The Hendersonville Film Society kicks off its month-long tribute to women filmmakers with Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a little curio of a movie from one of Hollywood’s few “golden age” female directors, Dorothy Arzner, who is perhaps best known for the Katharine Hepburn aviatrix drama Christopher Strong (1933). On the surface, it would seem that Arzner is everything you could dream of in terms of an unappreciated pioneer filmmaker, being not just a woman but also a lesbian. And people have been trying to sell her on that basis for some time. The problem is that Arzner’s films—at least those I’ve seen—simply aren’t anything to get excited about. They’re often interesting in their touches, but stylistically, Arzner rarely does more than rise to adequacy. Dance, Girl, Dance, her penultimate film, starts out surprisingly strong but quickly becomes routine. That’s not entirely Arzner’s fault. She’s stuck with a clichéd story and a heroine (rather blandly played by Maureen O’Hara) who plays a goody-goody doormat for seven reels, only to find her spine in the eighth. It’s not terribly convincing, and it isn’t helped by a pair of pallid leading men, Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy (the latter often looking like he’s about to be unwell).
But the film is hardly without interest in several telling touches that are certainly more directorial decisions than anything inherent in the material. Arzner—who herself dressed and comported herself in a very mannish fashion—is clearly responsible for having Maria Ouspenskaya’s dance-teacher character dressed in suits and ties, with her hair severely pulled back. It seems likely, too, that the implication that the characters played by Ernest Truex and Cheser Clute are an aging gay couple is her addition. The attempts to read the film as a feminist statement, however, seem a little strained, except for O’Hara’s denunciation of the burlesque audience late in the film and a general tone concerning the women in the film. As a piece of Hollywood history, the film’s worth seeing, but it’s no unsung masterpiece.