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Dance, Girl, Dance - The Criterion Collection
Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance is an impressive balancing act between its two protagonists, using their differing desires and differing views on what they do for a living to illustrate the challenges of women working in an artistic industry. Bubbles may be antagonistic toward Judy, but she's not villainous -- both women are presented as having sensible goals, and the screenplay, by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, weaves a careful story that puts the two of them at odds with one another without it being a battle of who's right and who's wrong. The friction between them is one of the many elements that help the film feel relevant even 80 years later, and no doubt a contributing factor to the film being preserved by the National Film Registry, as well as being inducted into The Criterion Collection.
"I Love Lucy" looms large, not just as part of television history, but within pop culture history in general. Ball's movie career, on the other hand, gets far less attention. Dance, Girl, Dance finds Ball in top form, vamping it up as the sassy, takes-what-she-wants kind of gal who's sympathetic to the struggles of the women around her but who is also looking out for herself first and others second. When she offers Judy the job in the burlesque act, she doesn't mention that the role is essentially a punching bag for the audience, feeling that Judy needs $25 a week more than artistic fulfillment (a question that many female artists no doubt ask themselves today). She bails on Jimmy, who they first meet in Akron, when he behaves strangely on their would-be date, but immediately concocts a way to win him back when she learns that he's loaded and interested in Judy. Arzner makes great use of Ball's natural comic charisma to make the character sympathetic even when she's behaving callously. The burlesque routine itself, set to the song "Mother, What Do I Do Now?", is a good showcase for Ball's physical comedy talents (and feels like a foreshadowing of some of Barbra Streisand's performances in Funny Girl).
There is an equal deftness in the casting of O'Hara as the "plain" girl to Ball's "sexy star." O'Hara is great in the role (especially near the end, when she gets multiple monologues), and of course, unquestionably beautiful, and yet there's a truth to a scene where a scuzzy promoter doesn't like the troupe's hula act until he sees Bubbles do it. It's not that the troupe's version is bad or that Bubbles' is good, but Arzner uses Ball's brassy personality to the movie's benefit. There's also a sharp bit of commentary when the promoter goes onto hire Bubbles alone, which brings to mind thoughts of womens' solidarity, and how the charisma of one woman can make or break the careers of several others (Bubbles had hoped her success would benefit all of them). Self-confidence issues also play a big factor in the story, with Judy constantly struggling to assert herself or objectively assess her own talents. Early in the film, the girls' elderly manager, Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), tries to put Judy in contact with Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), who runs an important ballet troupe. When Basilova dies before their meeting with Steve can take place, Judy talks herself out of speaking to Steve, convinced she's not talented enough. No idea how prevalent struggles with self-image were in 1940, but the exponential growth of mass media has turned this into an evergreen plot point, not to mention, the thread can just as easily be extrapolated into things such as abusive or manipulative filmmakers who seem unconvinced that women could act without being tricked into it, or the conversation about whether or not women are fairly positioned, professionally and socially, to arbitrate for equal/fair pay.
The film is not really a romance, and as such Hayward does a good job of balancing between Jimmy's charm with moments where he becomes depressed and frustrated thinking about his impending divorce from Elinor Harris (Virginia Field). Jimmy is sincerely attracted to Judy (even if his energy would be better focused elsewhere), but Judy's starry-eyed affection for a stuffed Ferdinand toy that Jimmy abandons (which actually belongs to Elinor) is a nice illustration of how much more seriously she's thinking about Jimmy than Jimmy is thinking about her (as well as how much more seriously Judy thinks about Jimmy than Bubbles does). The film builds to a very funny courtroom scene with all of the film's major characters that the entire cast plays to perfection, especially Ball, who comes to understand Judy's perspective and formulates a new strategy on the spot. As the characters come to recognize that their struggles are more parallel than opposed, it brings to mind the film's title: Judy and Bubbles might be moving at different tempos, but to get what they want, they both have to do the dance.
Criterion has produced a foil-accented cover for Dance, Girl, Dance, the first time I can recall that they've ever done this for a traditional sleeve (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters does have a foil finish, although that disc comes in a digipak). The cover features an illustration by Jody Hegwill, which captures Maureen O'Hara right before her character's big speech, with a faded image of Lucille Ball in the background. The quality of the illustration as a piece of art is fine, but the design of the image is a little dull, and the fact that Criterion repeated it on the fold-out leaflet (also foil-accented, featuring an essay by Sheila O'Malley) kind of adds to the feeling that this particular release did not receive quite as much time or attention as some of their other releases. The reverse of the sleeve is blank brown, and the disc repeats the star pattern from O'Hara's dress in the illustration without the actual actresses.
The Video and Audio
The biggest draw of the disc, in my opinion, is a brand-new 4K transfer, presented in 1.37:1 1080p AVC. It looks fantastic, with extremely fine film grain, expertly-tuned shadow gradients, and a stunning level of clarity for a film turning 80 this year. At times, the added clarity provides stunning depth, such as when Judy and Jimmy are seen walking through a gorgeous NYC set with a matte painting backdrop, or when Bubbles is doing her Tiger Lily routine -- it really feels as if one can peer into the audience as if it were real. The fold-out leaflet notes that while most of the film was scanned using the original 35mm nitrate negative, some sections were taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive provided by the Museum of Modern Art. As a result, there is an occasional shot with a noticeably starker contrast, although there are not many of these inserts (most of which appear at the beginning when the Palais Royale is being raided. Criterion's discs have a mild reputation for featuring rougher encodes than discs by other labels using the same source material, but this is relatively refined, appearing textured but not noisy. Sound is a very strong DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track that also impresses. The film is full of musical numbers, which sound quite robust and lively for a mono presentation, and dialogue is satisfyingly crisp. English subtitles are also included.
There are two extras on the disc. First, there is an introduction by film critic B. Ruby Rich (15:16), which was recorded for the Criterion Channel streaming service. It's not a film-specific supplement, but rather filmmaker-specific, with Rich providing a brief overview of Arzner's career (including her invention of the boom microphone!) before moving onto Dance, Girl, Dance, Craig's Wife, Arzner's personal life, and retirement (as well as the influence that Arzner had on Rich's own career). A great little supplement that serves up an impressive amount of information in its relatively short running time.
The other supplement is an interview with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola (10:48). When Coppola attended UCLA as a graduate student in 1962, Arzner was one of his teachers. After a little bit of backstory on Arzner, Coppola gets into his memories of what she was like, and the stories are quite entertaining and speak to her innate understanding of the pre-digital ways of making film (in particular, the story about "arms-length editing" and what that meant for a screen kiss is especially fantastic). He also shows off a bottle of the rye whiskey he made that he named in her honor, and there are quite a few great photographs of Coppola as a young man at UCLA, with the elderly Arzner watching the students work.
Both of these supplements are enjoyable and worth the brief time investment required to watch them, although it is slightly disappointing that they're the only two things on the disc. Companies like Flicker Alley and Kino Lorber have been doing a great job issuing Blu-ray restorations of Arzner's work, but perhaps one of Arzner's other features could've been included to bulk up the supplements a little, or a commentary could've been recorded for the feature.
Dance, Girl, Dance is a surprisingly timely look into the narrow road that exists for women who want to pursue art, and the challenges of navigating it without stepping on anyone's toes. The film is also very funny and features a number of very good performances, especially from the legendary Lucille Ball. Criterion's new 4K remaster looks outstanding, and while the extras are a little light in the quantity department, they're just fine in the quality department. Highly recommended.
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