Lucille Ball Stole the Show in a ’40s Cult Classic Before ‘I Love Lucy’

Lucille Ball’s career took off on television with I Love Lucy after years of trying to find success in movies.

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In the film Dance, Girl, Dance, Ball plays an antagonistic character who sabotages the protagonist’s opportunities, showcasing her acting range.
The collaboration between Lucille Ball and director Dorothy Arzner allowed Ball to fully utilize her talents and create a complex character that combined comedy and realism.
Lucille Ball worked hard to make her reputation as one of the great screen comedians of history, trudging through years of experimentation and failures to become responsible for one of the most important pop culture works of the 20th century, I Love Lucy. While it might be hard to imagine her failing at anything, given her sharp business acumen and legendary intelligence for playing on the screen, it’s intriguing to note how long she tried to make it in movies before finding her stride on television. She tried to find different films that suited her style, and while drama didn’t work in her favor, she found the best cinematic showcase of her career thanks to the direction of one of the first great female directors in Dance, Girl, Dance.

When a troupe of dancers becomes unemployed, one of them takes up burlesque dancing while another dreams of performing ballet.

What Is ‘Dance, Girl, Dance’ About?

Dance, Girl, Dance is about the frenemy rivalry between two passionate up-and-coming dancers, Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball). If you’ve seen Black Swan, then you have an idea how this will play out. Judy is more technically proficient and heartfelt, but she lacks stage presence and is overly anxious. Bubbles might not be quite as skilled, but she’s got that “it factor,” that innate ability to play to the audience, and has a far more fiery personality to match. Judy pursues a life in ballet, while Bubbles dives head first into the world of burlesque performance. Judy finds her spotlight constantly stolen by Bubbles, both regarding her dancing opportunities and her love life. Bubbles’ instinct for sabotaging Judy gets so bad that Judy hits a point where she must take a job as Bubbles’ “stooge” sidekick in her burlesque show.

Lucille Ball Stole the Show in a ’40s Cult Classic Before ‘I Love Lucy’

On paper, this is all the stuff of traditional backstage dramedies in the vein of 42nd Street or Stage Door, with a little romantic comedy spice thrown into the mix with a love triangle involving Jimmy (Louis Hayward), a sad sap who’s still in love with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elinor (Virginia Field). Instead, the film strikes a delicate tone that prioritizes the sincerity of these women’s shared ambitions and shows solidarity in how women can both hurt each other and support each other in pursuit of their dreams. Key to this undertone is how Lucille Ball is directed, as she’s more or less the antagonist of the film, single-handedly creating a majority of the problems for Judy, who the film favors as the protagonist. While Bubbles is no doubt opportunistic and a bit of a shark when it comes to sniffing out what she needs to move forward, Ball plays her as far less catty than would be normal and comes off as more cynical and pragmatic in her approach. It’s not bad blood, it’s just business.

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