Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1940. RKO Radio Pictures. Screenplay by Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, from a story by Vicki Baum. Cinematography by Russell Metty. Produced by Erich Pommer. Music by Edward Ward. Production Design by Van Nest Polglase. Costume Design by Edward Stevenson. Film Editing by Robert Wise.
For many this is the masterpiece in Dorothy Arzner’s filmography, and it’s easy to see why. She can barely point her camera without creating a dazzling image while following a volatile and complex relationship between her two protagonists. Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball are dancers working a kick-line whose agent (Maria Ouspenskaya) is a proper ballet teacher but who gets her girls gigs in nightclubs to keep the lights on. O’Hara longs to be a ballerina but Ball just wants to be a star, happily accepting a gig in burlesque that turns her into a music hall superstar with plenty of cash to throw around to the little people. When O’Hara’s attempt to join a tony ballet school run by Ralph Bellamy goes sour due to a misunderstanding, she takes a humiliating gig as the “stooge” in Ball’s show, pirouetting on stage to draw the jeers of the rowdy crowd. Also in the mix is the classic archetype of the bored millionaire, Louis Hayward as an alcoholic heir who falls in love with O’Hara but must first untangle himself from the web of Ball’s manipulations. Arzner’s films always charted a more nuanced and, in retrospect, feminist construction of female friendships and threatens her legacy with a story about a love triangle that includes what we used to refer to as a catfight; the sensitivity with which she explores the story, however, shows her to be a unique voice in an industry churning out the same old rags-to-riches fantasies that audiences had been swallowing for a decade, and her concluding the film with the rewards of career and not romance/marriage feels downright revolutionary. Themes aside, however, it’s also one of her most aesthetically impressive films, including among its treats the dance performances in high and low milieus captured by beautifully crisp monochrome cinematography.
The Criterion Collection: #1028