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A troupe of nightclub dancers led by the charismatic but provocative "Bubbles" (Lucille Ball) find themselves out of a job when the cops bust their club for illegal gambling.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) follows the mercurial fortunes and misadventures of two members of the troupe -- the innocent, dignified Judy (Maureen O'Hara) who longs to become a legitimate ballerina and her friend and rival Bubbles, who hopes her racy dance routines will land her a cash-flush husband. When Bubbles finds an enthusiastic reception for her sexy numbers on the burlesque stage as Tiger Lily White, she invites Judy along to serve as a high falutin' ballerina stooge for her act. Scenes of the crude, raucous audience, who relish Bubbles's sultry numbers, but boo and jeer during Judy's classy ballerina routines, make for a surprisingly realistic portrait of the divisions between high and low theater at the time.
While Bubbles and Judy occupy opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum, they also vie for the same boyfriend, the wisecracking high society playboy Jimmy Harris (Louis Hayward).
The oddball marriage between Bubbles's sassy bump and grind gyrations and Judy's dignified aspirations to better things have made director Dorothy Arzner's film into something of a feminist cult classic. It's particularly unique for its presentation of a realistic female friendship between Judy and Bubbles and for a climactic scene where Judy stops her ballet midway to berate her audience of hecklers for their lowdown ways and bad manners. "Go on. Laugh!" she jeers. "Get your money's worth. Nobody's going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so's 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?" In a surprising response, the knuckle-draggers end up applauding the prim ballerina for her gutsy speech.
Like their characters, O'Hara remembered that she and Ball "were competitive, but in a friendly way." According to Kathleen Brady in her biography, Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, "they charged admission the day of the filming [of the fight scene] and donated the money to charity. 'Anyone who wanted to watch us beat each other up had to pay, and we battled like tomcats, ' said Maureen. When the battle broke, the combatants left the arena together to have lunch. It was while standing in the commissary with her hair falling forward over a black eye, the vision of a 'two-dollar whore beaten by her pimp, ' that Lucille met Desi Arnaz. 'It was like Wow! A bolt of lightening! Lucille fell like a ton of bricks' said O'Hara. Friends and family warned Ball away from Arnaz as their courtship heated up, but Ball was inflexible. 'I had flipped, ' she admitted."
To prepare for her role in Dance, Girl, Dance, Ball changed her auburn hair color to blonde and starting visiting South Main Street in downtown Los Angeles where she could regularly attend burlesque shows and study the dancers and strippers in action. She also had Hungarian-born choreographer Ernst Matray teach her some tricks of the trade like slapping her thighs in rhythm while performing a bump and grind number. It paid off because Ball received most of the praise when the film was released. One reviewer wrote, "If RKO accomplishes nothing else with the venture...it has informed itself that it has a very important player on the lot in the person of Miss Ball, who may require special writing. But whatever the requirements, she has the makings of a star."
As for director Dorothy Arzner, she spent 30 years in the movie business, beginning her career in Hollywood as a script typist for William C. DeMille and later as an editor at Realart. But it was while observing Cecil B. DeMille at work that Arzner decided directing was her true calling. "I remember making the observation, 'If one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do." The remarkably versatile Arzner went on to direct a number of films featuring strong-willed female protagonists including Christopher Strong (1933) and The Bride Wore Red (1937), but also did her part for the war effort by producing training films for the military. The director was known for drawing wonderful, naturalistic performances from her female stars in her sophisticated productions, of which Dance, Girl, Dance and Christopher Strong with Katharine Hepburn are the most famous.
Arzner spent her "retirement" from Hollywood directing 50 Pepsi-Cola commercials for good friend Joan Crawford (married at the time to Pepsi's chair of the board) and teaching filmmaking at UCLA in the 1960s before her death in 1979. In the 1970s, feminist film scholars applauded Arzner as a key pioneer in the small ranks of women directors working in classical Hollywood, with Dance, Girl, Dance often cited as a prime example of the Arzner touch. Arzner, some have said, undoubtedly drew upon her longtime companionship with choreographer Marion Morgan in depicting the modern dance ballet troupe led by Steven Adams (Ralph Bellamy), which Judy aspires to join.
Scripted from a story by Grand Hotel (1932) author Vicki Baum, Dance, Girl, Dance was mired in production troubles. The original director, Roy Del Ruth, quit after two weeks of shooting because the script lacked a clear point of view or storyline. Arzner refashioned the film from scratch, determining that the essential drama was class-based: "I decided the theme should be 'The Art Spirit,' (Maureen O'Hara) versus the commercial 'Go-Getter' (Lucy Ball)." The film -- whose strange mix of romance, backstage drama, girl rivalry and class drama its studio justifiably had a hard time marketing -- lost $400,000 for RKO. Arzner made only one more film after Dance, Girl, Dance, the 1943 adventure of a female spy played by Merle Oberon, First Comes Courage, which was finished by Charles Vidor when Arzner became gravely ill with pneumonia.
Director: Dorothy Arzner
Producer: Erich Pommer
Screenplay: Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis based on a story by Vicki Baum
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Production Design: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Edward Ward, Chester Forrest, Robert Wright
Cast: Maureen O'Hara (Judy), Louis Hayward (Jimmy Harris), Lucille Ball (Bubbles), Virginia Field (Elinor Harris), Ralph Bellamy (Steve Adams), Maria Ouspenskaya (Mme. Lydia Basilova).
by Felicia Feaster