Director Dorthy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance is joining the ranks of other Criterion Collection releases in May 2020 alongside The Great Escape (1963), a collection of five of Martin Scorsese’s short films titled Scorsese Shorts, Wildelife (2018), Husbands (1970), and a collection of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Co-written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis (co-writers of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Dance, Girl, Dance is likely remembered by most for its charming performances from central cast members Maureen O’Hara (1961’s The Parent Trap), Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy), Louis Hayward (1939’s The Man in the Iron Mask), and Ralph Bellamy (Trading Places). What this Criterion release seems to push, however, is not a remembrance for the cast or to serve as an honorific for the film itself, but as a reminder to the film community at large for Arzner herself. Despite having directed 19 films and being the first female member of the Director’s Guild, Arzner, like so many other women in cinema history, has been left out of our collective memory. With this release and its wonderful supplemental interviews, an opportunity is created to shed some light on a forgotten director and her work.
Judy O’Brien (O’Hara) and Bubbles (Ball) are two members of a dance troupe in Ohio trying to earn a living dancing. When their latest gig is busted up by the cops, the head back to regroup with their troupe manager Madame Lydia Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya) in New York. Bubbles is more interested in making a living by any means necessary, so she takes a job as a burlesque dancer, while Judy keeps trying to get the attention of talent scouts. But when tragedy strikes, Judy takes a job dancing with Bubbles as an interlude in her show. Though she’s on stage for an audience, only time will tell if Judy will long for more.
Released in 1940, Dance, Girl, Dance could just as easily be released today. No, that’s not a request for a remake, more a statement of the modernism present in Arzner’s film. The women are the center focus, they possess agency and determination, and coupling is not presented as a prime directive but as a bargaining tool. Bubbles, for instance, is described in the summary on Criterion’s page as a gold digger and, while accurate for the time of the story, it’s also too simplistic an analysis. Bubbles acknowledges several times over that while she’s not the best dancer in the group (that seems to be O’Brien), she is the prettiest, and she makes no bones about doing what she has to do to take care of herself, whether that’s saddling up to a man with means (Hayward’s Jimmy Harris) or dancing burlesque. This self-awareness allows Bubbles to take charge in just about every situation she’s in, so even if she’s taking off her clothes, she’s the one in command, even going so far as to order around her male bosses. Perhaps it’s Ball’s performance or the writing from Slesinger and Davis, but Bubbles is not to be underestimated in either intelligence or womanhood. She never seeks to actively undermine her friends, brings up those she can, and is clever enough to make the most out of nearly every situation. Even when a major dramatic moment is set off over a man, he’s just the tip of an iceberg, quickly discarded as the cause of turmoil, enabling the momentarily caustic female bond to be repaired and with enormous sincerity. Though O’Hara’s Judy is the lead of the film, Judy’s story is so directly connected to Bubble’s that they are really co-stars of the picture. In contrast to Bubbles, Judy is far more conservative, uncomfortable with putting herself in a position for success out of fear of rejection, lacking the initiative to put herself forward so that someone will recognize her talent. Where Bubbles will take the jobs she can take, Judy holds out until she has no other options, willingly becoming fodder for an audience’s wrath in between performances by Bubbles instead of trying out for a more prestigious production. Their dynamic is one of mutual support, even if it often bristles against their individual needs and wants. No matter what, though, they return back to a place of mutual respect and allyship.
As with other Criterion releases, the supplemental materials help to enhance the experience of the film they come with and should be explored once viewed. The first of two on-disc supplemental featurettes comes from a 2019 interview with film critic B. Ruby Rich who explores and discusses not just Dance, Girl, Dance, but the career of Arzner. Arzner directed 19 films from 1927-1943, working with the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), Rosaline Russell (Craig’s Wife), and others, all while out publicly as a lesbian, something mostly unheard of in that period. Yet she is somehow almost completely unknown by cinephiles and historians. Rich’s interview, while brief at 15 minutes, offers insight into the professional side of the director. What makes it fascinating isn’t that she’s a director largely unknown to the public, but how she handled herself as a director and creator, rarely settling for anything less than the best from her performers and crew. The second on-disc supplemental featurette is a 2020 interview with director Francis Ford Coppola, who studied under Arzner as a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1962. Where Rich focused on the professional, Coppola is able to discuss Arzner from a more personal perspective. He doesn’t delve into her life so much as impart how her experience and wisdom positively impacted his own during the 10-minute interview. Coppola is known today as one of the premiere directors in cinema, but he tells a story about being filled with doubt as a student filmmaker and how he considered leaving the UCLA program. He didn’t because of a single kind word from Arzner. It’s not only a wonderfully sweet story about the significance of mentorship — for instance, imagine where cinema would be today without the enormous influence in sound technology of Apocalypse Now — but also how even the best of us possess uncertainty about our futures.
Whether you’re coming to Dance, Girl, Dance as a lover of the Golden Age of Hollywood or to enhance your knowledge of cinema, this edition does right by its lesser known and significant participant: Dorothy Arzner. As a 4K transfer, the picture maintains its original character while looking more suited for high definition broadcast. Though music doesn’t play a significant role in Dance, Girl, Dance, the soundtrack comes across beautifully, even via a decade-old surround sound system. If you’ve got something more modern to play the feature on, it’ll likely sound more improved. No matter what is done to a film to make it look updated, only the film can speak to a certain timelessness and Dance, Girl, Dance does. For the 1940s, it only has one truly cringe-inducing moment of minstrelsy out of three scenes including Black representation and the rest of the film is daringly feminist. Even the few dance numbers which feature more sexualized moves, tame for our era, are presented absent the male gaze. The women are always cognizant of what the situation requires, aware of what their bodies may arouse, and react in kind. Dance, Girl, Dance may be considered subversive for its time, but it fits right in to the stories modern audiences want to see now. Perhaps with it joining The Criterion Collection, more audiences will.
Dance, Girl, Dance Special Features
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New introduction by critic B. Ruby Rich (15:17)
- New interview with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (10:48)
- An essay by critic Sheila O’Malley
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Available on Blu-ray and DVD May 19th, 2020 from The Criterion Collection.
**Be advised that Criterion is offering a special discount of 30% all in-stock and preordered content until June 15th, 2020.**
Final Score: 4 out of 5.