Written by: Vicki Baum, Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger
Starring: Maureen O’Hara, Louis Hayward, Lucille Ball, Ralph Bellamy
Getting what we want in life never comes easy, especially as a woman for the majority of American history. When not subjected to motherhood, breaking out on one’s own came with its share of challenges, with sexism being a major one. Through its cutting commentary and inspirational story in Dance, Girl, Dance, we get to witness a truly sharp film looking to appease all involved even if it seems impossible.
With aspirations to be a dancer, Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) works within a troupe of other women performing for manageable wages. While she possesses plenty of skill, the main attraction for their group always ends up being Bubbles (Lucille Ball). She has a certain factor Judy could never achieve, which sets off Judy’s quest to become a dancer no matter how uninspiring the role may be.
As seen through the men in Dance, Girl, Dance, the society of this time did not have much respect for women, especially performers. If women wanted to succeed in this profession they either had to be at the top working with extravagant productions or be an object for men to ogle. On the journey to the top and having to drudge through the dreaded bottom, Judy sees it all in her attempts to follow her dreams. In this quest, she finds the intersection between passion and paycheck when it comes to dancing because, at different times, she does not earn enough to even pay her rent. It makes her desperate for any opportunity to shine, which is where she ends up taking the role of the Stooge in a show headlined by Bubbles. The act would essentially be Bubbles performing her signature number getting the men all riled up only for Judy to replace her with a non-sexual routine. Just would receive the boos from the crowd and would eventually be yanked to bring back the woman the men want, Bubbles. Certainly a humiliating routine for Judy, but the film displays the crossroads she has reached with trying to survive and doing what she loves.
The character difference between Bubbles and Judy says plenty about this era and how women could choose to succeed. From the very beginning, it’s made clear Bubbles knows how to utilize her sexuality in a manner where people would arrive solely for her performances. We see she does not have the worth ethic or skill of Judy, but she performs in a way that makes her irresistible to the patrons. Judy focuses on the art of it all, and essentially gets ridiculed by the men, because they only care to be titillated if a woman occupies the stage. The level of success each of them achieves through their methods demonstrates where the money lies in this profession. This attitude towards women sadly has not changed as much as would be preferable, but the key to this film’s success arrives in the way it addresses the environment.
As the story progresses, we see Judy just taking what she gets given and looking to not complain, but she does reach a boiling point where she refuses to carry on with the ridiculous circumstances she needs to endure in order to survive. With a specific piece of dialogue delivered, she says everything the audience must have been thinking about how horribly she gets treated and the state of the people paying for this type of entertainment. The genius of the film shows itself, as it must have been controversial for Judy’s character to address people in the way she chooses to do it in this story. Viewing this in the 21st century makes the monologue something you would expect in a modern film but the fact this came out in 1940 demonstrates the trailblazing quality Dance, Girl, Dance has. It became quite stunning to experience and only further cements Dorothy Arzner as one of the most integral female directors in film history. Never afraid to comment on these horrible social norms set against women, through Judy we see a woman standing up to men. A stunning decision aided by the wonderful performance by the cast.
Maureen O’Hara does a stellar job with the character of Judy because she embodies this relatable persistence and drive in the pursuit of her dreams. In this era, options were not overflowing for women to join different workforces. Dance and performing arts became one of the avenues for independence for women and Judy wanted to hold onto the opportunity at all costs. On the other hand, we have a tremendous performance by Lucille Ball as Bubbles. As energetic as she would prove to be in her hit television show, Ball commands the screen each time she appears and justifies why the men would wait in hour-long lines to see her perform. Bubbles represent a woman utilizing this profession as a means to an end, which mostly centers on marrying a rich man and never having to work again. Their vastly different motivations demand strong performances and both of these two deliver with style to spare.
Impeccably ahead of its time and a magnificently inspiring story of going for what you want, Dance, Girl, Dance demonstrates excellence in so many facets. The dance sequences have flair and it shows two strong female characters hoping to achieve their goals through the same path. Their characterizations have enough on its own before looking at the addition of James (Louis Hayward), who adds his own element to the story. In a world where women must appease men even in their hopes for entertainment, this film holds up a mirror to display the shame they should feel and we get to experience all of the satisfaction.