Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 7, 2020)
Given the massive success and influence of her 1950s TV series I Love Lucy, it becomes easy for modern viewers to forget that Lucille Ball ever did anything other than sitcoms. Ball worked as a film actor for many years before I Love Lucy, and 1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance gives us a look at that aspect of her career.
Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Ball) both work in Madame Basilova’s (Maria Ouspenskaya) dance troupe, but both enjoy greater aspirations. Judy wants to develop a career as a serious ballet dancer, whereas Bubbles craves fame and fortune.
Bubbles joins a burlesque club and achieves success. After Madame Basilova’s group disbands, Bubbles gives Judy a demeaning job in her show, and the two butt heads, issues that intensify via various romantic entanglements.
In 2020, Hollywood remains largely a man’s world, as female directors struggle for attention. That remained much more true 80 years ago, as women found it next to impossible to get those gigs.
Though Dorothy Arzner lived until 1979, she left feature films after 1943’s First Comes Courage, and Dance acted as her penultimate Hollywood effort. After that she primarily worked as an instructor at UCLA, where she met and educated a certain Francis Ford Coppola.
Going into this Criterion release, I admit I’d never heard of Arzner, and a look at her filmography reveals no titles that seem familiar to me. After a screening of Dance, I can’t claim that I find myself eager to delve into her catalog, as it offers a pretty forgettable melodrama.
The back cover of this Blu-ray claims that Arzner brought a “subversive feminist sensibility” to Dance. Perhaps I’d recognize that if I was a subversive feminist, but as it stands, I can’t find much about Dance that seems especially subversive or feminist.
Oh, Dance ends with a speech that tells off piggish men, so I guess that offers a feminist act. Improbably, these guys love Judy for this, and she suddenly becomes their darling.
This leads to a completely bizarre courtroom scene that evokes O’Hara’s later classic Miracle on 34th Street, but in a goofier manner. All of this pushes toward a silly “happily ever after” that makes little sense.
Even prior to this head-scratching finale, Dance offers a messy story that lacks much coherence. Rather than focus mainly on the Judy/Bubbles rivalry, the movie bops around from one superfluous domain to another, none of which adds up to much.’
Arzner also wastes a whole lot of time with an extended glimpse of Bubbles’ burlesque performance. A little of this seems necessary, especially as Bubbles’ gig sets up the way she humiliates Judy.
However, this part of the movie goes on well past its necessary point. Perhaps Ball worked it into her contract that the film would showcase her various talents, but I can’t find a narrative reason to focus so much on Bubbles in that setting.
I will say Ball proves impressive as the conniving, competitive Bubbles. She gives the role the sexy charm it needs and also demonstrates the appropriate cynicism and bite. Ball becomes one of the film’s strongest elements.
So good in other films, O’Hara flops as Judy, mainly because she can’t really pull off the character’s perpetual wide-eyed innocence. Terrific as the jaded, doubting Doris in Miracle, O’Hara seems miscast here.
Not that I think a great performance from O’Hara would redeem this mushy melodrama, though I admit the way the great Ouspenskaya mutters the word “oomph” almost makes everything else worthwhile. Not quite, however, so this ends up as a mushy show biz tale.