So many films of the classic Hollywood era bemoan a woman’s place without confronting the reason a woman’s place — and, by extension, her ambition and desires — is always lesser than a man’s. “It’s a man’s world,” those women’s pictures cry — through words written by men, filmed through the lens of male eyes — “and the only way to get through it is to get married or get dead.” Anything more ambiguous, let alone more scandalous, was rarely permitted by censors.

There are exceptions, of course, but even among those, very few can boast both a female director and female writers. (Funny how that’s still a problem today, closing in on Hollywood’s first century.) Given that depressing truth, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is a precious gem, rightly deserving of a Criterion edition 80 years after its initial release. 

Dorothy Arzner’s final film is also the one that pulls the fewest punches. The eternal struggle between artistic integrity and commercial success is epitomized in Judy (Maureen O’Hara), a down-on-her-luck dancer slumming it in a troupe while she waits for her big break as a ballerina, and Bubbles (Lucille Ball), an up-and-coming burlesque dancer who will do whatever it takes to stay on top. 

Both women are driven and ambitious, but only Bubbles has the sex appeal to make it in their chosen profession — dependent entirely on a crowd of men gazing lecherously at her while she performs the 1940s film version of a striptease. It’s absurdly infantile and degrading, but only half as much as Judy’s job; in order to build anticipation for Bubbles’s act, Judy performs the ballet piece closest to her heart while all those men laugh and jeer.

It’s quite something to see a close-up of a man ogling a woman dancing and know that the purpose of the shot isn’t to glorify his behavior but condemn it. It’s even more amazing to think RKO’s top dogs let Arzner do this while they were almost certainly participating in their own version of that behavior every time they cast a movie with a young leading lady. Even more remarkable is that screenwriters Tess Schlesinger and Frank Davis were able to write a scathing monologue for a fed-up Judy at the end of the film that blatantly lays out the film’s thesis: Men can objectify any woman they want, particularly paid performers, but those very same women are judging them right back. Laughing at them. Knowing them for the hypocrites they are, these men who would say “as the father of a daughter” while simultaneously undressing a barely legal chorus girl on stage.

Seventy-nine years later, this thesis would be expounded upon and taken to a more criminal extreme in another film directed by a woman: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers. Dance, Girl, Dance paved the way for movies like Hustlers if only because it shows how complicated female friendships can be, particularly when a make-it-or-break-it career is what brought them together in the first place. Judy and Bubbles root for each other as much as they undermine each other; they compete for the same man’s affections (or, in Bubbles’s case, his wallet), fight and clash but never once condemn each other’s chosen path as lesser than their own. 

Hardly ever does a film from 1940 feel like it could be made almost exactly the same way today and still feel relevant. Maybe in today’s world, a few of the moments that steer Dance, Girl, Dance more safely back into the patriarchal status quo might have been avoided for something actually empowering, but Studio Hollywood gonna Studio. In the end, a man has to tell the woman she’s going to start doing things his way from now on, and that’s the happy ending. Ah, well.

The Criterion Collection edition of Dance, Girl, Dance is light on the special features that make such editions worth owning but makes up for it with an excellent restoration and 4K digital transfer of the film — and, of course, the film itself. A huge flop in its time (shocking, right?), Dance, Girl, Dance finally receives some of the recognition it deserves in a beautiful package well worth adding to your DVD collection. There’s truly nothing else like it.