Dorothy Arzner Critical Essays

Introduction

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."