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  • Writer's pictureInvisible Women

Dorothy Arzner and Jill Craigie’s Working Girls

Christoper Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)

“I wouldn't have loved you if you'd been a usual man. And you wouldn't have loved me if I'd been a woman who didn't take this kind of thing seriously.

Katherine Hepburn as Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong

Christopher Strong, is often described as a romance, and in many ways it is. Dorothy Arzner’s London set 1933 melodrama follows a forbidden affair, between the bold aviatrix Cynthia Darrington and the stiff married politician Christopher Strong, which has all the tropes of a love story: repression, secret passion, heartfelt declarations of love, tragic misunderstandings. Yet, although the film is ostensibly about the star-crossed couple, there is another central relationship which is equally narratively significant - that between Darrington, and her work. For Darrington, the force which separates her from her beloved, is not just the brutal judgement exerted by rule-bound aristocratic society. The real dilemma at the heart of Christopher Strong is not the decision between conventional morality and inconvenient love; it is Darrington’s choice between her man and her career

Working women play an important role throughout Arzner’s filmography, from the aspiring career women of Working Girls (1931) to the ambitious show girls of Dance Girl Dance (1940). This preoccupation is unsurprising when you consider the filmmaker’s own remarkable biography. Arzner (1897 – 1979) was one of very few women directors to forge a lasting career inside the studio system during Hollywood’s Golden Age (a period which spanned roughly from the 1920s – 1960s). Although Arzner did have some predecessors and peers – such as the pioneering “Godmother” of cinema Alice Guy-Blaché, who is often credited with making the first narrative film, to Lois Weber, who for a period in 1916 was the highest paid director at Universal – she was still very much an anomaly.

In the 1920s, Arzner became both the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America, and the first to direct a sound film in Hollywood. These remarkable achievements were the product of hard graft and persistence, with the diligent Arzner working her way up from typist to editor, before serving as the sole-director on 16 films across a 15 year period, as well as co-directing or working uncredited on several more titles. That number, although not spectacular by the standards of the industrial churn of early Hollywood, marks Arzner out as the most prolific woman studio director in US cinema. Crucially too, the films she made are distinctive, fascinating and stylish, packed with quietly subversive messages and gutsy female characters – many of them, yes, workers – who offer a refreshing, proto-feminist take on what it meant to be a woman during the first few decades of the twentieth century.

A publicity shot of Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933)

One of Arzner’s talents was her ability to spot and nurture female stars. She offered career shaping early roles to many iconic actresses – Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Maureen O’Hara, Lucielle Ball – who seem to visibly relish the complex hard-edged roles which Arzner offered them. Christopher Strong’s Cynthia Darrington, a prime specimen of Arzner’s working women, is played to perfection by Katherine Hepburn, a woman who would become Golden Era Hollywood’s own poster girl for mould-breaking career woman, who appears here in her first lead. Equally dashing in outrageous silver lame fancy dress, or in the trousers and oversized flying jacket she wears for work, Hepburn brings her signature androgynous beauty to the role. Even at this early stage in her career, she is charismatic and powerful on screen, and she is completely credible playing a woman who is bold enough to risk life and limb on her flying expeditions.

In fact, Hepburn is perhaps more believable as a career woman than as a lover, especially given that the object of her infatuation, the titular Strong, comes across as stiff and old before his time in contrast to the lively Darrington. Yet if the film’s main weakness is that Darrington’s romantic affair is less believable than her professional one, that also might not be a coincidence. Arzner, who was queer, often portrays heterosexual relationships in her films as fundamentally disappointing, or pushes marriage to the background in favour of plots revolving around work and the complex relationships between women. During a period when marriage was increasingly celebrated in US popular culture, this critique of the limits of heteronormative gender relationships was deeply subversive, even if Arzner often had to bury her radical ideas within ostensibly acceptable romance plots. The wonderful script for Christopher Strong was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Zoe Akins, a frequent Arzner collaborator, but there are moments in the film when it feels like the director is speaking directly to us. When one (apparently happily married) character tells Darrington that “marriage and children can make almost any woman intolerant,” it’s tempting to picture the director herself stepping momentarily out from behind the camera to give us a sly wink.

Roughly a decade or so after the fictional Darrington had begun flying her plane and the real Arzner had broken through in Hollywood, another working woman was carving out an unconventional path for herself in cinema. Jill Craigie (1911- 1999) began her career as a journalist, until a fortuitous marriage to a producer who worked for Alfred Hitchcock brought her into the orbit of the UK film industry. After working as a script writer, the outbreak of World War II and subsequent labour shortages, opened up new possibilities. In 1942 Craigie directed her first short documentary Out of Chaos. Over the decade she shot several more shorts, before making Blue Scar (1949), a feature drama set in a Welsh mining village.

Like Arzner, Craigie was a pioneer in a male-dominated industry. Blue Scar was the only narrative feature to be solely directed by a woman throughout the decade, and it’s release was greeted with a flurry of patronising articles which described Craigie (erroneously) as “Britain’s first female producer/director.” Also like Arzner, Craigie was skilled at weaving radical messages into her films, often blending documentary and fiction techniques in her attempt to capture the reality of her often working class protagonists.

A woman works in To Be a Woman (1951)

As a woman who keenly felt the struggle between the professional and domestic worlds in her own life – Craigie would eventually enter into a high profile second marriage to the politician Michael Foot – it’s logical that this self-described socialist filmmaker would want to explore that issue in her own work. To Be a Woman (1951) is explicitly political in a way that Christopher Strong isn’t, a campaign film addressing the gender pay gap which Craigie hoped would have a direct effect on policy. Yet despite this objective, Craigie’s trademark wit and style is much in evidence here, particularly in her bold use of a strident female voiceover and it’s bombastic percussive score (appropriately written by Elizabeth Lutyens, the first female British composer to score a feature film).

Although To Be A Woman was made a couple of decades after Christopher Strong, it’s tempting to keep an eye out of Cynthia Darrington amongst the groups of women who are seen on screen marching in protest. Counter-factual and impossible, yes, but somehow cinematically logical. Perhaps in another universe Cynthia, Dorothy and Jane are marching side-by-side somewhere, dressed chicly, placards raised, fighting for the freedom to do their work.

Christopher Strong and To Be A Woman will screen together on 22 June 2024, as part of a collaboration with Pictureville Cinema in Bradford.


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