So Maureen O’Hara is technically the star of this film. However – in an echo of the plot itself, in fact- my attention was captured more so by her co-star Lucille Ball.
O’Hara and Ball are both dancers, members of the same troupe managed by expat Russian ballerina Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya). Mme. Basilova tries to get her struggling troupe bookings as a package deal, but the best she can do is things like night-cub gigs in Akron; not because the dancers are bad, but because most pale in comparison to her two leads, ballerina Judy (O’Hara) and saucy, flirty Bubbles (Ball). In fact, during that Akron gig, a drunk-but-maudlin businessman named Harris (Louis Hayward) flirts with both Bubbles and Judy, albeit for very different reasons; he dances with Judy, but Bubbles is the one that goes to a bar with him after.
When they’re back in New York, the disastrous run of luck causes everyone to rethink. Bubbles accepts an offer to headline a burlesque show in Hoboken, effectively quitting the group. Mme. Basilova decides to cut her losses and back Judy’s career instead, getting her an exclusive audition with the city ballet company. But Mme. Basilova gets hit by a car as they are en route to the audition and they have to postpone. Then when an already shaken Judy turns up a few days later to try again, she sneaks a peek at one of the company’s rehearsals and is too intimidated, fleeing before producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy) can see her dance; but not before he sees her, and sizes her up as a cutie. Judy is oblivious – she just needs work – and finally takes an offer from Bubbles, who hires her as the “stooge” for her act; someone to dance in a deliberately non-sexy way while Bubbles changes her costume, so the crowd’s appetite is whetted for Bubbles’ next number. It’s clearly exploitative, but Judy is desperate.
Except Judy’s also good. As is Bubbles – good enough that the whole show is soon moved to Broadway. Their show’s fame draws the attention of Harris, who flies in for another visit, and of Adams, who wants to offer Judy another crack at an audition. But the rivalry between Bubbles and Judy is strong and long-simmering, Judy finally snaps….
So, the plot’s kind of hokey. There’s a whole love triangle drummed up with Harris and Judy – but Bubbles isn’t the third leg, rather Harris’ soon-to-be-ex-wife is. Bubbles is simply a distraction from his other problems. But she’s well aware of that, and is manipulative enough to exploit that for all it’s worth. She doesn’t even want to dance all that much; she knows she can, though, and knows how to hustle to get her way with it, so she plans to dance to get by until something better comes along. But the naïve Judy doesn’t figure that out for a long time. Judy also genuinely wants to dance and is willing to work like mad for it; she’s kind of the Salieri to Bubbles’ Mozart, with all the professional jealousy that implies.
The contrast between those two characters played over into my own reaction to the film. Judy’s the purported star of the show, but I thought Lucille Ball was way more interesting to watch. Partly because it was Lucille Ball as I hadn’t ever seen her. My only exposure prior to this was TV show reruns – and not even reruns of the show you’re thinking of, but reruns of her late-60s show Here’s Lucy. That version of Lucy was a middle-aged talent agent in Los Angeles with two teenage kids in a boilerplate sitcom about “the generation gap”; this version of Lucy was a witty, bawdy, fleet-footed dancer who was an expert at working a crowd. The movie shows us two of her burlesque pieces, and her comic timing and performance chops are spot-on. I grant that director Dorothy Arzner may have set things up this way, but even from the very first scene, I instantly was drawn to Bubbles, even though she was one of a line of seven girls doing a tap number. She just had much more of a fascinating presence; more personality, more style, more….something. As Mme. Basilova explains to Judy early in the film: “She has ‘oomph’.” Judy lacks “oomph” – but I’m afraid to say, so does Maureen O’Hara. Lucille Ball, meanwhile, has it in spades.
But that could also be a director’s choice. Judy is presented as a virtuous goody-goody throughout; self-effacing, generous, and kind, but also very morally upright. She dismisses Adam’s flirtation because she feels he’s being too forward. She breaks a date with Harris when she learns about his ex-wife. At some point she even lectures the crowd at the burlesque, chiding them for coming to see the show in the first place. It makes sense for the character – and from what I’ve heard about O’Hara, it makes sense for her as well – but it doesn’t make the character anywhere near as interesting as Bubbles. Just like Harris in the film, Judy is the one we want to waltz sweetly with to an orchestra, but Bubbles is the one we wanna hang with at the afterparty.