1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance is notable in the fact that it was directed by Hollywood’s lone female director during the 1930’s-’40s, Dorothy Arzner. While the film’s behind-the-scenes look at a burlesque show might have been sensationalized in other hands, Arzner unceremoniously mutes the male gaze. Rather than allow her camera to leer at the female form, she ridicules the men (as much as the period allowed), a shot of an unmoving eyeball, as the girls onstage take complete control of their audience.

An aspiring ballerina, lack of money has reduced Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) and her mentor Madame Lydia Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya) to gathering chorus girls together for local nightclub gigs. Their biggest attraction is “Bubbles” (Lucille Ball) who may not be the best dancer but has ambition to spare. When Bubbles leaves the act for her own Broadway show, she hires the desperate Judy to dance ballet after her own act, knowing the lascivious audience, outraged by her delicate, cultured performance, will turn on her viciously, boo her off the stage, and demand that Bubbles (now rechristened “Tiger” Lily White) return for an encore.

These days, Lucille Ball is remembered worldwide for her work in television comedy. Seeing her as a cutthroat entertainer might be a bit of a jolt for those accustomed to seeing her on I Love Lucy. I’ll admit it took me a few minutes to warm up to a different kind of “Lucy,” but once I got over that, I realized she put in a strong performance. As a long time, Lucy fan, watching her singing and dancing “The Beer Barrel Polka” and “Jitterbug Bite” with The Bailey Brothers Burlesque Theater made Dance, Girl Dance worth a watch on its own. Maureen O’Hara is sincere as the lovely Judy.

Overall, Dance, Girl, Dance is entertaining if forgettable. Made early in both the careers of O’Hara and Ball, both are crafting the styles that would bring them fame. Working from a breezy script by Tess Slesinger, Dorothy Arzner’s light touch allows her to sneak a feminist message into what is otherwise standard Hollywood entertainment.

In 2007, Dance, Girl, Dance was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being, “culturally, historically, or aestectically significant.”

Cited as being from a “New, restored 4K transfer,” it looks terrific. There are some minor scratches and two frame-specific instances of damage, but the rest features beautifully layered contrast, smooth textures, and a significant level of detail in the film’s many close-ups. For a film made in 1940, this is an impressive accomplishment.

Criterion uses a PCM mono track in the original English language on their Blu-ray. There is singing and dancing throughout the film, starting with “Roll Out the Barrel,”sung and danced by Lucille Ball and the chorus girls, Mother, What Do I  Do Now? and Jitterbug Bite sung by Lucille Ball in the Bailey Brothers Burlesque Theater plus a background score by Edward Ward, sounding decidedly flat but even. Dialogue is clean and crisp throughout.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Introduction By Critic B. Ruby Rich: (15:16) Rare photos and insightful knowledge highlights this piece. Rich charts director Dorothy Arzner fast rise through the film industry, and her creative process. Rich discusses how Arzner explored gender politics on film, and reveals Arzner invented the boom microphone as a means of making actress Clara Now feel better about her thick New York accent shortly after the advent of sound.
  • Francis Ford Coppola: Remembering Miss Arzner (HD, 10:43) A student of Arzner’s when she taught at UCLA Film School in the early 1960’s, Coppola shares memories of the woman who influenced his creative and personal development. He calls Arzner a “top-notch director” and “consummate professional.”
  • Leaflet: Includes an essay by critic Shelia O’Malley.