she plays the game. Bubbles certainly displays a nasty side but I don’t think the film condemns her for it. Instead of Bubbles being punishment, we see men being brought to their knees by the power of these women. Bubbles clearly runs the show at Bailey Brothers, dictating the pay of the dancers and followed around by her farcical bosses. Crucially though, the film begins with Harris showing pity on the abandoned dancers and forcing their audience to pay the girls’ way home. Dance with Bubbles in a position of economic power over Harris as she continues to play the game and work her way further up the chain. Bubbles and Judy leave a trail of men on their knees as they climb their way to success.
Many would assume that such modern themes were simply nonexistent during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it is reassuring to see dialogues of female friendship and independence in a film produced in such circumstances. It is a great shame that Dance, Girl, Dance was so poorly received in its time, for we must imagine that those scathing reviews from such influential voices as The New York Times would have had a nasty effect on audience numbers. We can watch this film now and benefit from its positive and engaging plot, but the great shame of this film is that those who needed the film, women part of a far more patriarchal society than our own who would have had been victim to far stricter societal pressures, were told that it was not worth their time.