Dance, Girl, Dance (1940): Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara

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Scanning the opening credits, I noticed two talents on the rise including Russell Metty and Robert Wise, but make no mistake; the focal point in the director’s chair is the criminally-forgotten Dorothy Arzner.

In retrospect, she certainly is a primary draw to this picture because, with the dearth of female personnel actually credited behind the camera within the film industry, she stands as a pioneer for those who are aware. This is a fine starting point.

For those drawn to talent more than technicians Dance, Girl, Dance boasts a seemingly disparate pair of heroines in Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara, with both women making their living in a chorus line.

In their opening introduction, they are performing in some two-bit, slightly dubious joint only for the place to be raided by the cops mid-routine. It’s a sorry state of affairs as they come to terms with the fact they will not be getting any reimbursement for their night’s work.

In fact, it’s one of their good-hearted, slightly tipsy patrons who puts out his hat to take a collection. It’s not much, but the girls are grateful for his neighborliness. He’s the first of many side characters to drift in and out of their lives.

In the subsequent storyline, our two aspiring performers aptly reflect the two divergent paths with which to tackle a career in such an unstable environment. Bubbles is Ball as a full-on glam girl. She handles the part quite well because with her iconic career in humor, in some fallacious way, it often undermines just how alluring she was as a performer. Here Bubbles is shrewd when it comes to getting ahead and using all her assets to move up the social totem pole — both personally and professionally.

Meanwhile, O’Hara, in only her third Hollywood release (following Jamaica Inn and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), is called upon to exude the radiant exuberance of an ingenue named Judy O’Brien. She’s trying to do dance the right way in a callous world.

As it turns out, Louis Hayward isn’t actually attached to either of them even as they make eyes or have fancies of being with him. He’s currently still connected to Virginia Field. Yes, they are going through a divorce, but there’s still something amicable in their antagonism. Even as they play the field a bit, there’s this ongoing sense they’re still clinging to the thought of salvaging their relationship. It remains to be seen where this separate piece fits in with our two ambitious dancers.

Ralph Bellamy makes his own entrance as a dance impresario, and we also wonder how he figures into the puzzle. Though the man is never quite satisfied with the company’s choreography, he’s still Ralph Bellamy, armed with his usual lanky and unassuming charm. More than anyone else, his perceptive secretary Miss Olmstead (Katharine Alexander) is capable of getting a heartbeat out of him.

As the girls look for work, they are met with the hurdles that come with any profession. They lack transportation, they lack means; no one seems willing to give them a chance unless they degrade themselves in some manner.

Bubbles really starts raking in the dough under her new persona: Tiger Lily White. Of course, she is forced to hold court with a bawdier brand of onlooker, but she more than obliges them a la The Awful Truth’s with a slightly risque “Gone with the Wind” number. It fits her personality because she is, above all else, an opportunist, and this is the easiest, fastest way she can get ahead.  However, running with this personality trait, she also signs O’Hara on to be her stooge to milk the lascivious audience for more.

It’s less an act of goodwill and more so a calculated way to bring Judy down a peg with the rudest of awakenings. It’s the height of indignity for the idealistic girl to be relegated to such a state. Still, she pushes through it with fortitude, throwing aside her initial apprehension only to replace it with renewed determination. It’s in these interludes where our naive heroine matures and comes to terms with the world around her.

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One of the most striking elements of Dance, Girl, Dance is how each and every performance reaches out into the audience in some way. It doesn’t necessarily feel like a typical song and dance musical, but it plays up the communal, reactionary elements of film and, especially, the stage.

Even as the plot is strung along and feels flimsy and detached, at times, there’s something rather freeing and appealing about the oddball supporting cast all but drifting in and out of the main narrative as nice as they please. Hayward’s playful feud with his wife Field feels all but an unrelated subplot until it somewhat ties into our main story.

Then, Bellamy and “Ommy” have their own individual, rather serendipitous encounters with the young hopeful Judy, whether in a waiting room, on the lift, or waiting for a bus in the rain. The moments do not mean too much on their own, aside from providing dashes of character. However, as they begin to stack, one on top of another, the interactions create a renewed appreciation for our characters. Even Bubbles, despite her conniving, is a memorable part elevated by Ball’s innate kineticism.

However, the most poignant scene comes to pass when O’Hara does the unexpected. There’s a steely resolve born in her eyes as she walks into no man’s land, into the space of the crowd, and confronts them in their poor, sad little lives. They pay their lousy 50 cents so they can jeer and ogle and go back to their wives and sweethearts and feel like men. There’s no integrity, no strength, nothing worthwhile in them.

The most curious thing is how she wins them over by cutting into the bawdy filth with the sharpest truth anyone’s ever dared to utter in the skeevy burlesque joint. Tiger Lily is instantly out of fashion as she and her stooge have it out because her opener has finally gained her own resolve. She’s not about to roll over and take it anymore. Far from just being a comical image in the wake of this film, it signals a change in the balance of power, as corny as that might sound.

It is the crowning capstone. Our ingenue has grown up. She simmers with fire for the first time, and it feels like we are seeing the real-life fire of Maureen O’Hara. It’s the finest, most definitive moment of the picture, allowing her to finally break out of the demureness initially fashioned for her. Before she had to mask herself. By the end, she realizes her true nature.

In the very same instance, she is able to impress something significant upon her audience, both on the screen and those watching from their theater seats. This continual relationship is Dance, Girl, Dance at its best. It’s not a supernal musical, nor the brightest backstage drama out of the age, but there are some amiable performances fostering a kind of self-reflexive symbiosis. This and its striking perspective on a patriarchal world, brim with a certain agreeable ardor. Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara don’t harm its prospects either. I cherish them both dearly.

3.5/5 Stars

Lured (1947)

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Herein is a slightly off-kilter serial killer, mystery-thriller and early American film in the career of German emigre Douglas Sirk. Of course, the action is actually set in England. It’s a film that builds a paranoid framework like The Lodger (1944), I Wake Up Screaming (1941) or other like-minded films. However, it goes through the normal paces only to lurch forward in the most curious directions.

The parties involved include a Scotland Yard guided by that industrious Brit for a day Charles Coburn. Other people of interest include a street-smart nightclub dancer (Lucille Ball) who saw one of her co-workers go missing after a rendezvous with a mystery man. In fact, a rash of disappearances of young attractive women has overtaken the city.

Thus, upon finding Ms. Carpenter to be a plucky and intelligent young woman the inspector calls upon her services to force their elusive perpetrator out in the open acting as the tantalizing bait. She begins to respond to advertisements in the paper — his calling card — to lure victims into his clutches.

The only problem is figuring out who the man might be because numerous candidates roam the streets and many people circa 1947 placed postings in the paper. It’s common practice. Among people she gets caught up with are a delusional fashion designer who became unstable after years of criticism. The one and only Charles van Druten is played by none other than Boris Karloff in one of the film’s many digressions.

Likewise, Ms. Carpenter answers a call for a position as a maid, though the prospective employer’s intentions prove to be far more insidious involving some dealings in South America and too-good-to-be-true promises of advancement. Once more Scotland Yard puts an end to the criminal activities but is no closer to their murderer.

One of the more prominent people of interest is Robert Fleming (George Sanders) a man of vast influence and a stage producer who finds classical music tepid and most of the upper echelons of the society’s elite even worse. He goes about it all with the playful disdain that can only be attributed to George Sanders at his best.

In fact, his manner is off-putting to Sandra as well but their prickly beginnings cannot completely derail romantic feelings. In those respects, both Ball and Sanders prove to be adequate romantic leads propelled by their wry comedic proclivities. That’s far more rewarding than any romance. The only problem is that he might not be who he claims to be and at any rate, a great deal of circumstantial evidence is piled up against him. A final push for justice must be made.

Lured isn’t an instant classic as the tension while there is never altogether sweltering. But simultaneously the screen is crammed with quality performers and just enough idiosyncratic moments and bits of humor to keep the film from being absolutely conventional. George Zucco is by far the most amusing of the many supporting characters as the crossword puzzle-loving officer H.R. Bartlett who acts as Sandra’s guardian angel while simultaneously coming upon many of his solutions through simple eavesdropping.

This is also a telling film that should make us uncomfortable and it’s not so much that things feel overwhelmingly misogynistic and objectifying of women, it’s the even more sobering fact that things have not changed as much as we would like to believe.

What is the root of most serial killing? Surely we can see familial issues or mental instabilities but oftentimes it’s tied in with a distorted sense of love wrapped up in perverse fantasies hidden from view.

Our killer is obsessed with the poetry of Baudelaire and uses it to realize the fantasies that he never seems able to act out on. The man’s interest is in destroying beauty instead of making love to paraphrase Coburn’s character. When he finally is revealed I’m not sure it’s a surprise but then need we be surprised? Many “normal” men are capable of great evil. They’re simply good at covering it up.

3.5/5 Stars

The Dark Corner (1946)

Dark_Corner_1946“I’m backed up into a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”

It’s always satisfying to find another little gem of a film-noir, and I think this thriller from Henry Hathaway fits that bill. Our stars include a serious and quite beautiful Lucille Ball along with Mark Stevens as gumshoe Bradford Galt. He’s more of a Cornel Wilde type. A rather nondescript lead compared to Bogey or even Dick Powell, but he works well enough as the focal point of this story.

He served a stretch in prison after he was framed for a murder wrap and now he’s a P.I. trying to keep himself on the right side of the law. But nevertheless, it’s a dirty business that’s bound to catch up with him. He’s being shadowed by a man in a white suit and almost gets mowed down by a car that had his name on it. His secretary Ms. Kathleen Stewart genuinely worries for his safety and tries to help him, so he reluctantly lets her into his life.

Everything seems to point back to one man. Anthony Jardine was the attorney who set Galt up and sent him off to the clink. It only makes sense that he would want to silence the P.I. for good. After all, if not him who else could it be? Except things get especially dicey when Galt gets framed once more and this time he knows for sure his old nemesis cannot be involved.

darkcorner1The race is on for the real murderer because Galt must also attempt to clear his name before he gets charged with another killing leading to a date with the electric chair. This is when a juicy piece of dramatic irony comes in since as the audience we know who has it out for the P.I. We just don’t know why… Some sleuthing leads Galt to another crime scene and finally to an art gallery where he follows a hunch. His suspicions were on point, and he finally fights his way out of the corner.

It should go without saying that The Dark Corner is beautifully shot with a lot of wonderful low lit sequences that are deliciously moody. Interestingly enough, the storyline is infused with a lot of Culture whether it is jazz music or pieces of fine art. It’s a weird juxtaposition of this noir world bleeding into these higher echelons of society. The people and places criss-cross and intertwine in a web of the urban and the urbane. It proves that treachery can rise up from any level of society.

3.5/5 Stars

Stage Door (1937)

Stage_Door_(1937)Watching Stage Door illustrates one of the pleasures of film because it’s an unassuming classic that very easily could be overshadowed by other films. Its main stars are Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, who both have numerous films more well known than this one.

However, this story about a boarding house for aspiring stage actresses is a light piece of sassy fun while still finding moments for poignancy. Rogers is a cynical dancer named Jean, and she is not too pleased to be getting a new roommate. The last one moved elsewhere after constant fighting. But the new girl, Terry Randall (Hepburn), is different. She is from a well to do family, but she is pursuing a career in acting so that she might stretch herself.

The other girls look on with an air of contempt thanks to her fine clothes and pristine manners. She doesn’t fit the mold of many of the other struggling actresses looking for their big break. Many spend their evenings trying to grab hold of a sugar daddy such as famed theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolph Menjou). Several of the girls have their eyes on him as they try and land a role in his next big production.

Kay Hamilton is the most well-liked girl in the house and arguably one of the most gifted performers. She opened the year before in a production that won her rave reviews, however, a year later she has yet to get another break, and she is running out of funds. Powell’s show is her last big chance. Thus, when Powell cancels her audition last minute for a trivial reason, Kay faints and an irate Terry bursts into his office to confront him. He is initially turned off, but then he chooses her for the lead role of the upcoming Enchanted April.

Although the girls were beginning to warm to Terry, Jean has trouble forgiving her as tragedy strikes. In fact, Terry almost refuses to go on stage altogether, and yet she goes out and gives an emotional performance that is hailed by critics. In the end, Terry and Jean are reconciled which is far more important than any type of fanfare.

In many ways, Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door feels similar to The Women (1939). Both films have casts with women in the primary roles and the stories are at times volatile, with so much drama and many zinging comebacks. Some of this was courtesy of the supporting cast which included such legendary comediennes as Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. Ann Miller is even present, but at its core Stage Door is Ginger and Katharine’s film. Pardon my curiosity, but did Fred and Spencer ever do a film like this?

4/5 Stars