Dance, Girl, Dance (1940): Dorothy Arzner’s Best Film, Starring Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara

Dance, Girl, Dance is directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only woman in the Hollywood Studio System to have had a sustained career as a filmmaker.

The film tells an original story of friendship between two very different women, played by Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, before Ball became a TV star in “I Love Lucy.” The beloved Lucy gives a terrific performance as Bubbles, a down-to-earth burlesque queen.

On the surface, Dance, Girl, Dance is a serio-comedy-musical, featuring two women in a knock-down, drag-out fight over a man (what else in a Hollywood movie)–only to realize how much more they have to gain if they join forces.

Maureen O’Hara’s speech to the male audience in the club where she perfroms is actually addressed at the male spectators in the moviehouse. It’s a poignant deconstruction of the “male gaze,” and women as “objects of the gaze,” concepts that would occupy the center of feminist theory in the 1970s.

A female “buddy” film, Dance, Girl, Dance is not flawless, but it deserves credit for being ahead of its time, a feminist narrative, about women in a male-dominated society, made in male-dominated film industry.

Running Time: 90 minutes

Dorothy Arzner (1900-1979)

Dorothy Arzner occupies a unique place in the history of the American cinema: She is the only woman to have directed movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the studio system. Indeed, the entire contribution of women to filmmaking in the l930s and l940s could be described in terms of the career of one woman: Arzner. Furthermore, unlike previous (and later) women directors, Arzner’s sustained career and film output are quite impressive: three silent and fourteen sound pictures. Arzner was also the first female member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), established in l933.

Championed and revered by the women’s movement in the l960s, Arzner has served as an influential role model. In the l970s, she received the long overdue recognition she no doubt deserved. The First International Film Festival of Women, in l972, opened with the screening of The Wild Party, starring Clara Bow. And the Second Festival, in l976, presented for the first time a full retrospective of her output.

A year earlier, Arzner was honored by the Directors Guild in an evening titled “A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” One of the emotional highlights of this event was a telegram from Katharine Hepburn, who had starred in Arzner’s Christopher Strong (l933). “Isn’t it wonderful,” Hepburn wrote, “that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all.”

She started her career as in the editing room, as a cutter. In l922, her editing of the bullfighting scenes in Rudolph Valentino’s silent film Blood and Sand was considered very imaginative. Director James Cruze was so impressed with her work that he asked her to edit his Western, The Covered Wagon (l923).

Asked to explain her motivation to become a director, she said: “The great part of the motion-picture audience is feminine. Box-office appeal is thought of largely in terms of the women lined up at the ticket window. If there are no women directors there ought to be.” Arzner knew that “If one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director.”

She was so committed to a film career that she was willing to face many obstacles. “Sometimes I think that pride is the greatest obstacle to success,” she told an interviewer, “A silly false pride that keeps people from being willing to learn, from starting at the bottom, no matter how far down it may be, and learning every step of the way up.” “When I went to work in a studio,” she recalled, “I took my pride, made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

Arzner’s directorial career spanned seventeen years, during which she made seventeen movies. Of her fourteen sound movies, at least four are still noteworthy: Merrily We Go to Hell (l932); Christopher Strong (l933); Nana (l934), based on Emil Zola’s novel; and Dance, Girl, Dance (l940), her most overtly feminist film. Her last feature, First Comes Courage, was made in l943.