|Dance, Girl, Dance came and went in 1940 without anyone paying it much attention, indeed it was a box office flop, and this in an era when backstage musicals and movies where the characters "put on a show!" were commonplace. Maybe too commonplace - audiences simply thought it would be more of the same and they weren't interested in seeing the Quasimodo's love interest from The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the lead of her own picture. But this had an ace up its sleeve as far as investment in the future went, for its director, despite her protestations latterly, was quite unusual for this time and place.
She was Dorothy Arzner, and she was the only female director of the Hollywood Golden Age. She had started in silents, working her way up from menial jobs on set to gaining importance until she was offered the chance to helm her own projects. She wasn't the only woman in Hollywood who directed in the silent era, but the others fell by the wayside before sound came in, leaving Arzner last one standing. She was the only representative, not only of females but of lesbians, to be making movies from the earliest sound efforts up to the early nineteen-forties, whereupon she turned to documentaries for the war effort.
And later, commercials - her great friend Joan Crawford hired her for Pepsi, for instance, though she would be most significant for teaching students at UCLA, including Francis Ford Coppola in the sixties. As for her own body of work, her Katharine Hepburn vehicle Christopher Strong may be her biggest hit, though it was not an easy film to make thanks to Hepburn not taking her seriously (to Hepburn's detriment), and Merrily We Go To Hell, a light drama whose title was considered daring for mentioning what was classed as a swear word by the incoming censorship rules of the benighted and troublesome Hays' Code.
Those were pre-Code efforts, and we can only guess at what Arzner would have been able to do without the constrictions of the censors for the rest of her career, but she did have one other work in her canon that went on to be a legitimate cult movie for feminists in the sixties who were looking for someone to champion amidst the boy's club of filmmakers from Hollywood. That was of course Dance, Girl, Dance, a movie that Arzner did not begin, but was brought onto a couple of weeks into shooting to make and complete the rest of it, for she was regarded as a safe pair of hands, which is just as she would have wanted.
There was nothing flashy about her, and she would resist being defined by her gender or sexuality in later years when that was all that was brought up about her in relation to her career, but in the twenty-first century identifying a pioneer such as her, even if she did not view herself as such (apart from as the inventor of the boom mike, perhaps), was important, this need to find figures of influence who were not the usual straight, white males meaning Arzner commanded attention. In truth, you would have to be truly seeking out any gay or female elements to her direction or choices, but crucially they were present.
There's a danger of perceiving material or intentions that were not there from the perspective of the time they were made in reassessing older pop culture, that prism of whatever era you happen to be in leaving its mark for how you approach it being a double-edged sword. But Dance, Girl, Dance with its very female-centric plot, where Maureen O'Hara yearns to be a serious dancer but cannot get a foothold in the business, was not quite like the other so-called women's pictures around in the decade before. Yes, there was suffering as all these films featured, but the focus was on the lead character's career more than her family.
O'Hara had a co-star here who would become just as famous, in a different medium, for Lucille Ball was having a great time as the brassy Bubbles, the friend O'Hara's Judy at first thanks for getting her a job, then begins to resent as that job is humiliating, her stooge in a burlesque show. Along the way, she loses her mentor (an immediately pre-The Wolf Man Maria Ouspenskaya) in a somewhat absurdly abrupt accident, tries to be wooed by rich but troubled playboy Louis Hayward, and has a near miss with supportive producer Ralph Bellamy. This all leads up to the most famous scene where Judy stands at the front of the stage and harangues the audience for being so obnoxious, which was a great sequence, yet maybe the most poignant part was she realises at the end she didn't need to go through all the heartache, and her fulfilment was there for the taking all along. But her hard knocks have built her personality, one supposes. All in all, essential for more reasons than one.
[The Criterion Collection release this title on Blu-ray with these features:
New, restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
New introduction by critic B. Ruby Rich
New interview with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Plus: An essay by critic Sheila O'Malley.]