Dance, Girl, Dance (1940):

Dorothy Arzner's best-known work, re-released as an early feminist manifesto to the "right ons!" of '70s sisterhood, survives today as one of the more interesting explorations of the elusive "gaze" famously pinned down by Laura Mulvey. The narrative's splitting of feminine sensibility into demure/worldly halves -- embodied by Maureen O'Hara's dewy ballet twirler and Lucille Ball's burlesque-hall queen -- may seem Manichean, but despite a climatic hair-pulling bout, Arzner rarely pits one against the other. O'Hara's purity carries a hint of prissy intransigence just as Ball's brazen gold-digging is infused with offhand generosity, and both are reconciled under the expressive mantle of dancing (with artsy ballet and Gypsy Lee Rose vamping equally valid manifestations of femininity). Dance also serves as metaphor for codification of womanhood for male contemplation, as well as a substitute for cinema and its built-in voyeurism Without rising out of the cinematically conventional, the movie's self-reflexivity continually questions the gaze of the camera. O'Hara's celebrated burlesque joint speech to the males of a jeering audience (who "play at being the stronger sex") is the most explicit example, emphasized by the turning-tables positioning of the camera onto the viewers, though it also occurs earlier in the hula audition sequence, with the two women's performances reflected in the look of a stone-faced cigar-gnawer. Of course, the concept of the "maleness" of the gaze is further complicated by Arzner's own queerness, so that the eroticization of bodies becomes less hardened, more richly ambiguous. (Arzner "appears" in the story through Maria Ouspenskaya's Russian dance teacher, whose demeanor mirrors the director's defiant butchness -- in fact, the character is killed off as soon as she momentarily adopts a more conventionally feminine look.) Written by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, from a Vicki Baum story. With Louis Hayward, Ralph Bellamy, Virginia Field, Katherine Alexander, Mary Carlisle, Edward Brothy, and Walter Abel. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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