Dance, Girl, Dance is an absolutely fascinating film made during the golden age of Hollywood. It was directed by Dorothy Arzner, who is one of the great forgotten pioneers of cinema. She was basically the only woman director in Hollywood during the ’30s, and an extremely open butch lesbian. Arzner started in the Silent Era, which was a very habitable landscape for women filmmakers. There were dozens then, but when sound came, films became bigger and bigger business, and “the boys” ousted out all the women directors. Women still excelled in editing rooms and at screenwriting, but less and less often as directors and camerawomen. Arzner even invented the boom mic for her film The Wild Party with Clara Bow, and just the year previous had made the first talkie for Paramount, the now lost Manhattan Cocktail.
Arnzner ended up being possibly the most prolific female filmmaker ever in Hollywood. I’m sure if she hasn’t yet been surpassed, given the increased demand for women directors in recent years, she will be soon enough. Dance, Girl, Dance would end up being her penultimate feature before she left directing films. It’s debatable exactly why she stopped, but with the advent of the Hays Code, increased homophobia and of course sexism, she decided to quit as a feature director. She did stay in the business, making Women’s Army Corps training films, Pepsi ads featuring Joan Crawford (there are rumours they were romantically involved at one point), and eventually supervising advanced cinema classes at UCLA, where she was the teacher of Francis Ford Coppola.
She was also a star-maker behind Crawford and Katharine Hepburn, and there is probably some truth to the idea that she helped mould the ambiguous sexuality of Hepburn’s persona. Would be interesting to see how frequent Hepburn wore slacks before she worked with Dorothy Arzner which became one of her trademarks.
Dance, Girl, Dance is about a double act, with Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball as dancers who end up in the Bailey Brothers’ burlesque show. It’s a fairly conventional light-hearted drama of these extremely modern women who fall in love with the same guy, and you kind of see where it’s going. Lucille Ball plays an extremely brassy, highly sexualised burlesque queen, and O’Hara plays a slightly timid ballerina with dreams of high art. In the film’s most shocking and ahead-of-its-time scene, O’Hara, who is the warm-up act for Ball’s burlesque queen, literally calls out the lecherous male audience for exactly that. It’s 30 years in advance with its condemnation of the male gaze within the entertainment industry.
It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but it’s pretty stunning to see a film created in 1940 tackle feminist issues that are as relevant now as they were back then. However, it is worth mentioning that if you look seriously at films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, on a whole the parts for women were far more complicated and better written then most of their modern counterparts. In the ’30s in particular, actresses led films much more than they do currently. Robert Wise also does a fantastic job of editing here, his next film as an editor was some small film called Citizen Kane. Vernon L. Walker also supplies some gorgeous matte paintings that recall Kane as well: both Wise and Walker were under contract to RKO Pictures, which made both films.
Dorothy Arzner remains a true pioneer in cinema in countless ways. She had a small revival with second-wave feminist film theorists during the ’60s and ’70s, but seemed to have been slightly forgotten since then. However, in recent years the increased interest in films directed by women has meant that Arzner has once again been getting her due. This Criterion release is very welcome, but a little light on the extras. It does include two interviews. First up is B. Ruby Rich, who coined the term “New Queer Cinema” in the early ’90s. Todd Haynes, who was a part of that movement, has been rumoured for nearly two decades to be working on a biopic of Arzner. The other interview, unsurprisingly, is with Francis Ford Coppola, who tells about his personal experience with Arzner and shows off the rye whiskey his spirits company made in tribute to her. The essay is by Sheila O’Malley, who has worked with Criterion before and is also a regular on the deceased Roger Ebert’s Web site.