Dance, Girl, Dance is a film from the Classical Hollywood period that presents a complicated reading when viewed through a feminist lens. The 1940 film was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the most notable female directors and the only prominent woman in Hollywood at that time. Arzner presents her audience with an array of female characters, the main characters being Judy O’brien and Bubbles/Tiger Lily White. Judy is a dedicated dancer, honing her talents as a ballerina. Bubbles, on the other hand, uses her looks and sexuality to land jobs as a burlesque dancer.
Dance, Girl, Dance reveals these characters’ experience in a dance troupe with several other girls. When the troupe disbands, Bubbles comes to offer Judy a humiliating job as her stooge. As tensions rise, the two eventually come to blows, quite literally, when both fall for the same man, Jimmy Harris. Through their relationship with each other and with men, a dynamic is defined that gives insight into the power of the male gaze and sexual politics, not only in the film but also in society at large in the context of 1930s America.
This can be seen in the analysis of a particular scene near the beginning of the film. Judy and one of her roommates, Sally, are preparing for bed after their performance at the nightclub in the opening scene. Bubbles, their third roommate, arrives at home after a disappointing outing with Jimmy. This scene specifically highlights the contrast between the personalities of Judy and Bubbles, and speaks to the many ways female characters are coded based on their sexuality and appearance. The analysis of the scene begins at the moment Bubbles enters the room.
She comes into the frame through the doorway in a medium shot. It is important to note her costume, as it speaks to her character. She is wearing makeup, jewelry, a fox fur stole around her shoulders and a feathered hat. One may get the impression that she is trying to look as glamorous or ostentatious as possible on her limited budget. At this point, Bubbles has already been partly established as a brash woman who does not shy away from her ability to attract men. This can be contrasted with Judy’s costume during this scene, modest button-up pajamas. The scene continues as Bubbles enters the tiny apartment.
She turns on the light, when Judy whispers that Sally is asleep from off camera. Bubbles leaves the light on, looks down at Sally in the bed, and proceeds to loudly close the door while muttering “So, what? ” As she delivers her dialogue, the camera follows her as she walks to her bed, panning over to include Judy in a two shot. One key element in this simple interaction is the difference of attitude toward female solidarity between Bubbles and Judy. Judy obviously cares to not disturb Sally, while Bubbles seems disappointed and only concerned with her own problems at this point.
Then, the camera cuts to a close shot of Sally lying in bed, smiling and clearly awake. She then closes her eyes and continues to try and sleep, rendering her unimportant to the rest of the scene. The next cut brings us back to a long, two shot of Bubbles and Judy as they discuss what happened to Bubbles that evening. Bubbles is explaining how she had gone out with Jimmy, but he suddenly left her at the bar after giving her a little stuffed bull. In this shot, Bubbles is in the foreground, a little closer to the camera than Judy, making her appear slightly larger.
This could be interpreted as signifying her social dominance over Judy, and the fact that she “stole” Jimmy from Judy earlier that evening. Bubbles dismissively tosses the bull onto a chair in front of Judy. Judy picks it up, stating “It’s cute. ” Bubbles tells her that she can have it. The audience is clearly meant to get the impression that the token of the night has no significance to Bubbles, and she is merely disappointed that she could not add Jimmy to her list of men to dote on her occasionally.
The camera stays stationary as Bubble walks to the background of the shot and sits on her bed. Judy gently places the bull back on the chair, already showing signs of her eventual fetishization of the bull and Jimmy. Then, she continues to bend and stretch her legs, as Bubbles pouts behind her. It is interesting to point out that as Judy resumes her exercises, she has gained the “high ground” of the shot. The reminder of her status as a dancer, a more artful and talented dancer than Bubbles, means she is the larger, more significant character in the frame now.
The focus has moved from Bubbles proficiency as a female spectacle, completely at home under the male gaze, to Judy’s proficiency as a ballerina, with no real concern for superficial male attention. Then, this is reinforced when there is a cut to a medium shot of Bubbles, looking at Judy. The camera follows Bubbles line of sight and there is a quick cut to a medium shot of Judy, then it reverses back to the shot of Bubbles on her bed, shaking her head. She says, “I’ll say one thing for you, Pavlova.
You’ve certainly got ambition, even if it’s dumb. As she says this, Judy’s foot briefly enters from the side of the frame as she kicks her leg. Once again, Bubbles is coded as having no passion for her craft as a dancer, seeing it as a means to an end of attracting men and/or making money, while Judy genuinely loves to dance. One way of reading the film is through the suggestion that Judy’s ballet is high art, while Bubbles’ burlesque is low art. In the world of the Dance, Girl, Dance, women utilizing their sexuality for physical and financial gratification given by men is deemed less valuable than artistic expression.
What follows is a short series of counter shots between the two, as Bubbles ponders how she will get back to New York, going through her list of male suitors to find a solution to her dilemma. On a surface level, this shows that Bubbles needs men to get where she is going, whether it is for a trip to New York or a trip to stardom as they buy tickets to her shows later in the film. The scene comes to a close as Bubbles decides on Sam, the traveling salesman that is “sweet on her. As this line is delivered, there is a quick cut to Judy whipping her head around to look back at Bubbles. Judy has an expression on her face that is hard to describe, but it gets across the fact that her reality is very different from that of Bubbles’. Judy goes on to ask if there will be room for Sally, as the camera tracks Bubbles while she walks to the bathroom. As the camera stops tracking, it stops in a medium shot of Bubbles as she eventually replies, “… All right, she can go, but don’t blame me.
That guy’s got more arms than an octopus. ” There is a cut to a close shot of Sally in bed with a wide-eyed, nervous expression as she quickly lifts up her head and plops back down. Like Judy, her reality is very different from the reality of the dynamic Bubbles, and the possibility of encountering a man from that reality seems to frighten her. After the last cut of the scene, it ends on a medium shot of Judy picking up the stuffed bull once again and smiling at it fondly.
This emphasizes the fact Judy is not asexual and clearly is developing feelings for Jimmy. Although, Judy seems to have a more deep, emotional connection to Jimmy than Bubbles has for her various men. Judy only became interested in Jimmy after he helped the girls at the nightclub and talked with her earlier in the film. Her interest is not based solely on what he can provide to her. The differences in costume, behavior and motivation between Bubbles and Judy are relevant to a larger scope of the film involving sex and gender politics.
For all of the above reasons found in the formal elements of the film’s visual and narrative composition, Bubbles is coded as superficial, purely physical and vapid. On the other hand, Judy is given much more value and depth. While Bubbles goes on to find success by exploiting her good looks, Judy is the winner in the end, when she lands her position in the ballet company and achieves her dreams. In this way, the film is sending a message that female self-worth is not derived from male approval or reaffirming of beauty, but from accomplishment of what are considered to be more substantial goals.