Lady Be Good
. Do dogs dance?

by Jane Gaines

Classic from the past, from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 19-23.
Copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006, 2016.

"One can hardly conceive of a world in which certain beings communicate without verbal language, restricting themselves to gestures, objects, unshaped sounds, tunes, or tap dancing; but it is equally hard to conceive of a world in which certain beings only utter words."[1] 

— Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics [open notes in new window]

Dancer Marilyn Marsh (Eleanor Powell) kicks back the rugs in her high rise apartment living room, switches on the record player, and runs through a routine with her pet dog Buttons to a jazz rendition of the film title song, "Lady Be Good." The culmination of this highly acrobatic interplay is shown in the following images:

Marilyn cartwheels over the dog. Buttons jumps through Marilyn's arms.
The dog jumps over her head, and then over her entire body as she drops into the splits. The dog's last trick is a leap from the couch across the room into Marilyn's arms.
As she catches the dog, she falls backward onto a sofa bed. She holds the dog as it licks her face. Then, with her back to the camera, she rolls over.

A few years ago, I was part of a group which undertook a collective analysis of Lady Be Good (MGM, 1941) in an advanced film theory course. The Marilyn-Buttons novelty act described above attracted interest among the students who generally agreed that something additional was going on in the sequence; in fun, some suggested far-fetched readings. Then I was intrigued with the possibility that I could locate the elements which were creating the hint of perversity if I looked at the sequence enough times on the horizontal editor. Later I became more interested in the tools available to critics who want to demystify the way meaning is produced in aesthetic objects.

The following is an introduction to semiotics, which both illustrates the capabilities of Umberto Eco's theory of codes and tests its limits. As my example I have taken this very short scene from Lady Be Good, a musical which imagines the euphoria of its title song's own popular and financial success through a vicarious vehicle — a story about a song that gets to be a hit tune.

The film's narrative concerns a man and woman songwriting team, Dixie Donegan (Ann Sothern) and Eddie Crane (Robert Young), whose first marriage coincides with the beginning of their career as collaborators. Donegan and Crane's complementary songwriting talents, however, translate into marriage incompatibility. (He aspires to the high art concert stage and she wants to write popular lyrics.) They are divorced. Together again for an evening, they write the song "Lady Be Good," which becomes their biggest success. On the wave of the acclaim, they marry for a second time, then separate. Dixie seeks another divorce, but a fatherly judge refuses it; his determination is that they still love each other after all. Eventually I will show how the Marilyn-Buttons sequence fits into this Arthur Freed-produced musical celebrating love, marriage, success, and hit tunes.

First, I want to indicate how some basic semiotic terms might be used in film criticism while demonstrating how semiotics forces us to think more exactly about the viewer's cultural competence. The succeeding sections are meant to suggest that much more cultural information is relayed by the cinema than critics ordinarily acknowledge.

Does a dog "dance"? The code

As defined by Umberto Eco in A Theory of Semiotics, the code is the system which makes it possible" for cultural units to mean.[2] Benjamin Whorf's "prisoners of culture," who are busy using one thing to mean another in social intercourse, would be surprised to learn that there was anything systematic about telling a smile from a smirk, a jazz tune from the blues, or an outmoded handbag from a stylish purse. To the user, the code is always invisible. So the question arises, "Why would semioticians want to study what people already know?" The answer has to do with the function of the semiotician who begins from a message or symbolic act and works backward to the code. Sign-system or code, as introduced here, is a tool used by the semiotician to reconstruct this social competence.[3]

Adult moviegoers, the culturally competent who take their complex communication skills for granted, would, for instance, already know codes of gesture, music, and dress, which they would have internalized years before arriving at the theater for an evening of entertainment. How viewers "know" the various codes found in combination in the Hollywood musical film, is, then, somewhat like the way in which speakers "know" their native language. The linguistic code/cultural code comparison may seem forced to the student new to general semiotics because cultural codes are relatively loose as compared to linguistic codes.[4]

How do audiences use cultural codes to "read" the image "dog circling woman" within the context of a 1940s musical?[5] Viewers familiar with U.S. vernacular dance in amateur or professional musical revues and variety shows, or musical comedies on stage or screen, can make meaningful sense of the Marilyn-Buttons interaction because they know a code which, for our purposes, I will call "tap dance." The tap dance "system" is comprised of steps organized according to a principle: Marilyn's steps begin as basic tap (Falling Off a Log, Shuffle Off to Buffalo) and move through leg lifts, splits, spins, and finally cartwheels. Buttons' corresponding movements progress from small jumps to twirling (on his hind legs) to running leaps.

If audiences know the code {tap dance}, they may also see that the partners are not exactly "dancing" together and that whatever they are doing is something beyond basic tap. Their movements are organized according to other principles, or semiotically, their movements are governed by other codes, as I will show. A young child, familiar with this cultural phenomenon, might be able to decode this sequence as {circus dog act} while knowing that this is not truly a circus performance since the dog and woman are pretending in her living room.

If the woman and dog are "pretending" in her living room, a third code, {pet play}, is operating here. You may be saying that many people play games with their pets without ever having had instruction, and that this is the sort of recreation one would expect to find with pets in the United States and Europe. Those things we do which "go without saying," however, are among the most coded aspects of daily life. People do not pretend that animals are little humans in all societies. In those cultures where pets are not taught to do complex tricks for the amusement of the owner, /dog circling woman on its hind legs/ might have other meanings, such as "foolish bourgeois affluence." The point in understanding such a wide ranging and loose activity as code is just this: to point out its cultural specificity.

Let us say, then, that moviegoers in this culture read /dog circling woman on its hind legs/ by means of the codes {tap dance}, {circus act}, and {pet play}. Did the filmmakers who produced the sequence have in mind one or more of these codes, or, what did the filmmakers mean to represent? Semiotic theory structures this problem in terms borrowed from communication theory: messages are encoded and decoded by senders and receivers. One of the problems in adapting this communication model for cultural studies is that it still evokes the image of a single channel and a wireless transmitter.

In cinema, there is no immediate two-way exchange between stations or parties. In fact, few send, and hundreds of thousands receive, but these receivers do not return messages in the same way.[6] Furthermore, Hollywood cinema images are industrially produced rather than individually created. Studio personnel (director, set designer, hair stylist, director of cinematography, producer, and choreographer) all serve as encoders. If we see meaning in commercial cinema as in flux, we should also consider the fact that studio publicists help produce meaning — from the shooting through exhibition. To promote Lady Be Good, the MGM publicity department sent suggestions inspired by the Marilyn-Buttons number to exhibitors to use in picture exploitation. As a lead into possible exhibitor tie-ups with local pet stores, Buttons' training was featured in press book material which recommended encouraging children to teach their dogs to do tricks.[7]

From this evidence, we can conclude that of the creative personnel who worked on Lady Be Good, the publicists, at least, did intend the sequence to be read as pet play in addition to tap dance. How can it be both at once? Again, the channel/ signal/ transmission model does not adequately represent the density of meaning in visual arts or literature. Properly, these forms have multiple meanings, both concurrent and sequential. A cinematic, literary, or pictoral message, following Eco, is best considered as a text.[8] Text, as a concept, accommodates levels of meaning and overlapping codes. I will show that it explains the coexistence of tap dance, pet play, circus act, and even additional codes. The complexity of communication on the encoding side is theorized, then, by the concept of text, but on the decoding side, how do we consider the access points at which text and viewers come together? Also, what are the limits to the numbers of meanings audiences might "read out"?

Eco deals with multiple readings in his concept of "connotative paths." One message may be decoded several different ways although the sender may have intended a single meaning. Denotatively, the message may carry the sender's meaning, but receivers may also take various directions in decoding. The work of art is semiotically characterized by the number of possible directions the reader may take. Eco says here:

"Like a large labyrinthine garden, a work of art permits one to take many different routes, whose number is increased by the criss-cross of paths."[9]

Further, this special semiotic case, the aesthetic text, whose codes are organized ambiguously, gives the impression of semiotic motion in the way it "continually transforms its denotations into new connotations."[10]