Dance, Girl, Dance is a mess of a movie, but an important mess. Directed by Dorothy Arzner (one of the few female directors of her era), the film tells the story of two nightclub dancers. Judy O'Brien (Maureen O'Hara, The Quiet Man) yearns to be a classical dancer – to provide audiences with art instead of titillation. Judy's friend Bubbles (Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy) knows that money and sex go hand in hand, and feels that dancing technique should be secondary to seduction technique. Predictably enough, Judy struggles to further her career while Bubbles ends up landing a series of lucrative gigs. Eventually, Judy ends up serving as a “stooge” (essentially the burlesque equivalent of a straight man) for Bubbles, drawing boos with a series of “boring” dances before Bubbles returns to wild applause.
Late in the movie, Judy finally decides she's had enough and verbally unleashes on a room full of leering patrons: “Go on, laugh, get your money's worth. No-one's going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your fifty cents' worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won't let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of? We know it's the thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We'd laugh right back at the lot of you, only we're paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What's it for? So you can go home when the show's over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I'm sure they see through you. I'm sure they see through you just like we do!”
It's a terrific moment of furious feminism, and one that that feels surprisingly bold coming from a film made in 1940. Unfortunately, that excellent monologue is immediately followed by a scene in which Judy and Bubbles find themselves swept up in a hair-pulling brawl, much to the amusement and delight of the men in attendance. As if that weren't bad enough, the film then moves on to a series of scenes in which a handful of powerful men condescendingly summarize and recontextualize Judy's behavior while Judy meekly accepts their judgment. These scenes feel like concessions made to male moviegoers of the era; an attempt to deflate the sting of Judy's lacerating words. Instead, they deflate the movie.
The other central problem is that too much of the movie is occupied by a mostly-pointless romantic subplot in which Judy and Bubbles vie for the affection of dull playboy Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward, And Then There Were None). This plot strand begins on an interesting note – Bubbles uses unspoken sexual promises to lure Jimmy away from the wholesome Judy – but quickly begins to meander and never ends up reaching any sort of compelling resolution. I like that the movie doesn't ultimately build to a conventional romantic ending, but why must we waste so much time on conventional romantic build-up?
Dance, Girl Dance was dismissed by critics upon its initial release (Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it a, “cliche-ridden, garbled repetition of the story of the aches and pains in a dancer's rise to fame and fortune”) and lost RKO studios a great deal of money, but the movie was given a second life when cinephiles of the '60s and '70s began to champion it for its powerful (if muddled) feminist themes.
The movie also served as an effective showcase for Lucille Ball, whose sneering, brassy performance stands in sharp contrast to her delightfully silly sitcom work. The film's most memorable setpiece is Ball's performance of “Mother, What Do I Do Now?”, a kittenish burlesque tune about a woman who loses her clothes in a windstorm. Bubbles gets a lot of flack from her fellow dancers for her flagrantly sexual nature, but Bubbles dismisses such complaints as jealous whining. One brief dialogue exchange sums her up perfectly:
Dancer: “If you fell in the gutter, you'd come back up with a diamond necklace.”
Bubbles: “Listen, squirt! I don't fall in gutters. I pick my spots.”
Ball steals the show, but O'Hara's work shouldn't be discounted. The nature of her role demands that her performance be quieter, but O'Hara plays Judy's unspoken frustration with affecting subtlety. The understated nature of her performance gives her explosive speech tremendous power. It's a pity the movie moves so quickly to undermine that moment. As an entertainment, Dance, Girl, Dance is a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly. As a cultural artifact, it's a fascinating example of a film conducting a passionate argument with itself.
Dance, Girl, Dance
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 1940