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  • Writer's pictureInvisible Women

Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner

All we can ever do in our work is write our own biography.

Dorothy Arzner


Dorothy Arzner (1897 - 1979) is sometimes described as the only woman filmmaker who worked within the studio system during the Hollywood Golden Age, but that’s not totally accurate. Arzner was neither peerless or without precedent. Early Hollywood had seen a number of women, from Alice Guy-Blaché to Alla Nazimova, work (both credited and uncredited) as directors. Her closest peer Lois Weber - who for a period in 1916 was Universal’s highest paid director - had kept working until the mid-1930s, and it’s worth acknowledging too the creative impact of influential producers and writers, such as Frances Marion, June Mathis and Virginia van Upp, who also played a significant role in shaping US cinema during this foundational period.

Yet it’s true that during a time which was particularly difficult for female directors, Arzner was both the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America and the first to direct a sound film. After a successful early career as an editor, she moved into the director’s chair in the late 1920s and stayed there for 15 years, serving as sole-director on 16 films and co-directing/working uncredited on several more. That number, although not spectacular, distinguishes her to this day as the most prolific woman studio director in the history of Hollywood. More important than the numbers though, are the films. Arzner’s films are rightly being reclaimed and celebrated today, because of their skill, their cleverness, their quietly subversive messages, and, too, for their sheer enjoyability. Her best pictures slip down like a glass of champagne, even if a rogue bubble - a particularly arch line of dialogue, a disarmingly acute observation - might occasionally catch in the throat.

Even before the Hays Code began to be widely implemented in the mid-1930s, Arzner was already working within a system of codes. As one of very few working women directors, and a queer woman at that, she had to smuggle her own experiences and opinions into the films she made hidden behind ostensibly acceptable hetronormative plots and characters. Yet, despite those limitations, Arzner’s films remain consistently rich and surprising, and it is her sly rejection of social convention that have ensured that her work often feels refreshingly modern.

Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933)

The first thing you’ll notice when you start watching Arzner’s films are her heroines. Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball; Arzner worked with stars, often early on in their careers, drawing out strong, hard-edged performances which would help establish those future icons as forces to be reckoned with. In Christopher Strong (1933), Katherine Hepburn is cast, in one of her first significant film roles, as an androgynous aviatrix beloved by the public and her male peers, and dressed dashingly (not so unlike Arzner herself) in trousers and a leather flying jacket. Both Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford play transparently scheming, manipulative anti-heroines in Craig’s Wife (1936) and The Bride Wore Red (1937) respectively, two films which, beneath glossy facades, demonstrate brilliantly how the patriarchy forces women to pursue the security of marriage at the expense of their souls.

Even Arzner’s more straightforward heroines have a kick to them. In Dance Girl Dance (1940) Maureen O’Hara, so elegant and angelic that she is cast as an aspiring ballerina, actively starts a vicious fist fight. When a sympathetic judge tries to coach her into saying that she was acting in self defence, O’Hara is delightfully straightforward: “Oh no your honour,” she responds. “I wanted to kill her.”

Dance Girl Dance (1940)

Then, of course there’s Arzner’s delightfully cynical attitude towards marriage. "Marriage and children make almost any woman intolerant," says an apparently happily married character in Christopher Strong, a acid-tinged line which comes wonderfully, wickedly out of the blue (credit has to be given there to the screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Zoe Akins). Hepburn’s Cynthia Darington, so bold, brave and wide open to the world, clearly isn’t cut out to be contained by matrimonial bonds. When she gives up her work at the request of her stuffy older lover she is consumed by an ennui bound up with the loss of her independence. The idea that love alone, even when accompanied by the promise of possible future marriage and legitimacy, might not be enough, feels like a rebellious message in the face of the usual Hollywood happy ending. Both Craig’s Wife, about a ruthless woman who sacrifices all ethics to secure her marital home, and The Bride Wore Red, in which a nightclub singer masquerades as an aristocrat to trick her way into a high society match, serve to sour fizzy romantic convention. A key plot point in Dance, Girl, Dance involves an astonishingly dysfunctional divorce played for dark laughs, while elsewhere another character tricks an inebriated playboy into marrying her so she can claim alimony. When he sobers up, she’s already set her price: a cool $50,000 dollars in exchange for his freedom.

Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Dance, Girl, Dance is the best known of Arzner’s films today, and for good reason. A delightfully entertaining showbiz melodrama, it’s also a rather brilliant assessment of a toxic female friendship which touches a raw nerve in its examination of the brutal ways women can treat one another. Centering on a struggling dance troupe (helmed incidentally by an androgynous, clearly queer coded ballet teacher played by Maria Ouspenskaya, a doppelganger for Arzner herself), the film follows the competitive relationship between the refined Judy (O’Hara) and the vivacious Bubbles (a pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball), as the pair are pitted against each other in their professional and personal lives. When Bubbles becomes a burlesque star, she cruelly casts her old friend as her warm up act, paying her a salary she knows Judy can’t refuse to perform a ballet routine to jeers from the inebriated crowd. In one famous scene, Judy turns on the audience, facing outwards to confront her tormentors (and by implication also us, the passive viewer) with a fierce monologue: “Go ahead and stare… I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your 50 cents worth… So you can go home when the show is over and strut before your wives and sweethearts, and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you just like we do.”

That powerful moment is often held up now as an example of explicit feminist rebellion in Golden Age Hollywood. Arzner did not write the script for Dance Girl Dance; the screenplay is co-credited to New York intellectual and communist Tess Slesinger, alongside Frank Davis, which itself opens some interesting possibilities about the link the film draws between capital and women’s bodies. Nevertheless, that scene is often read as a definitive statement from the director herself, a pre-emptive skewering of the discourse around the male gaze in cinema which would later become central to feminist criticism. 

Dance Girl Dance (1940)

Dance Girl Dance was not a critical or commercial success on its first release and signalled a petering out of Arzner’s career. By the mid-1940s, Arzner had left directing for good, ultimately finding work at UCLA film school, where she taught Francis Ford Coppola (he credited her with offering vital encouragement during the early stages of his career). In the 1970s though, Dance Girl Dance began to circulate again in second wave circles, as a new generation found inspiration in the film's proto feminist critique. Decades later Arzner still remains relatively under appreciated, but thanks to recent restorations her work is slowly becoming more widely available.

This Cinemaster season offers only a taste of Arzner’s many brilliant films, but it should be enough to establish the director as one of the greats, a heroine to sit alongside Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor as a quintessential filmmaker of the Golden Age. Just as importantly though, discovering Arzner’s films and her life story provides more vital evidence of the significant role women - as directors, stars, writers, editors and producers - played in building Hollywood’s mythology. Her films have to be made more available to audiences, to be seen more widely, because they radically reshape the way we might approach this kind of classic cinema, and because they have the potential to serve as vital ongoing inspiration to other women and LGBTQ+ filmmakers struggling to find their way in the industry. As Arzner herself definitely never said: “Direct Girl, Direct.”


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