Dorothy Arzner Essay - Critical Essays

Arzner, Dorothy


Dorothy Arzner 1897–1979

American director and screenwriter.

One of the few women to direct a substantial number of mainstream Hollywood films, Arzner directed or played a significant role as co-director or editor in the making of over twenty movies from the 1920s through the 1940s. Louise Heck-Rabi has stated that the "undisputed achievement of Dorothy Arzner is that she was the only woman director of films in Hollywood who linked the silent and sound moviemaking eras." Often featuring strong female leads, Arzner's films confronted sexist stereotypes and typically dealt with women struggling to obtain sexual equality in their marriages, relationships, and careers. As a director at such prominent studios as Paramount and RKO, Arzner had the opportunity to work with many of the best-known female film stars of the period, including Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. Since the early 1970s, Arzner's films, particularly Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), have been a favorite topic among feminist film critics.

Biographical Information

Arzner was born in San Francisco, California, in January 1897. Her birth records were destroyed in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; according to a popular anecdote, she sought to define herself as a thoroughly modern woman of the twentieth century by listing her "official" date of birth as 1900. Following the earthquake, Arzner and her family moved to Los Angeles, where her father, Louis Arzner, became the owner of a well-known Hollywood restaurant. After graduating from high school, Arzner studied medicine at the University of Southern California but left before finishing her degree. In 1919 she obtained a position as a typist at what would later become Paramount studios. Arzner impressed her employers and was soon promoted through the ranks, becoming script supervisor, cutter, and eventually editor. A major turning point in her career occurred in 1922 when she created the bullfight scenes in Blood and Sand from stock footage and close-ups of Rudolph Valentino, thus saving the studio a tremendous sum. Some of Arzner's other early credits as an editor include work on director James Cruze's films The Covered Wagon and Old Ironsides. Arzner's directorial debut came in 1927 with the farce Fashions for Women, starring Esther Ralston. Arzner directed three other silent films: the two comedies Ten Modern Commandments (1927) and Get Your Man (1927) and Manhattan Cock-tail (1928). Her first "talkie" was The Wild Party (1929). After completing several more films for Paramount, including Honor among Lovers (1931) and Merrily We Go to Hell, Arzner left to become a freelance director. Among her most successful later films are Christopher Strong (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn, and Craig's Wife (1936), which featured Rosalind Russell. Arzner's last feature film was the war movie First Comes Courage (1943); she contracted pneumonia during the film's final stages and subsequently retired from directing. After leaving Hollywood Arzner developed the first filmmaking course at the Pasadena Playhouse and later taught for four years at UCLA during the 1960s. Among her students at UCLA was widely-known contemporary director Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975 she was honored by the Directors Guild of America. Arzner died in October 1979.

Major Works

Arzner's career as a director spanned two decades, but all of her work focused on a single theme: women's efforts and abilities to control their own fate in a world of self-centered and chauvinistic men. Prime examples of this theme are Fashions for Women, Arzner's directorial debut, in which a cigarette girl achieves fame in the Parisian fashion world by manipulating men; Sarah and Son (1930), the story of a young immigrant mother who must regain custody of her son from an influential family; and Christopher Strong, which depicts aviator Lady Cynthia Darrington's illicit love affair with an older, married man. Arzner used several constructions to develop her theme of women's self-determination. In Dance, Girl, Dance and Working Girls (1931), for instance, Arzner juxtaposed two types of women in similar situations. The first type (a dancer named Bubbles played by Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance and the older sister May in Working Girls) attempts to gain wealth and power by attaching herself to a man who appears to possess these attributes. The second, stronger type (Joan, a woman who strives to be a professional ballerina in Dance, Girl, Dance, and June, the younger but more mature sister in Working Girls) seeks self-determination and self-fulfillment as the key to success. In Working Girls May has an affair with a Harvard student who does not truly love her, and she becomes pregnant. It is only through the efforts of June that the student is forced to marry May, while June is free to marry the man she loves. In Dance, Girl, Dance Joan is freed from a string of humiliations at the hand of her rival, the vamp Bubbles, by the attentions of a man who offers to train her as a serious dancer. Arzner also considered the complex relationship between gender and class, the similarities and differences in expectations and roles of women in different economic strata in several of her films. For instance, in The Bride Wore Red (1937) two wealthy men disagree about what makes a woman high class: Count Armalia claims it is clothes; Rudi Pal believes it is breeding. The Count appears to be correct as he successfully turns a cabaret singer into a socialite who wins Pal's marriage proposal, but after her deception is revealed, she marries a poor postman whom she loves and who truly values her. The plot of Anybody's Woman (1930) is similar: a poor chorus girl marries a wealthy lawyer while he is drunk, but she cannot find acceptance among his small-town friends. In other movies, such as Fashions for Women and Get Your Man, Arzner's heroines experience little personal sacrifice as they arrive at economic success through the manipulation of men. A final theme in Arzner's films is that of women who sacrifice themselves to solve problems beyond their control; suicide is a popular end for Arzner's heroines. In Christopher Strong Darrington kills herself while attempting to set an altitude record rather than tell Strong that she is pregnant. Darrington can face neither destroying Strong's family nor imprisoning herself in the traditional roles of mother and wife. In Nana (1934), the screen depiction of Emile Zola's novel of the same title, Nana kills herself rather than face her betrayal of her lover. Finally, in First Comes Courage Arzner depicts a woman, Nicole, in the Norwegian underground who marries a Nazi in order to gain information. Although she is in love with an Allied officer, Nicole refuses to leave Norway even after her husband is killed. In each of these films the problems the heroines face are created by society: confining gender roles in the first two movies and the perils of war in the last. Even in suicide, however, the women determine their own fate.

Critical Reception

Critical and popular reaction to Arzner's films at the time of their release was generally favorable. Craig's Wife, for example, was praised for its artistic merit, and a critic for the Motion Picture Daily described it as a "radical departure from the regular run film merchandise." Christopher Strong, which Sam Goldwyn described as "the best picture of the year," likewise received favorable notices. Scholarly reaction to Arzner's works, which underwent a revival in the 1970s, has centered on the courage and initiative of her female heroines, the limitations women suffer in their relationships with men, and the ways in which Arzner succeeded in expressing the feminine point of view. Though Arzner consistently denied having any feminist intentions, numerous critics have found evidence of feminist themes in her films' form and structure, plays on stereotypes, and use of ironic reversals. Commentators have noted that both Merrily We Go to Hell and Christopher Strong present contradictions and a refusal to reach closure in such a way as to call patriarchal ideologies into question, while Dance, Girl, Dance focuses the viewer's attention on the problematic position that the female characters occupy as members of a male-dominated society. As Claire Johnston has argued: "To understand the real achievement of [Arzner's] work, it is necessary to locate it within the constraints imposed by the Hollywood studio system and in relation to the patriarchal ideology of classic Hollywood cinema."

Principal Works

The Red Kimono (screenplay) [adapted from a story by Adela Rogers St. John] 1925
Fashions for Women (film) 1927
Get Your Man (film) 1927
Ten Modern Commandments (film) 1927
Manhattan Cocktail (film) 1928
The Wild Party (film) 1929
Anybody's Woman (film) 1930
Behind the Makeup (film) [with Robert Milton] 1930
Charming Sinners (film) [with Robert Milton] 1930
∗"The Vagabond King" (film sequence) 1930
Sarah and Son (film) 1930
Honor among Lovers (film) 1931
Working Girls (film) 1931
Merrily We Go to Hell (film) 1932
Christopher Strong (film) 1933
Nana (film) 1934
Craig's Wife (film) 1936
The Bride Wore Red (film) 1937
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (film) [with Richard Boleslavsky] 1937
Dance, Girl, Dance (film) 1940
First Comes Courage (film) 1943

∗This film sequence was one of several by different directors included in Paramount on Parade, which was released in 1930.


Gerald Peary (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Dorothy Arzner," in Cinema, No. 34, 1974, pp. 2-9.

[In the following essay, Peary centers on Christopher Strong, praising Arzner's directorial and cinematic skills as he remarks on the film's characters and themes.]

Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong is ripe for discovery, staking its most persuasive claim to recognition at that juncture of "auteur" aesthetics and progressive politics (sexual politics, that is) so rarely encountered in the American cinema. Furthermore, it is a significant Katharine Hepburn film, this, her second movie after A Bill of Divorcement; for it is at RKO in 1933, under the mature, even wise directorial tutelage...

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Dorothy Arzner with Gerald Peary and Karyn Kay (interview date 1974)

SOURCE: "Dorothy Arzner Interview," in Cinema, No. 34, 1974, pp. 10-17.

[In the following interview, Arzner discusses her career and the people with whom she worked in the film industry.]

The following interview was conducted over several months by mail between Wisconsin and California. Questions were posed, answers supplied, then more questions surfaced from the previous answers. Dorothy Arzner personally read over the "final print" and made corrections and additional comments; so, hopefully in the best sense of the term, this ends as an "authorized interview."

Because Ms. Arzner is busily at work completing an ambitious historical novel (based on...

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Molly Haskell (essay date 28 April 1975)

SOURCE: "Women in Pairs," in Village Voice, April 28, 1975, pp. 77-8.

[In the following essay, Haskell discusses Dance, Girl, Dance and First Comes Courage, arguing that Arzner is "the only director who consistently scrutinizes women who have priorities other than marriage and the family."]

It obviously came as a shock to [Sigmund] Freud and other Oedipally-inclined artists and thinkers, to emerge from the coddled experience of their own mothers to find that other women—those who, perhaps, as little girls, resented having had to give up piano lessons so their brothers could study or wanted something more out of life than little genius/sons to dote on....

(The entire section is 2596 words.)

Julia Lesage (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Hegemonic Female Fantasy in An Unmarried Woman and Craig's Wife," in Film Reader, No. 5, 1982, pp. 83-94.

[In the following excerpt, Lesage examines Arzner's depiction of marriage in Craig's Wife.]

Hegemony is a term in Marxist theory used by Antonio Gramsci to describe the complex ways that the dominant, most powerful class (in our era, the bourgeoisie) maintains control over ideas. The term originally derives from the Greek and was used to describe Athens' prestige and influence over the other Greek city states. The concept of hegemony is most useful if seen as operating on two interrelated and mutually reinforcing levels: the...

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Barbara Koenig Quart (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Antecedents," in Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema, Praeger, 1988, pp. 17-36.

[In the following excerpt, Quart comments on the female characters in Christopher Strong, Sarah and Son, and Dance, Girl, Dance, arguing that the "Arzner heroine is … a self-determined woman."]

Feminist scholarly attention continues to return to and circle in fascination around the narratives of the two women who alone worked as directors in classic Hollywood cinema. Although their films largely appear to conform to the mainstream patriarchal ideology (though in very differentdegrees and ways), imaginative efforts have been made by reading them "against...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)

Judith Mayne (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Working Girls," in Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 93-111.

[In the excerpt below, Mayne focuses on issues of work and social class in the lives of women from four of Arzner's films: Working Girls, Nana, The Bride Wore Red, and First Comes Courage.]

Contemporary interest in Arzner's career and her work has focused largely on how she, as a woman director in Hollywood, conveyed women's lives, desires, and experiences on screen. Arzner's work did indeed focus primarily on women's lives, women's friendships, and women's communities. But women are never identified in a simple or isolated way in Arzner's work. For instance, I...

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Russell Cousins (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Sanitizing Zola: Dorothy Arzner's Problematic Nana," in Literature Film Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1995, pp. 209-15.

[In the following essay, Cousins analyzes Arzner's adaptation of Nana and concludes that Arzner's film "exposes the pernicious effects … of patriarchy" and challenges normative views on male-female relationships.]

Nana, Zola's best-selling novel about a Second Empire harlot-cum-actress, has attracted successive generations of filmmakers. Two French directors turned the tale into memorable vehicles for their own actress wives. In 1926, Jean Renoir made the most notable of the silent versions with Catherine Hessling in the...

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Further Reading


Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 209 p.

Biographical and critical overview of Arzner's life and career, focusing on the relationship between her lifestyle, her films, and her image as a lesbian.


Coleman, John. "Eva's Secret." New Statesman and Society 99, No. 2570 (20 June 1980): 943-44.

Reviews a number of films, including a revival of Christopher Strong, of which he says that "time has pushed this to a pinnacle of camp."


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