Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dance, Girl, Dance (RKO, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Dance With Me, Henry I screened Charles a great film whose title also began with the word “Dance”: Dance, Girl, Dance, a 1940 movie that became an icon among feminist critics in the 1970’s when they were rediscovering the work of director Dorothy Arzner, the only woman to have a major career as a Hollywood filmmaker in the 1930’s. (There had been some quite significant female filmmakers in the silent era, notably Alice Guy and Lois Weber, but after Arzner dropped out of feature filmmaking there wouldn’t be another major woman director until actress Ida Lupino tried her hand at making a few films as director in 1949-1953.) Arzner’s rediscovery was helped by the fact that she was still alive, willing to be interviewed about her career and also open about being a Lesbian — in fact, she said, her sexual orientation towards women helped male directors accept her as “one of the boys” and thereby be more tolerant of her than they’d have been towards a straight woman attempting a directorial career — even though quite a few of her movies involved her taking a project over from a male director who’d been either fired (George Fitzmaurice on Nana,1934), died (Richard Boleslawski on The Bride Wore Red, 1937) or quit (Roy Del Ruth here; he left Dance, Girl, Dance after two weeks because he couldn’t get along with the producer, Erich Pommer, the former UFA studio head who’d fled the Nazis in 1933). Dance, Girl, Dance got seized on by feminist critics even more than Arzner’s other films because they read it as a movie about female bonding — even though the female leads here, Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, spend a lot more screen time battling than bonding and the film’s big climax is a cat-fight scene between them. (Ironically, O’Hara and Ball were best buds off-screen; they formed a friendship while making this film that lasted until Ball’s death nearly 50 years later.) The film opens in Akron, Ohio with a scene screenwriters Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, working from a story by Grand Hotel author Vicki Baum, clearly ripped off from the 1933 MGM musical Dancing Lady: dancers Bubbles (Lucille Ball), Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) and Sally (Mary Carlisle, who gets lost in the shuffle even though she’s supposed to be rooming with the other two) are part of an eight-person chorus line in a sleazy nightclub that gets raided because it’s really a front for an illegal casino.

They’re bailed out by Jimmy Harris, Jr. (Louis Hayward), son of the owner of “Harris Tires” (read: Goodyear), who’s just coming off the failure of his latest marriage to Elinor (Virginia Field) when he successively dates Judy and Bubbles and gives Bubbles a stuffed toy of Ferdinand the Bull, which he picked up years before at the Club Ferdinand in New York when he and Elinor were dating. His interests first run to Judy until he notices that she has blue eyes, which immediately turns him off because — as we learn much later — Elinor had blue eyes. Then he takes up with Bubbles, though he soon dumps her and it’s another sugar daddy whom Bubbles gets to take her back to their home base, New York City, while Judy and Sally have to hitchhike. It turns out that all three girls are part of a ballet troupe being trained by Madame Lydia Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), former star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who’s hoping to make a comeback in the U.S. as a choreographer and dance teacher. (Charles questioned why Lydia and her students seemed to have so much space available in a tenement building in New York, but the establishing shot of the building showed a “For Sale” sign and I guessed we were supposed to assume the other tenants had already moved out.) Lydia regards Judy as her prize student (something we’re going to have to take on trust because the one extended sequence we see of her dancing has her mostly with her back to the camera — obviously Maureen O’Hara had a dance double) and wants to place her with the New York ballet company of impresario and choreographer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), only while the two of them are on their way to Adams’ office Madame Lydia is struck by a car and killed. Judy hangs around Adams’ office but then leaves before the Great Man can see her, and he offers her a ride home in the rain but she virtuously insists on walking. This gives her a cold and she’s nursed back to health by her roommate Sally. The two of them wonder where Bubbles has gone, and it turns out her latest sugar daddy has got her a job doing burlesque in New Jersey, and she’s been so good at stripping that now she’s a star at a major New York burlesque house. What’s more, she’s willing to offer Judy a job for $25 per week doing a ballet dance as part of her act — though what Judy doesn’t know until the first night she goes on is that Bubbles, who now calls herself “Tiger Lily White” (the writers’ obvious takeoff on Gypsy Rose Lee), only wants her as a stooge, someone the audience will laugh at and heckle until Tiger Lily retakes the stage and gives them the sort of dancing they really want.

She continues in this humiliating employment for some time until, just when we’re starting to wonder why Louis Hayward got second billing (behind O’Hara but ahead of Ball), he turns up midway through the running time and starts seeing Judy after crashing the theatre where she and Bubbles work and chewing out the people who are heckling her. By then he and Elinor have divorced and Elinor has got remarried to the attorney that handled her divorce, but she’s still stalking Jimmy and obviously wants him back — though Louis Hayward is such a pathetic weakling (he even admits this to Judy at one point) one wonders why any woman would put up with him (or, for that matter, why his father back home in Akron hasn’t disowned him). Jimmy takes Judy on a date to the Club Ferdinand, breaking his promise to Elinor not to take any subsequent girlfriend there, and of course Elinor shows up with her new husband and an entire entourage and catches him. Jimmy punches out the new man in Elinor’s wife, Judy slinks home in disgust, and Jimmy ends up in the mercenary ministrations of Bubbles, who whisks him off to Virginia and marries him, seeing him as her ticket out of ever having to work again. Bubbles shows up at the burlesque theatre for what she says is her last performance, and Judy gets tired of stooge-dom and chews out the audience in a speech that’s been quoted by virtually everyone who’s written about this film: “Go on, laugh, get your money’s worth. No one’s going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your fifty cents’ worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here, with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of?” Spotting some well-dressed society types in the audience, she goes on, “We know it’s the thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We’d laugh right back at the lot of you, only we’re paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What’s it for? So you can go home when the show’s over, strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you. I’m sure they see through you just like we do!” Fortunately for her, among the people in the audience that night are Steve Adams — ya remember Steve Adams? — and his assistant Fitch (Ernö Verebes), and Adams, whom she’s been avoiding or narrowly missing all movie, finally introduces himself to her and the two walk together. (Ralph Bellamy as the winner in a romantic triangle was as much of a surprise to 1940 audiences as it would be to film buffs today — though in the end, as in the beginning, the writers were ripping off Dancing Lady again, pairing the female lead with someone who can be her professional and personal partner instead of the rich wastrel who was his rival.)

Judging from the films of hers I’ve seen so far — The Wild Party (1929), Christopher Strong (1933), The Bride Wore Red (1937) and this one — I’d say Dorothy Arzner’s great strength as a director was her ability to put fresh “spins” on old, clichéd situations and make them seem fresh and original. I particularly like Christopher Strong because the edgy direction of Arzner and the anti-“type” casting of Katharine Hepburn (in her second film) and Colin Clive gives a marvelous air of complexity to what is otherwise a pretty standard and even stodgy soap-opera plot. The situations of Dance, Girl, Dance are pretty familiar one by one, but the story as a whole is a nervy mixture of screwball comedy and soap opera, and Arzner brings weight and power to otherwise overly familiar movie tropes. The other thing I particularly like about this film is the excellent acting of Lucille Ball as the hard-bitten Bubbles, who works her ass off for success that only makes her bitchier. Lucille Ball was a woefully underrated actress with a lot of potential she barely touched on, and one of the things she could do surprisingly well was spoiled-brat diva. In films like this, The Big Street (1942) — a marvelous showcase role that should have made her a dramatic star — and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) she’s utterly convincing as a bitch. Alas, after The Big Street she left RKO, where she’d clawed her way up from being a fashion model in the finale of Roberta (1935) to at least the “B-plus”-list, and went to MGM, where she was just a small fish in a really big pond. Aside from DuBarry — her first MGM film, her first film in color and the one for which MGM hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff concocted the shrieking red-hair dye that became one of her trademarks for the rest of her life — and arguably Easy to Wed (the remake of Libeled Lady in which Ball took the Jean Harlow role), Ball got sucked into a lot of dreary roles at MGM that almost anyone could have played, and it was only on loanouts like Lured (1947) — which cast her convincingly as an undercover operative out to catch a serial killer — and Easy Living (1949) — that she got to show the acting chops she still had. Ball’s career changed when she signed with Columbia and they gave her two slapstick comedies, Miss Grant Takes Richmond and The Fuller Brush Girl, and then CBS asked her to do a TV version of her radio series My Favorite Husband, in which she was the scatterbrained wife of sportswriter Richard Denning. Only Lucy didn’t want to do the show unless her husband Desi Arnaz could be her co-star, and so after a series of reworkings the show ended up casting Lucy as the scatterbrained wife of small-time Florida bandleader Ricky Ricardo, it was shot on film in front of a live audience, its title was changed to I Love Lucy, Desi ended up not only as Lucy’s co-star but the show’s producer as well, and it was a smash hit that made Lucille Ball a member of the odd list of talents — Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, Jack Webb — who’d achieved only minor fame in movies but became superstars on television.

I got Dance, Girl, Dance as part of a Turner Classic Movies reissue that included four films in one package by the rather tacky expedient of just stacking the discs, one on top of each other, on an unusually tall spindle, and the disc Dance, Girl, Dance was on contained a couple of bonus items from the days when Warner Home Video was attempting to package movies as you might have seen them “in the day,” with a live-action short subject and a cartoon along with the feature. The live-action short was Just a Cute Kid, a 20-minute weirdie in which Speed (Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards just before his sensational comeback as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s feature Pinocchio), a hapless man who went $200 in debt to buy an engagement ring for his fiancée Hortense (Dana Dale), literally sells his body to mad scientist Dr. Clump (Olin Howland) and has to be saved from death at the madman’s hands by Hortense and his friend Benny (Frank Faylen) — it’s better than it sounds and the high point is when Hortense substitutes aspirin for the poison pills Dr. Clump wants Speed to take, and not knowing this he thrashes around “under the influence” as if he’s about to die anyway (a gag they ripped off from Laurel and Hardy’s Blotto, in which Laurel and Hardy get drunk on what they think is bootleg Scotch but is really just cold tea courtesy of the great Anita Garvin as Mrs. Laurel). The cartoon, one of Warners’ “Merrie Melodies” (when I was a kid that misspelling really bothered me!), is called Malibu Beach Party and depicts “Jack Bunny” and his Black servant “Winchester” hosting the titular celebration and drawing other famous stars of the time, including obvious caricatures of Bob Hope, Greta Garbo (shown using her big feet as surfboards), Clark Gable (shown paddling through the water with his ears) and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (dancing up and down the furniture like the real ones did in The Gay Divorcée). The climax comes when “Bunny” plays a violin rendition of “Träumerei” that’s even worse than Jack Benny’s real playing — and by the time he’s done all the guests have left and he’s sitting on “Winchester” to make sure he can’t walk out on him!