Dance, Girl, Dance | Another film classic from director Dorothy Arzner

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In 1940, Dorothy Arzner directed Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara in the classic Dance, Girl, Dance. Sarah Cook looks back.

Last week, I wrote about the incredible Dorothy Arzner and her upcoming season at the BFI. Well, February is finally the month when you can head to BFI Southbank and enjoy a multitude of films from the superbly talented director.

With that in mind, I thought I’d highlight another of her films this week. Previously I’ve spoken about her ground-breaking work on The Wild Party (1929) and my personal favourite, Honor Among Lovers (1931).

Arzner’s most popular work is the 1940 romantic comedy Dance, Girl, Dance, and it is an absolutely ball! (That pun will become important in a few moments.)

Starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball (see), Dance, Girl, Dance revolves around the frivolous and fun world of showgirls. It follows Judy O’Brien, a wannabe ballerina who’s also part of a dance troupe with the loud and vivacious Bubbles. When the latter leaves to partake in more risqué performances, i.e. burlesque, she takes Judy under her wing, only for the pair to fall apart when they fall for the same men.

Dance, Girl, Dance is an impressive and joyfully told story about the intricacies of women. Written by Vicki Baum, directed by Arzner, and led by O’Hara and Hayward, it is an early masterclass on femininity and womanhood. Thanks to Braum’s expertly woven script and Arzner’s astute directing, Dance, Girl, Dance understands, empathically, the elements of our two centric leads. The strength of the film relies on their compatibility, no matter how volatile that is, and how their relationship darkens or lightens their life at different points in their lives. Sure, they’re thrown into the midst of a love triangle, but the man isn’t very important here – Judy and Bubbles’ friendship is.

Read more: Old movies | A salute to cinematic pioneer Dorothy Arzner

What’s more, Dance, Girl, Dance has this underlying exploration of how artistic identity can falter in lieu of commercial success and how many, especially women, can exploit the male gaze to garner fame and fortune – much to their detriment at times. It’s a brilliantly intricate and impactful film that resonates long after viewing. Arzner keeps the focus on the dancers – and their reaction to being objectified, allowing the audience to see all the gritty elements that go into creating entertainment.

Of course, a lot of joy here comes from the wonderful Lucille Ball as Bubbles. The actress and comedienne will forever be remembered for her self-titled show, so it’s no surprise that the actress can impart a zinger or two. Yet much more than her hilarious delivery, Ball portrays Bubbles with a drive and zest that keeps the movie bouncing along. Maureen O’Hara falters somewhat against Ball’s larger-than-life character. The actress would later come into her own with subsequent movies, but O’Hara’s charm is used enough here to keep her interesting.

Dance, Girl, Dance is an absolute must-see on the big screen, showing exactly how crucial it is for women to write, direct, and star in movies such as these.

Dance, Girl, Dance is playing at the BFI as part of A League of Her Own: The Cinema of Dorothy Arzner.

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