Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4181
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 of Ms. Arzner, that the youthful Hepburn first utilizes her noblest attributes—her independence, unconventionality, resilience, physical prowess, athletic skill—all in the services of the feminist philosophy.
As Lady Cynthia Darrington, world-champion aviatrix (a character reminiscent of Amelia Earhart), Hepburn demonstrates with the certitude of an Isadora Duncan that a woman's true happiness comes through intense, front-seat participation in an exciting profession. In Christopher Strong it is flying planes, breaking world's records, competing and winning in the world of men. Conversely, the same happiness can be squandered away, the talented woman's life wasted, if she should misdirect this energy toward some egocentric man, such as Christopher Strong's titular hero, actually non-hero.
Christopher Strong, though the name of Gilbert Frankau's source novel, is a pointedly ironic title for Arzner's movie. The picture isn't finally about Strong, but is much more deeply concerned with the women surrounding the man—Elaine, his wife; Monica, his daughter; Cynthia, his mistress. Nor is Christopher "strong" in any true sense, for beneath his carefully lived-in identities as stalwart citizen-politician, morally righteous British gentleman, doting husband and father, exists a weak, unscrupulous coward. He desperately holds tight to two women, wife and lover, and willingly wrecks both of their lives so that he never will feel unwanted or alone.
Strong is played with standard anxiety and self-flagellation by the eternally tormented Colin Clive. The character reminds more than a bit of [Francois] Truffaut's spineless, lost husband in La Peau Douce, who shuttles unhappily between a middle-class wife and his airplane stewardess mistress, but pays for his identity crisis as shotgun victim to his wife's Medea-like rage.
Arzner, however, avoids the militant feminist temptations of the Truffaut-type ending, for her Elaine Strong would never kill her husband. No matter what his transgressions, she would always forgive him. Nor does Arzner allow herself to fantasize an even more incredible Jules et Jim type conclusion, with Cynthia taking Christopher for one last airplane ride and then crashing down with both of them in a glorious dual murder-suicide.
In the sometimes misogynist movie world of Truffaut, scorned women become furies and wreak dreadful revenge on the men who have hurt them. But in the real world outside of movie theatres, with which Dorothy Arzner deals, men of a type like Christopher Strong dabble in adultery and tend to get away with it. At the end of the movie, a pregnant, unmarried Cynthia kills herself on a solo flight. Sir Christopher Strong, reunited with Lady Strong, heads for a vacation voyage to New York.
For those critics fervently seeking out fresh directorial faces to bolster their auteur pantheons, Dorothy Arzner belatedly suits their purposes to perfection—thirty long years since her movie retirement. Along with Rowland Brown (and perhaps MGM's erratic but talented George Hill), Arzner appears as one of the few shining originals of the early sound era whose works remain to be excavated and properly explicated. Not only is Dorothy Arzner a bit of a visual stylist (sometimes, as in Working Girls [Paramount, 1931] on the prime level of Brown), but she is a director firmly committed to expressing her personal concerns in the body of her films.
Furthermore, for those picky students of the movies on the brink of anti-auteurism, who are concerned beyond the simple existence of personal themes with the quality of these themes, Dorothy Arzner also offers a refreshing, contemporary vision. Those who grow tired of Hawksian male camaraderie and back-slapping horseplay infantilism as the paradigm of what movies should be about might look instead to Ms. Arzner, and not only to Christopher Strong.
From her first feature, Fashions for Women in 1927, with Esther Ralston as an enterprising cigarette girl who makes her way upward in the fashion world by duping the foolish male designers, Arzner sides time and again in her productions with her dashing, flashy women-on-the-go characters against the hollow, conceited male animals who try to run women's lives into the ground (and literally succeed sometimes, as with the plane crash demise of Hepburn's Cynthia in Christopher Strong). But while never suppressing the ardour of her support for the strong, independent women in her films, Dorothy Arzner succeeds further, and much more nobly, by expanding her horizons to equal support for all manifestations of womanhood.
The final testimonial of Arzner's earnest feminism goes beyond her undeniably exciting portrayals of the most obviously admirable and heroic of women. Most impressive is her astounding lack of elitism, her genuine concern and empathy with the Shavian "womenly women" who also populate her movies—the repressed, conservative females who live in the shadows of their all-demanding men. Kate Millet's Three Lives are opened up into many lives, those of every woman to walk with honor through a Dorothy Arzner film.
Telephoned recently at her West Coast home, 73-year old Ms. Arzner sniffed at the waves of faddish attention directed her way since "the women's lib stuff broke." She has been through at least part of it before—long years ago, during her Hollywood directorial employment. Film writers even then invariably alluded to her freak status as a woman film director when reviewing her pictures, though not always in the admiring tone of articles today.
Even the more sympathetic critics took her directing only half-seriously, converting the female novelty into a subject of human interest for their columns. But other more hostile writers felt compelled to pick apart her capability. "Whether this story is exactly the type of yarn for Miss Arzner is questionable," wrote an anonymous newspaperman (Mordaunt Hall?) for The New York Times by way of greeting Fashions for Women into the theatres. This critic tried to balance his review in selecting out one of Arzner's attributes for praise: "She undoubtedly has an eye for attractive costumes …"
Ms. Arzner brushed aside this condescending male stereotyping with little trouble, creating for herself a respected career as a Paramount director, making nine films at the studio between 1927 and 1932. Normally these featured volatile and vital women in the leads, including the two pictures, Get Your Man (1927) and The Wild Party (1929) with Clara Bow. By 1930, Dorothy Arzner was left as the only woman still directing in Hollywood,—a status, though not necessarily a desirable one, without change through the end of her time in movies in 1943.
Beginning with Christopher Strong (1933) at RKO, Arzner became an independent, moving with characteristic skill among the various studios over the next decade before her retirement. Her best received film was Craig's Wife (1935) with Rosalind Russell at Columbia. Her greatest work is the totally unheralded Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) at RKO, pitting tough chorine, Lucille Ball, against a touching, Cinderella-like Maureen O'Hara, with Maria Ouspenskaya utilized brilliantly as their dance teacher mentor, the rare case that her screen characterization honored her real-life identity as master acting teacher of the Stanislavski school.
Ms. Arzner made approximately fourteen pictures (there are several debated titles), before quitting the movies. Later she undertook a second career with equal honor, as a professor in the UCLA film school. No less a person than director Francis Ford Coppola is indebted for her work with him while he was a student and also for her friendship. As he commented in a recent interview, "I was at UCLA film school from about 1960 to 1962, and I barely had two friends at the time … It was very lonely … One of my directing teachers was Dorothy Arzner, and she was always very sweet to me and encouraging. She was one of the better influences."
If one principle remembrance of Christopher Strong is the vibrant, devil-may-care image Katharine Hepburn's Cynthia Darrington, smiling with all the confidence of the world under her pilot's helmet, another equally stirring, affecting memory is of poor little rich wife, Elaine Strong (played abnormally well by the sometimes cloying Billie Burke under Arzner's direction), sitting in a tight ball in her lonely living room, staring emptily at the floor. She is afraid to interrupt her cad of a husband, Christopher Strong, who is thousands of miles away, though really only in the next room, his room. While he composes another oratorical gem to be delivered in Parliament, while he listens to the radio for news of the publicized flights of his lover, Elaine Strong does nothing, for she sees herself as nothing, now that her husband rejects her.
Elaine is anti-social, inhibited, afraid to express any positive emotions, a puritan, and an impossible prig. She clings tenaciously to her husband, snubs Cynthia, and constantly criticizes her daughter, while incapable of understanding any of them, especially when they seek out adventures in their lives. But even at her most painful and exasperating, Elaine is never treated by Arzner with the slightest derision. Her obsessed behavior has its reasons, which Arzner makes certain are understood, letting Elaine be seen without masks or defenses, in the quiet private moments which tend to forgive her public fumblings. For example, when Strong and Cynthia kiss for the first time, Arzner shoots the scene in long-shot, through the horrified eyes of Elaine, watching from the balcony above. And the camera stays with her as she retreats into her room and falls sobbing and profoundly alone onto her previously unthreatened marriage bed.
While Elaine Strong virtually becomes abandoned by her wandering spouse, all is neither so rosy on the second female front. Christopher Strong, in almost vampiric fashion, has begun to prey on another robust, vulnerable female victim—the proud and virginal Cynthia Darrington, professional aviatrix and heroine of British school girls. As Strong's will begins to dominate, Cynthia's cherished independence slips away. She sacrifices all to her new lover-gallant, clipping her flying wings to reign as second woman and mistress in his crowded life. She trades in her pilot's gear and aggressive, mannish strut for quiet afternoons of upper class intrigue in high heels, long dress, and mink coat. She and Strong hold hands and whisper love across roadhouse tables, whenever he can slip away from his wife.
But Cynthia becomes bored and itchy at last, finally bursting out in impassioned soliloquy, proclaiming her desires to be free (much as with the sudden eloquence of Maureen O'Hara's fiery "anti-man" speech toward the conclusion of Arzner's later Dance, Girl, Dance): "I want to fly again, Chris, I'm getting soft," Cynthia pleads with him. "I have nothing to do all day but wait for your telegrams saying you can't come. I want to go up again. I want to break records. I want to train hard. I want to get up at dawn. I want to smell the fields and the morning air."
Christopher Strong does not even hear her. All he can comment is, "Well, what do women do who can't fly?" The obvious answer is that they sit home sadly and unhappily as his own wife. But such realization is beyond either the care or comprehension of Strong, whose all-consuming chauvinism (there is no more accurate word to describe it) varies in form from solipsistic unconsciousness at best to moments of pure, calculated villainy. There is no sequence in Christopher Strong quite so treacherous as that in which Cynthia is lulled into quitting her profession. Strong convinces her to abandon flying at her most trusting, unguarded moment: while they are in bed together making love.
Director Arzner avoids here the contemporary wrath of the Hays office with the utmost delicacy and discretion. While the sound track buzzes with low, incoherent voices conversing in obvious intimacy, the screen shows only a hand, Cynthia's hand, leaning backwards and playing with the objects on a night table—a clock announcing 3 AM, a lamp. The voices become distinct. A soothing Lothario keeps urging, "Give it up. Give it up." And finally a female voice answers softly, "I'll give it up." Out goes the light.
Dorothy Arzner appears to imply here an indictment of the deceitful strategies of men in general through the abstract, disassociated methods of this scene. In the exact language (and also physical situation) appropriate for seduction, the off-screen man and woman are wrestling rhetorically over the woman's soul, her professional identity. In terms of the actual story at hand, Arzner seems to suggest that the same smooth approach which Strong probably used to end Cynthia's virginity, he now utilizes for a second intrusion, almost forced entry, into her private person. When Cynthia flicks out the lamp on this intricate little playlet, symbolically she puts out the "light" on her life. This is what it ultimately means to succumb to Christopher Strong.
Cynthia had always been her most content in the exclusive world of adventuring men. She is most deliriously happy in the whole movie while lunching with her male co-pilot and mechanic in a restaurant dive. They rub elbows and plot her next flight on a map stretched out on the counter, sharing together the joyful esprit de corps traditionally the exclusive domain of male camaraderie.
(It would be nice to believe that Arzner's single, eye-level shot of this scene constitutes a visual parody of the Hawksian male paradise, although the vision of Howard Hawks hardly was not articulated in 1933 outside of his films themselves. Dorothy Arzner shows three pro "pals" huddled together in the most uncharacteristically sparse RKO setting of napkins, ketchup bottle, and a bare wall, contrasting completely with the plush English country manor decor designed by Van Nest Polglase for the rest of the sequences. Yet this absolutely functional, ascetic surrounding is exactly the type fitted for the Hawksian all-American heroes—pragmatic, without beauty, the Ceiling Zero aviator world of hamburgers eaten over the counter before leaping back into the plane.)
Cynthia has never felt so intimately democratic and relaxed among her own sex, partly because she is not accustomed to their company, partly because other women tend to appraise her, both positively and negatively, exclusively in terms of her unique aviatrix role. For autograph-seeking schoolgirls, she is a not-quite-mortal source of adulation: "You are our hero at school. You give us courage and everything." For middle-aged traditionalists like Elaine Strong, Cynthia is perceived as a freakish, tomboyish enigma and a bit of a threat: "I can't bear to watch that young girl do all those dangerous things in the air."
There is little wonder that Cynthia tends to stick with her male companions; while Elaine hobbles dutifully to church, Cynthia takes to the tennis courts for a refreshing match of equals against Christopher Strong. And it seems inevitable later, with her relationship to Strong disintegrating and threatening to end forever, that Cynthia seeks solace back at her original place of comfort, the airport, where she is discovered shaking hands with her mechanic as in old times in the early morning air.
Cynthia climbs once more into the cockpit of a plane and takes off for a solo flight. Her official object is to break the world's altitude record, which she accomplishes easily. But more important are deeply personal needs to soar again through the air, to regain her professional identity and self-respect, to recapture the daring spirit of her fast-disappearing youth. Flying represents freedom and aspiration; now it is extended to mean rebellion against every restraint on her being in the last several years with Strong, also a bold antidote to her own errors in judgment which have left Cynthia without friends, lovers, or occupation, reduced to a woman's dress and, in the near future, maternity clothes. Cynthia Darrington has become, in effect from her grounding, a second Elaine Strong.
Why does Cynthia not only break the altitude record but take her own life in the process? There is no clear answer, only the complex web of increasingly claustrophobic circumstances alluded to above, these topped by the one dire fact which will not go away: Cynthia is pregnant and unmarried in a preabortion era and seems certain to remain so. Strong has muttered platitudes about his "duty" to marry her if she ever were to have a baby, but such strained nobility obviously is repugnant to Cynthia. She does not even tell him the new development. Besides, as his relationship with Cynthia is losing its dynamism, Christopher Strong looks to be easing his way back into the favor of his wife and rehabilitating his formerly exemplary existence. Cynthia is left to swim for herself, or to sink.
Does Cynthia plan her suicide from the beginning of her final voyage as a dramatic conclusion to her enterprise—a kind of heroic gesture of death and apotheosis? The answer only can be guessed from interpretation of the largely ambiguous visual clues in the sequence. There is no assistance in the form of verbalized intentions, as Cynthia, in the grand stoic tradition, remains absolutely mute throughout the finale.
It seems possible to infer that Cynthia starts her voyage knowing only for sure that she will fly again, but without a definite plan of suicide (though she has given serious thought to this possibility, as evidenced in an earlier elliptic message from her hand, "Courage conquers even death.") Yet as the plane soars higher and higher, Cynthia's attention shifts dangerously away from managing her flight to recapitulating in her mind the troubles overwhelming her—these, unfortunately without obvious solutions. There is a sudden impulse to end it all, swiftly carried to its terrible conclusion. Cynthia rips off her oxygen mask in the thinnest altitudes. The plane reverses course, plummets nose first into the ground far below, annihilating itself in flames and also the person within.
The unsettling power of this climactic scene is impossible to pinpoint completely. It derives partly from the grim aura of immutability clouding over the events, evoked in the aural-visual combination of somnolent, droning airplane motor sounds monopolizing the sound track and the sight of the altimeter needle methodically rising upward, doggedly claiming as its territory the lower right-hand corner of the frame. Cynthia is wedged quite literally between the two mechanisms in many of the shots, as the well-oiled infernal machine unfeelingly pushes ahead on a path toward Cynthia's death. Not that she loses her will completely, but rather she appears to be nudged along hypnotically the way of the fatal decision.
Though orchestration of this scene is most important, brilliantly integrated in the metronome-like montage, the key ingredient to the chilling effectiveness of the conclusion finally is the magical power of Katharine Hepburn at its center. Hepburn's performance in Christopher Strong has been maligned rather unfairly by such an unlikely source of malice as gentleman George Cukor, though critic Joseph McBride's terse dismissal of the characterization in Film Comment as "wildly erratic" does contain at least a modicum of truth. Hepburn's love scenes opposite Colin Clive often are phony to the core, the most amateurish posturing in the [Greta] Garbo vein. But these sequences out of control are only part of the story, as even McBride's pungent remark does suggest. There are times in Christopher Strong when Hepburn is touching and honest, with the lightest, most easy-going manner. And there are still further moments when Hepburn's still raw talent is pushed into areas so revealing or inner states of feeling, so completely true that they are without parallel on screen. Such a scene is the final one, where Hepburn's Lady Cynthia Darrington becomes immortalized.
The credit goes back to Dorothy Arzner, who avoids throughout Christopher Strong the standard pitfall of almost every director to work with Hepburn—that is, whenever in doubt, cut in to her finely carved, eternally photogenic face. Unlike the predictable Hepburn-adoring male directors, Arzner cares primarily about her main character Cynthia, whose activities show perfectly well in medium or long shot; she is concerned only very secondarily with the intrinsic beauties of the lovely actress playing the part. There are extreme closeups of Hepburn, but they are infinitely fewer than usual and dramatically motivated, far different from the aesthetic-erotic digressions, the exercises in photography, which interrupt the usual Hepburn vehicle.
Arzner's stingy strategy is never to waste the Katharine Hepburn face, but to hold back almost indefinitely its amazing dramatic utility. The tease is quite unbearably tense, for even in the minute prior to her death, Hepburn has her visage buried underneath an oxygen mask, a baroque protuberance shielding the film audience from an intimate, fond farewell to Cynthia Darrington. Arzner denies a glamorous death for her leading star, neither allowing her to speak nor be seen, gambling all for the final moment of dramatic impact and succeeding.
There is only one minute part of Cynthia Darrington which Arzner leaves unveiled, to give forth cues to the changing mood of the scene—Cynthia's eyes. And it is here that actress Hepburn is so tremendous, for somehow, in peering out through the window of her goggles, the most harrowing, heart-breaking transition is communicated: from impassive resolve to severe depression, sadness, desperate claustrophobia, the sudden lunging to escape by death.
At first Hepburn's eyes stare toughly ahead, then they begin to soften into thought, then they become melancholy, correspondent with Cynthia's life flashing by in a montage of dissolves projected on the cockpit window. The eyes well with tears. Then, as the altimeter pushes higher and higher and the plane shoots vertically upward into the dangerous altitudes, the eyes open up wide with fright, darting nervously to the side, peering out the window into the celestial clouds. Finally they radiate an insane terror, the time of madness when anything can happen. And it does, as Cynthia flings off the mask, and the bare face of Katharine Hepburn bursts forth, pushed out by Arzner to be looked on quickly and memorized. For in seconds this remarkably beautiful woman with features of an immortal will destroy herself.
Speaking probably for most Hollywood directors, Howard Hawks (again) often has expressed disgust at the idea of showing suicides in his movies. For him, a real hero (translation: a real man) would not kill himself. But Dorothy Arzner, while probably as enamored of valor and personal courage as Hawks, remains free and above this hard-line, masculine view of suicide. She realizes that ending one's own life is often an immensely difficult and extraordinary act, as it is with at least two of her heroines.
When the flighty, spoiled title character of Arzner's Nana (Goldwyn, 1934) shoots herself because she can not choose judiciously between her warring lovers, her heroine is vindicated through this act of spontaneous bravery. Nana, in taking her own life, must be noticed and respected. What is true for Nana is thricefold the case for Christopher Strongs' Cynthia, whose suicide is one of the few cases in the history of the cinema that this essentially anti-tragic act manages to evoke a tragic response from an audience—the death of John Barrymore by gassing in Dinner at Eight, Jean Gabin leaping from a train in [Jean] Renoir's La Bete Humaine are two other rare examples which come to mind. And there is the most deservedly famous suicide of all, James Mason's grandiose walk into the ocean at the end of Cukor's A Star Is Born.
The death gesture in Christopher Strong finally is so difficult to accept, so deeply sad, because of the total waste of a valuable life. Even Cynthia grasps this. There is the most poignant moment of all, when she tries feebly to reverse herself, to thrust her mask back onto her face and live. Too late.
Though Cynthia dies alone, unobserved, and without apparent influence on the lives of the other characters within the movie, Christopher Strong is saved from a final mood of distress and pessimism by a simple fact: an audience has watched the incidents and can learn from them. Undeniably, there is "meaning" and relevance to be discovered in Cynthia's demise, perhaps in particular to women.
Cynthia Darrington's shortcoming, her "tragic flaw," so to speak, is an inability to reconcile her professional needs and aspirations with her personal, emotional life as a woman. But Cynthia's failings imply no universal despair, for Cynthia is only one. A beneficiary of the lesson in Christopher Strong could succeed and do it all—becoming an outstanding aviatrix and a terrific, happy lover, too, or whatever.
Or, as Cynthia Darrington's real-life counterpart, Amelia Earhart, once explained of the dangerous flights which would lead to her own untimely death: "Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others." A sentiment that Ms. Dorothy Arzner will share exactly.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4502
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 the early settling of Los Angeles) she found it impossible to detail adequately her film career. Very generously she allowed a personal visit to her California desert home for additional information. The addendum to the interview is based upon conversations during that meeting (with thanks to Joseph McBride for his questions on that occasion).
[Peary and Kay:] How did you decide on a film career?
[Arzner:] I had been around the theatre and actors all my life. My father, Louis Arzner, owned a famous Hollywood restaurant next to a theatre. I saw most of the fine plays that came there—with Maude Adams, Sarah Bernhardt, David Warfield, etc., etc., ad infinitum. D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett, and all of the early movie and stage actors came to my Dad's restaurant for dinner. I had no personal interest in actors because they were too familiar to me.
I went to the University of Southern California and focused on the idea of becoming a doctor. But with a few summer months in the office of a fine surgeon and meeting with the sick, I decided that was not what I wanted. I wanted to be like Jesus—"Heal the sick and raise the dead," instantly, without surgery, pills, etc.
All thoughts of University and degrees in medicine were abandoned. Even though I was an "A" student and had a fairly extensive education—I had taken courses in History of Art and Architecture—I became a so-called "Drop Out." Since I was not continuing in my chosen career, I only thought of work to do and independence from taking money from my Dad.
This was after the World War and everything was starting to bounce—even the infant picture studios. An appointment was made for me to meet William DeMille. He was told I was an intelligent girl. There had been a serious flu epidemic, so workers were needed. It was possible for even inexperienced people to have an opportunity if they showed signs of ability or knowledge.
Could you describe this meeting?
There I was standing before William DeMille saying, "I think I'd like a job in the movies." William DeMille: "Where do you think you'd like to start?" Answer: "I might be able to dress sets." Question: "What is the period of this furniture?"—meaning his office furniture. I did not know the answer, but I'll never forget it—"Francescan." He continued: "Maybe you'd better look around for a week and talk to my secretary. She'll show you around the different departments."
That sounded interesting enough to me. I watched the four companies that were working, particularly that of Cecil DeMille. And I remember making the observation, "If one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do. In fact, he was the 'Whole Works.'"
However, after I finished a week of observation, William DeMille's secretary told me that typing scripts would enlighten me to what the film to be was all about. It was the blueprint for the picture. All the departments, including the director's, were grounded in the script. So I turned up at the end of the week in William DeMille's office. He asked, "Now where do you think you'd like to start?" I answered, "At the bottom." He looked penetratingly serious as a school teacher might, then barked, "Where do you think the bottom is?!" I meekly answered, "Typing scripts." "For that, I'll give you a job."
I was introduced to the head of the Typing Department. I was told I'd be given the first opening, but I had my doubts. Weeks went by. I took a job in a wholesale coffeehouse, filing orders and working the switchboard. It was through that switchboard that the call came from Ruby Miller, the Typing Department head. I was making twelve dollars a week. I said, "What's the salary?" "Fifteen dollars a week for three months, then Sixteen-Fifty." So for three dollars more a week I accepted the movie job. And that is how I started at Paramount, then called The Famous Players-Lasky Corporation.
How did you become a cutter and editor?
At the end of six months I went from holding script to cutter, and a good cutter is also an editor, working in conjunction with the director and producer, noting the audience reaction when preview time comes. I was assigned to Realart Studio, a subsidiary of Paramount. I cut and edited fifty-two pictures while chief editor there. I also supervised and trained negative cutters and splicers.
Did Realart have its own stages and crews independent of Paramount? What kinds of films were made there?
Realart Studio was equipped fully—cameramen, set designers, writers, and I was the only editor. It was a small studio with four companies and four stars: Bebe Daniels, Margarite Clark, Wanda Hamley, and Mary Miles Minter. One picture a week was started there and finished in four weeks. It would be eight reels when finished, and called a "program picture." In those days, pictures played for a week in theatres, and the cost of the ticket was thirty to fifty cents. At the end of the week there was another picture.
So much for Realart Studio. I was recalled to the parent company, Paramount, to cut and edit Blood and Sand with [Rudolph] Valentino as star, with Lila Lee and Nita Naldi. Fred Niblo was the director. June Mathis was the writer, having gained much fame and authority from guiding and writing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to enormous success. It was a "Big Picture"—hundreds of thousands of feet of film, twenty-three reels in the first tight cut, finally brought down to twelve.
What were the physical circumstances is editing at this time?
There were no movieolas or machinery. Everything was done by hand. The film was read and cut over an 8″ × 10″ box set in the table, covered with frosted glass and a light bulb underneath. The film pieces were placed over a small sprocketted plate, overlapped, and scraped about 1/16th", snipped with glue, and pressed by hand.
Were scenes shot simultaneously from several angles to help your editing?
No, films were shot normally with one camera, except for large spectacular scenes.
Do you feel that editors were paid decent wages before unionization?
For the time, I was paid very well. I never had any complaints. If you were a good editor, you asked a reasonable rate.
Had you done any shooting on Blood and Sand?
Yes, I filmed some shots for the bullfights.
Were there special instructions in editing Valentino's scenes so as to preserve the glamor?
There were no special instructions. The glamor was all on the film, put there by the writer and director, both of superior experience.
What other movies were made with James Cruze?
Then came The Covered Wagon, another "super-colossal" picture made 85 miles from a railroad in the "wilds of Utah." We used five tribes of Indians, and oxen were broken to the yoke. I stayed with Cruze through several pictures (Ruggles of Red Gap, with Eddy Horton, Merton of the Movies, and a number of others), until I left to write scripts for independent companies, like Harry Cohn's Columbia. Then Cruze asked me to work on Ironsides, another "Big Picture." He wanted me to write the shooting script, stay on the deck of the ship with him, keep the script, cut and edit—all of which I did for more salary.
Could you talk a little about Cruze, a director known today almost only by name?
It would take too long to tell you about James Cruze. He was one of the "Big Directors," but he didn't exploit himself. He saved Paramount from bankruptcy, and he was one of the finest, most generous men I knew in the motion picture business. He had no prejudices. He valued my ability and told people I was his right arm.
Were you about to walk out on Paramount to direct pictures at a minor studio when given your directoral chance in 1927?
Yes, I was going to leave Paramount after Ironsides. I had been writing scripts for Columbia, then considered a "poverty row" company. Harry Cohn made pictures for eight and ten thousand dollars and I was writing scripts for five hundred dollars apiece. But I had told Jack Bachman, Cohn's production man, that the next script I wanted to direct or "No Deal." When I finished Ironsides, I had an offer to write and direct a film for Columbia.
It was then I closed out my salary at Paramount and was about to leave for Columbia. It was late in the afternoon. I decided I should say 'goodbye' to someone after seven years and much work: B. P. Schulberg. (I had previously written a shooting script for Ben Schulberg when he had a small independent company. He had been short of cash and couldn't pay, so I told him to take it and pay me when he could, which he did later. It was "bread on the waters" because soon after he was made production head of Paramount when we were about to start Ironsides.)
But Mr. Schulberg's secretary told me he was in conference. So I went out to my car in the parking lot, had my hand on the door latch, when I decided after so many years I was going to say 'goodbye' to someone important and not just leave unnoticed and forgotten. The ego took over. I had a feeling of high good humor.
So I returned and asked the secretary if she minded if I waited for the conference to be over. She did mind. Mr. Schulberg would not see anyone. It was late then, and he had told her not to make any more appointments. Just about then Walter Wanger passed in the hall. He was head of Paramount's New York studio on Long Island. And, as he passed, I called out, "Oh, you'll do!" He responded, "What's that?" And I told him, I was leaving Paramount after seven years, and I wanted to say goodbye to someone important.
"Come into my office, Dorothy." I followed him, and when he sat down behind his desk, I put out my hand and said, "Really, I didn't want a thing, just wanted to say goodbye to someone important. I'm leaving to direct." He turned and picked up the intercom and said, "Ben—Dorothy's in my office and says she's leaving." I heard Ben Schulberg say, "Tell her I'll be right in." Which he was in about three minutes.
"What do you mean you're leaving?" "I've finished Ironsides. I've closed out my salary, and I'm leaving." "We don't want you to leave. There's always a place in scenario department for you." "I don't want to go into the scenario department. I'm going to direct for a small company." "What company?" he asked. "I won't tell you because you'd probably spoil it for me." "Now Dorothy, you go into our scenario department and later we'll think about directing." "No, I know I'd never get out of there." "What would you say if I told you that you could direct here?" "Please don't fool me, just let me go. I'm going to direct at Columbia." "You're going to direct here for Paramount." "Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an 'A' picture. I'd rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than do a 'B' picture for Paramount."
With that he left saying, "Wait here." He was back in a few moments with a play in his hand. "Here. It's a French farce called The Best Dressed Woman in Paris. Start writing the script and get yourself on the set in two weeks. New York is sending Esther Ralston out to be starred. She has made such a hit in Peter Pan, and it will be up to you."
So, there I was a writer-director. It was announced in the papers the following day or so: "Lasky Names Woman Director."
What was your directing training prior to Fashions for Women?
I had not directed anything before. In fact I hadn't told anyone to do anything before. I had observed several directors on the set in the three years that I held script and edited: Donald Crisp, Jim Cruze, Cecil DeMille, Fred Niblo, Herbert Blache and Nazimova. I kept script on one Nazimova picture, The Secret Doctor of Gaya, directed by the husband of the "directress" Madam Blache, but I don't recall meeting her.
Who championed your cause at Paramount? Adolph Zukor? Were you given trouble because you were a woman?
Ben Schulberg, Jim Cruze, Walter Wanger. Adolph Zukor was in New York where the pictures were distributed and had little to do with the making of movies. No one gave me trouble because I was a woman. Men were more helpful than women.
Could you talk about Esther Ralston, star of Fashions for Women, but a forgotten star today. Was she the same type as Clara Bow, another of your leads?
Esther Ralston was not the same type as Clara Bow—just the opposite. She was blonde, tall, and more of a showgirl type—very beautiful. Clara was a redheaded gamine, full of life and vitality with the heart of a child.
The aggressive character that Ralston played in Fashions for Women, Lola, seems like the kind of character of many of your women. Do you agree?
No, I do not think Esther as Lola was like other women in my pictures. You would have to see Nancy Carroll, Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Chatterton, Anna Sten in Nana, Merle Oberon in First Comes Courage.
You made the first movies with Ruth Chatterton. Wasn't she an unlikely movie star—a bit older and more mature than most leading ladies?
Ruth Chatterton was a star in the theatre. When talkies came to Paramount, they signed the stage actresses as many of the silent stars fell by the wayside. She was a good actress.
Did you affect her career?
Yes, I certainly affected it. When I made Ruth Chatterton's first motion picture at Paramount, Sarah and Son, it broke all box office records at the Paramount theatre in New York. Chatterton became known to the press as "The First Lady of the Screen."
Why did Ruth Chatterton move over to Warner Brothers?
Warners offered her everything an actress could desire—choice of story, director, cameraman, etc., including a salary greater than Paramount.
You made a series of Paramount pictures with Fredric March. Was this coincidence or did you ask to work together again and again?
I took Fredric March from the stage in The Royal Family and cast him in The Wild Party. I guess my pictures gave him a good start, and I liked his work, so I cast him as the lead in Sarah and Son, Merrily We Go to Hell, and Honor Among Lovers.
In 1930 you began making movies with Robert Milton. Could you explain the nature of your collaboration?
Robert Milton was a fine stage director, but he didn't know the camera's limitations or its expansions. Because I did know the technique so well, I was asked to help him. I co-directed Behind the Makeup, then I was called in to complete The Constant Wife, which he had started with Ruth Chatterton. I don't believe I took screen credit on it. I merely helped with technical work. He directed the performances. I blocked the scenes for camera and editing.
Didn't you direct one part of Paramount on Parade? What was the idea behind this extravaganza?
"The Vagabond King" was the part I directed. Paramount on Parade was an innovative type picture made mainly to exploit Paramount and its directors and stars and to show off the studio.
Paramount was the greatest studio, with more theatres and more big pictures than any others until the Depression. Its Hollywood plant was one block square, on Sunset Boulevard and Vine.
Were you given a choice of technical crew when directing at Paramount?
Yes, I had the cameramen, assistants, costume and set designers I liked best. A director had his, or her, crew that stayed from one picture to another. I made my assistant cameraman, Charles Lang, my first cameraman. Adrian and Howard Greer did clothes for me.
Honor Among Lovers was one of the first Ginger Rogers films. Did you discover her? Was her famous "stage mother" found on the set during shooting?
Ginger Rogers was a star in Girl Crazy in the theatre. I saw her and liked her and requested her for a small part in Honor Among Lovers. Paramount gave me about everything I wanted after Sarah and Son and Anybody's Woman, so I imagine they offered her much money. She could also continue playing in Girl Crazy at the same time. I never saw her mother.
Honor Among Lovers ends with Julia, the married woman, going on an ocean voyage with a man not her husband. Was this unorthodox ending your choice? Was there pressure to have Julia finish the movie in the arms of her husband?
I collaborated in the writing of Honor Among Lovers, which I made for Paramount in New York. As audiences were ready for more sophistication, it was considered the smartest high comedy at the time.
No, there was no pressure regarding the script. I had very little interference with my pictures. Sometimes there were differences in casting, sets or costumes, but usually I had my way. You see, I was not dependent on the movies for my living, so I was always ready to give the picture over to some other director if I couldn't make it the way I saw it. Right or wrong. I believe this was why I sustained so long—twenty years.
Why the title Merrily We Go to Hell?
The movie was made during the overboard drinking era during Prohibition. Freddy March played a drunken reporter with whom a socialite, Sylvia Sidney, fell in love. The title was his philosophy. He made Sylvia laugh when she was bored with the social life of her class. You would have to know the times to judge, "Why the title?"
You were at Paramount at the same time as Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Did you ever wish to make a movie with either of them?
Yes, I always wanted to make a picture with Marlene. There was a wonderful script called Stepdaughters of War. I'd worked on it for months for Chatterton, but when she signed with Warners it had to be called off. Much later, we were planning it again with Dietrich. It was to be a big anti-war picture showing the tragedies of war and how war makes women hard and masculine. When the World War broke out with Nazi Germany, it was called off again.
Could you describe your contract at Paramount? Did you have special clauses giving you control over certain phases of production?
I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time, paid by the week. I ended with a two year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.
Why then did you leave Paramount?
Paramount changed by 1932. When I left there was a complete change of executives. In fact, they were so fearful of the success of Merrily We Go to Hell that they spoke of shelving it. I begged them to release it, I was so sure of its success. A year later they were asking me, "Make another Merrily We Go to Hell," but by that time I wanted to freelance.
You were working already on Christopher Strong?
Yes, David Selznick asked me to do a film at RKO, which he headed at the time. It was to be an Ann Harding picture, but she was taken out due to contractual difficulties. So I chose to have Katharine Hepburn from seeing her about the studio. She had given a good performance in Bill of Divorcement but now she was about to be relegated to a Tarzan-type picture. I walked over to the set. She was up a tree with a leopard skin on! She had a marvelous figure; and talking to her, I felt she was the very modern type I wanted for Christopher Strong.
Did you pay special attention to directing Billie Burke in this movie? It seems the best acting performance of her career. In fact you seem more interested in all the women characters than in Christopher Strong. Is this true?
Yes, I did pay special attention to getting a performance from Billie Burke. But I was more interested in Christopher Strong, played by Colin Clive, than in any of the women characters. He was a man "on the cross." He loved his wife, and he fell in love with the aviatrix. He was on a rack. I was really more sympathetic with him, but no one seemed to pick that up. Of course, not too many women are sympathetic about the torture the situation might give to a man of upright character.
What was your relationship with Christopher Strong's scriptwriter, Zoe Akins, who had also written Sarah and Son, Anybody's Woman, and Working Girls for you at Paramount in 1931? What did Slavko Vorkapitch contribute to the movie?
My collaboration with Zoe Akins was very close. I thought her a fine writer. Vorkapitch did the montage of the around-the-world flight, when Cynthia (Katharine Hepburn) was met by Chris in San Francisco and their affair was consummated. Incidentally, Christopher Strong's story was not based on Amelia Earhart. It came from an English novel based upon the life of Amy Lowell, who did make the around-the-world flight and also broke the altitude record in her time.
Why do you think Cynthia killed herself? Did you consider other endings?
No, there was no other ending. Cynthia killed herself because she was about to have an illegitimate child. The picture was set in England. We had not accepted so easily the idea of an illegitimate child. In the boat scene, she asked, "Do you love me, Chris?" His answer: "Call it love, if you like." This was from a tortured man who deeply loved his wife and child, but fell in love with the vital, young and daring aviatrix.
Wasn't there a moment when Cynthia tried to save her own life by putting the oxygen mask back on her face after she had ripped it off?
No, Cynthia did not try to save her life. If you remember, she looked back over the whole affair seen through superimpositions as she flew to break the altitude record. Suicide was a definite decision.
How would you evaluate this movie?
Christopher Strong was one of the favorite of my pictures at the time, although I was always so critical of my own works that I could hardly consider any one a favorite. I always saw too many flaws. I was grateful, however, when they were considered so successful.
Some sources have credited you with making an RKO film, The Lost Squadron, usually listed as directed by George Archainbaud. Did you work on this film?
No, I had nothing to do with George Archainbaud or The Lost Squadron.
All articles about your career say that you were the only woman director in Hollywood at this time. But another woman, Wanda Tuchock, co-directed a movie called Finishing School, at RKO in 1933. Were you aware of this? Did you know her?
I vaguely remember Wanda Tuchock was publicized as a woman director, but I paid so little attention to what anyone else was doing. I never was interested in anyone else's personal life. I was focused on my own work, and my own life.
How did you become involved with Nana at Goldwyn Studio? How was Anna Sten picked to play the lead? Were you satisfied with the completed film?
Goldwyn chose me to do Nana because, when he returned from a trip to Europe, he saw Christopher Strong and thought it the best picture of the year. He picked Anna Sten wanting a star to vie with Dietrich and Garbo. It wasn't that I would like to have shot Nana differently. I wanted a more important script. But Goldwyn wouldn't accept any script at all until he finally handed me about the fiftieth attempt.
Why did you choose Rosalind Russell for the lead in Craig's Wife?
I did not want an actress the audience loved.
They would hate me for making her Mrs. Craig. Rosalind Russell was a bit player at MGM, brilliant, clipped, and unknown to movie audiences. She was what I wanted.
Was Craig's Wife an expensive picture to produce? Was it profitable for Columbia?
No, Craig's Wife was not a high-budget picture. To make it, I told Harry Cohn I would give him an "A" picture for "B" picture money. He fell for that. It was not one of the biggest successes when it was released. But it got such fine press that, over the long run, it was released several times and stood high on Columbia's Box Office list.
Were you also producer of Craig's Wife?
I was not the producer, although the whole production was designed by me. Outside of the development of the script, enormously protected from Harry Cohn's interference, Eddie Chodrov was the supervising producer.
Did the playwright, George Kelly, involve himself in the production? Didn't you differ with him on interpretation?
George Kelly had nothing to do with making the picture. I did try to be as faithful to his play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs. Craig made a man of him.
When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six foot height, and said, "That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB." He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2596
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. Most of these artists and thinkers didn't struggle with the problem as honorably (though inadequately) as Freud did. The question What is a Woman? still carries the assumption—and desperate hope—that there is some one thing that is a woman. And, as far as our cultural artifacts and attitudes go, there is.
Otherwise why else would female impersonation, as opposed to male impersonation, be big business? Because there is such a thing, identifiable by a set of external, playable mannerisms, as a woman, and no such thing as a man. Beyond the limits imposed by haberdashery—the neutral costume itself suggesting that the emphasis is elsewhere—the idea of a man is as unlimited as the ocean. He is a fireman, a wrestler, a writer; he is a person, an essence; he is everything except those "delicious" outward gestures of femininity upon which the female impersonator builds his routine to universal recognition, and by which womanhood is reduced to a set of physical characteristics that are the trivialized mirror opposite of serious, superior man. The impersonator ignores the characteristics that women share with men and seizes upon the extremes of sexual artifice. By the same token, if the names of Gloria Steinem or Bella Abzug or Billie Jean King come up in a conversation men will immediately discuss them not as professionals but sexually, according to the degree to which they are, or are not, fitting members of their sex.
A woman will go for hours or days without thinking of herself as a "woman" … and then she begins to worry if there's something wrong with her. And so she continues to impale herself on the fictive contradiction between "real womanhood" and the aspirations of a career. Bette Davis gave the dilemma its classic articulation as Margo Channing in All About Eve. She's in the stalled car, talking to Celeste Holm; it's the moment when she is feeling contrite over her behavior to Eve Harrington, but before Eve's deceit is revealed. "… funny business, a woman's career," she muses. "The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you go back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common—whether we like it or not—being a woman."
Eve's putative womanliness, the qualities to which Margo is referring—kittenish youth, flattery, flirtatiousness, submission, deference, ultra-femininity—take on sublime irony when Eve's treachery is unveiled, and her "femininity" is exposed as a shabby masquerade, an external, "transvestite" performance of womanhood.
This should stand as the final commentary on the myth of "woman," and yet I'm not sure that [director Joseph] Mankiewicz means it to invalidate Margo's melancholy previous speech. Bette Davis herself echoes this eulogy for a lost womanhood in her autobiography, A Lonely Life. But her idealization of marriage and the family, her mental picture of "the little woman" is the nostalgia of someone—an actress—who has never been there, or hasn't been there long enough for the charm of the "role" to wear off.
What is wrong, after all, with the kind of "woman" that Margo has been: temperamental and bitchy, to be sure, but kind and loyal (the kind of solid qualities that are always missing from the camp Margo) and gloriously intelligent. Her one lapse—her trust in Eve—is a function of her generosity.
It is when the trappings of femininity are just that—gestures divorced from an ego, a sense of self, as they were in Eve's, but not in Margo's, case, that they become fodder for the impersonator, or abstractable into the patterns of unreality that [Jean] Genet plays with in The Maids. By his original intention that the characters be played by boys, Genet was acknowledging the artificiality of the idea of femininity—the idea being more interesting to him, because purer, than real femininity—but also confirming its origin as a male fantasy. He is concerned, as [Jean-Paul] Sartre says in the introduction that has always seemed to me more interesting than the play itself, with presenting "to us femininity without women."
The current English production, an offering of the American Film Theatre, has followed the example of previous productions in choosing to have the roles of Claire, Solange, and Madame played by women: respectively, Susannah York, Glenda Jackson, and Vivien Merchant. If there has ever been a time when Genet's 1947 play could have its proper cast—adolescent boys whose sex would not be concealed but kept constantly before the audience by virtue of a placard—the time is now. There is, perhaps, an ostensible relevance in having them played by women—since women are themselves in the process of examining the masks of femininity they themselves wear. But this is the one level of fabrication, and psychology, that interests Genet not at all. Social roles, yes, particularly the mistress-servant one, with all its erotic, neurotic, sado-masochistic, and homosexual implications; and the endless inversions of what Sartre calls the "whirligig," the game of intellectual defoliation that proceeds until one arrives at nothing—not a "real," [Samuel] Beckett-like nothing, however, but a nothing concealed within yet another gesture of theatrical bravura.
To make a film of so quintessentially theatrical an enterprise no doubt struck the makers of this one—Christopher Miles, director; Robert Enders, producer; Minos Volankis, adapter—as a supreme challenge, but they have met it with compromise. Thinking, apparently, to add with the camera one more layer of masquerade, they have made the play seem a flailing prisoner of film, closeted against its will. Tensions relax and dissipate in the baroque apartment that is treated like a stage in the round, photographed occasionally from the flies. Neither quite women, nor quite female impersonators, Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, white-faced and grandiloquently petulant, are kept leagues apart by an unseen referee so that sensual potential is deferred for a theatrical pay-off that is never realized.
The play seemed flat in English, and I was struck with the realization that the French language and milieu are even more important to the stylized ciphers of Genet than to the characters of realistic drama. The French bourgeoisie provides the minimal but crucial social grounding in which relationships, beginning with the tyrannical one between mistress and servant, determine behavior and—and this is Genet's point—preclude individuality. Oddly enough, what makes Glenda Jackson the redeeming figure in the film is not her formidable assurance and sense of pitch, but the "Frenchness" she brings to the apparently competent but cowardly Solange.
In Bergman's Persona, one of my favorites which I caught again at the Camegie Hall Cinema retrospective, there is a remarkably similar situation. Two women, sisters by virtue of their physical affinity, are locked in a struggle for domination, the "apparently stronger" (Liv Ullmann's rigid mute) intimidating the "weaker." But like Claire in The Maids, Bibi Andersson's childlike and simple nurse turns out to have the resilience, the humility, and strength to survive and grow. It is her employer who collapses when confronted with personal truths. One reason I've always liked Persona is that the opposition between the intellectual and the instinctive person, usually divided between man and woman in Bergman's films, here does not follow a sexual polarity. The two women form a complete "world," without reference to man as creator or master. Unlike Hour of the Wolf, where Ullmann is the indestructible earth mother whom [Max von] Sydow's tortured artist worships and flees, neither character in Persona is the archetypal Woman, yet both are womanly.
Perhaps the most exciting pair of female opposites in American cinema occurs in Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance, in which Maureen O'Hara's ballerina and Lucille Ball's burlesque queen are pitted against each other in a photo-finish struggle between High and Low Art, hard work and sex appeal, and two different kinds of women, without either of which the world would be immeasurably the poorer. (This film and Arzner's First Comes Courage, shown recently on a double bill at the Bleecker Street, are now available for bookings.)
There are other Hollywood films about women, about camaraderie among women, about career women, many of them more stylistically distinguished than Arzner's films, but she is the only director who consistently scrutinizes women who have priorities other than marriage and the family and destinies that take precedence over love.
Dance, Girl, Dance, is a crazy, audacious film that darts from one situation to another without warning, relying on its strong central conflict to hold it together. It begins with a group of nightclub dancers, under the unlikely tutelage of Maria Ouspenskaya, being fired from a night club in the midwest and forced to hitch back to New York. The opposition—Lucille Ball's luscious vamp versus O'Hara's shy romantic—is established at the outset through their differing reactions to a playboy who woos them both.
Finally reassembled back in New York, the girls (minus Ball, or "Bubbles," who is still en route) try to put together a hula number under the unelectrified gaze of a saturnine, cigar-smoking producer. It is only when Bubbles arrives, and aims a few bumps and grinds straight for the lecher's libido, that the contract is signed.
Ouspenskaya shakes her head over the chances of her prima protegee, without "oomph" in a vulgar world.
"I could learn it," says O'Hara.
"You don't learn oomph," says Ouspenskaya, "you're born with it."
Bubbles, born with an oversupply (and Ball is wonderful—warm, smart, sexy, and totally in command of her commodities) becomes the star of a burlesque show. To help out O'Hara financially, she takes her on in the humiliating role of stooge. O'Hara comes on first, on toe and in tulle, and under the boos and catcalls of the mostly-male audience, builds up anticipation for Ball.
The moment of truth—and for a contemporary audience it is electrifying—comes when O'Hara, who can stand the abuse no longer, turns on her audience and rips into them, calling them a bunch of dirty old men who wouldn't know what to do with a woman who was any closer to them than the apron of the stage. And, she reminds them, don't think you're fooling your wives!
This is a characteristic Arzner moment: a "career" woman's declaration of independence which also encompasses a sympathy with, and respect for, the wife. Arzner bridges the gap between the different kinds of women she depicts and the different worlds they live in. Like Ouspenskaya, she loves both Bubbles and O'Hara, and never views them as opposites of judgmental, virgin-versus-whore dichotomy as most men would. Her compassion extends even to her men, but her privileged moments are those shared by women: the final scene, after their scuffle, when O'Hara and Ball have been brought to court, and a look passes between them that signals rapport, and Ball's realization that O'Hara was fighting her not over a man but over a principle.
Arzner's films move forward with the jerky unpredictability of a vision not quite resolved into a style. Without rationalization, I think we might see this as an expression of the discomfort of a woman who feels herself an artist in an alien land, but is nevertheless trying, always, to bridge the gap: between Hollywood and her artistic aspirations; between the romantic conventions and her own feminist sensibility.
Arzner was an A student with an extensive education in art and architecture, and a surgical career ahead of her, when she left the University of Southern California (in 1920 at age 20) and got herself a job in the film industry. Starting at Famous Players-Lasky (later to become Paramount Pictures), she worked her way up from the bottom, always with the full intention of becoming a director.
From typing and editing she became for awhile James Cruze's assistant, and then threatened to leave Paramount if she weren't given a directorial assignment. She was. It was an adaptation of a French farce, called Fashions for Women.
Among the 17 films she made in Hollywood—and she was the only woman directing there during most of those years—she made: The Wild Party (Paramount's first sound film, with Clara Bow); Christopher Strong (with Katharine Hepburn as the aviatrix who commits suicide rather than compromise her love—or her career); Craig's Wife (a striking interpretation of the George Kelly play, which launched Rosalind Russell as a star); and Dance, Girl, Dance, First Comes Courage in 1943 was her last film. She had been sick with pneumonia and had apparently become exasperated with the bureaucratic tangles and commercial constraints of the film industry. She taught filmmaking at UCLA for awhile (Francis Ford Coppola was one of her students). She is now writing a novel, and gently refusing attempts to draw her further into the public eye as a champion of feminism before it was the fashion for women.
In Dance, Girl, Dance, Maureen O'Hara embodies the artistic principle, but in other films, most notably Craig's Wife and First Comes Courage, it is Arzner as director (working through costume, set design and editing) who forces a "high art" motif on material which resists such upgrading. The most bombastic, but interesting all the same, is First Comes Courage, a 1943 war film in which Merle Oberon plays a spy for the Norwegian underground.
Only such a grandiose design (Oberon's monumental impassivity, the severe black and white in which she is dressed for her choice of mission over lover) could explain the lack of feeling for behavioral nuance and ambiguity in the presentation of the villain (Carl Esmond) and the relations between Oberon and Brian Aherne, but the film falls short of the awesome without providing intermediate dividend. Even the usual fascination of role reversal—Esmond's love for Oberon taking precedence over his political commitment, while hers for Aherne must come second—is diluted by the necessity, according to war-film formula, of showing him a coward.
True to Arzner, the most moving character in the film is a woman, a nurse, who assists Oberon and refuses to denounce her even when her own family is threatened. And the most moving scene is the one in which they embrace in a rapture of mutual understanding that transcends war, and that will nourish each of them in their lonely women's destinies in a way that romantic love never can.
And so for all you multitudinous feminists who are supposedly dancing at the altar of Leni Riefenstahl (who are you, anyway?), I recommend Arzner as a less problematic first choice. For here are some films that surpass anything that has been done since, by men or women, in picturing (within the conventions of the Hollywood film!) woman's difficult and heroic struggle to wrest her soul from the claims attached to it from the time she was born. And if, in the continuing Linnaean revisions and reclassifyings of film history, extra points are not granted for that, then we are certainly using the wrong grade book.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4908
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 institutional and the psychological. The dominant class has the power towrite history and impose norms because it controls and directs economic, state, cultural, scientific, religious, educational, etc., institutions. In this sense, the health care system or the educational system not only deliver material services but are also ideological systems. In the cultural sphere, some institutions are tied directly to the state (e.g., public education) and some indirectly through grants (Northwestern University). Even the independent arts depend on institutions for funding and exhibition and shape their products accordingly. Furthermore, certain major institutions comprise generally agreed upon systems for conducting personal affairs, and these shape women's lives directly, namely the institutions of marriage, the family, and heterosexuality. Such institutions are not located in a place but have great normative force and are both enacted and protected by law.
If in the U.S. in the 1980s all these institutions foster an ideology that promotes the outlook of white middle class males, no one is surprised. Most of the narrative arts of our era—novels, plays, films, television programs—are devoted to working out the conflicts and contradictions of the bourgeoisie in terms understandable and acceptable to its male members. For example, both Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People demonstrate that men need to be more emotional and loving and caring. Since women's liberation has supposedly robbed women of such qualities, these two male melodramas imply that if men get rid of the woman in the house, they can grow into what they need and want to be. The two films abolish the married couple in favor of the boys.
Women in the U.S. also live under bourgeois patriarchal hegemony and they do so complexly. The concept of hegemony lets us consider how we as women are exposed to, use, sometimes enjoy and sometimes reject the cultural products and the dominant ideas around us. We grow up in a world of received notions and attitudes, around which we shape our emotional life. If we can analyze hegemony in terms of institutional compulsion or the way that institutions structure choices, we can also analyze how our desires and emotions often lead us to choose or settle for commonly held ideas about what our life as women should be. The narrative arts, especially those set in the domestic sphere, e.g., novels, melodramas, and sex comedies, present scenarios that depict, often conservatively, what our choices, contradictions, and conflicts are. For example, sex comedies, particularly the kind seen at suburban dinner theaters, either involve traditional Oedipal seduction or swapping marital partners but keeping the couple intact; sexual love always finally inheres in the couple. Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice represent films of this type, presumably "in tune" with modern mores but with very old comic scenarios. Only with difficulty can we imagine rewriting those scenarios on entirely different terms.
I use the term "hegemonic female fantasy" to describe a phenomenon I have observed in novels, melodramas, television situation comedies, soap operas, and advertisements—that is, in the narrative arts that deal directly with the sphere institutionally and emotionally relegated to women: the domestic sphere. Out of each narrative a notion about women emerges. The characters' desires and needs make up much of the content of their speeches and are the "stuff" that impel the action. But each narrative also has ways to contain and limit its consideration of women's desires and needs: through what is not allowed, through negative example characters, through the connotative manipulation of the mise-en-scène, or through a narrative progression that shows certain kinds of conflicts and resolutions as more important than others. The hegemonic female fantasy is an historical creation—a visible projection in our fictions at any given date of how women are socially, by consensus, defined.
That we like the fictions—at least in part, at least some of them—is inevitable. Fiction also offered our parents narrative scenarios which structured their notions of what family life would and should be like. We rebel against some facets of the scenario (to stop going to church was youth's big rebellion in my twenties) but not against all. Furthermore, the hegemonic fantasy put forth by artistic fiction itself changes with history both to express and to contain ongoing changes already being felt in women's lives.
I use the term hegemonic female fantasy in the sense of a daydream that we women could muster up for ourselves, but one that would be pretty socially acceptable. It is the safe fantasy—one we all hold in certain aspects, and certainly the one propagated culturally. For me personally, Diahann Carroll in Richard Rogers' play No Strings expressed the hegemonic female fantasy most cogently when she sang, "All I want is lots of money, a nice position, and loads of lovely love." In the 80s the hegemonic fantasy indicates that women should "fulfill their potential," but also that they should find andvalue a deep emotional experience with an appropriate man. Lesbian love, promiscuity in a senior citizens' home, total dedication to discovering a new virus, serving as an officer in a revolutionary army, or having a bevy of lovers 20 years younger than oneself—these are clearly roles of women that the hegemonic female fantasy has not embraced. The hegemonic fantasy flattens out both the contradictions in women's lives and women's options. It sets out a few issues which are treated as the key issues, and it deals with those issues in a socially acceptable and often predictable way. The artistic tactics for making the conflicts and their resolutions acceptable, for making the fantasy hegemonic or mainstream, are worth attending to in close detail, for they have much to teach us about the interconnections between the narrative arts, ideology, and what we want….
Dorothy Arzner's feature films, particularly Craig's Wife, Christopher Strong, Dance Girl Dance, and Working Girls, provide useful contrasting examples to the previous type of "optimistic" film. Arzner often looks at the negative hegemonic fantasy about What Women Want; she chooses to go deep into such a fantasy and through it. What are the negative hegemonic female fantasies—both held socially about us and also partially internalized by us? Woman is goldbrick, grasping, calculating. Woman is adulteress, emotionally brittle loner, homebreaker, or manipulator. In reality, we know what a woman must do for economic security. Women gossip about what a woman must do to land Her Man (and keep him and get what she wants from him, etc.). What would we women like from men? That is, what are our common fantasies about what men could bestow? In contrast, what do we realistically expect from them? Generations of women have shared and passedon a body of subcultural lore about these issues.
Within that lore, women's fantasy scenarios serve the function of reality-testing and are often tried out in practice as adaptive strategies imaginatively forged by an oppressed group. However, within mainstream culture, the existence of that "lore" and its wisdoms is usually acknowledged only pejoratively. A grasping woman is depicted as killing love and men's initiative through her craving for security. Or else, in a staple of patriarchal melodrama, the woman sacrifices herself and forgoes her needs totally for those of the children and the Man. In contrast, Arzner's films show the women characters carefully weighing a number of elements: money, social position, personal achievement, emotional integrity, companionship, security, and love. In Arzner's world money and social position very clearly shape the choices the women characters can and do make. And for a woman to choose economic and social independence over love, in Arzner's eyes, is an understandable, if not always joyous choice.
Examining one Arzner film, Craig's Wife, in greater detail will demonstrate more clearly this woman director's narrative strategy for presenting an unpleasant fantasy about women and going into that fantasy in depth. The commonly-held fantasy Arzner deals with in Craig's Wife is this: marriage is a bargain struck between a man and a woman and reflects the woman's maneuvering for power. A wife does not expect passion or even sexual satisfaction. What she gets is social position and a house. The house is her turf, her domain, a material world in which the organization and the day to day operation is under her control. Often this fantasy enters a filmas a given, an element shaping the male protagonist's life—as in Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean strips the plastic covers off the living room furniture and denounces his father, seen wearing an apron, for accepting a submissive role. In Craig's Wife such a fantasy about a wife who lives only for her house takes up the film's entire narrative development.
This is a hegemonic female fantasy for middle class women; certainly that marriage was a bargain in which a woman earned social position and a house was a hegemonic fantasy my mother implicitly passed on to me. The unpleasant side of this fantasy, of course, is that the woman may care more for her social standing and her furnishings than for the people with whom she lives. Because she was promised, as her marriage right, control of the domestic sphere, she may also try to extend that control over the household members' lives. This notion indeed represents a hegemonic fantasy, for both its promises and its denigrating aspects form part of our general cultural lore telling us what to expect from middle class American family life.
Craig's Wife depicts Harriet Craig as living only for control over her home and shows her as receiving her come-uppance. Arzner's film enacts the bad fantasy completely. Called to her dying sister's bedside, Harriet Craig returns home after several days, insisting that her unwilling niece Ethel come back with her so the young woman's mother could "get more rest." While Harriet was gone, her husband Walter visited an old friend, Fergus Passmore; the following day Fergus' name appears in the newspaper as having committed suicide after he killed his unfaithful wife. Harriet manipulates Walter to protect their reputation; in so doing, she makes her attitudes toward him and their marriage clear, and in this way she rids him of his romantic illusions about her. This provides the dramatic mechanism for him to leave her, saying as he goes: "You married a house. I'll see to it that you have it always."
In the original misogynist play by George Kelly, written in 1925, Harriet offers Ethel a complete exposition of how to insure one's well-being within marriage. This lengthy exchange comes early in the play just after Ethel says she is engaged to a college professor of "romance languages." Harriet's lines in the play reveal a key way that the hegemonic female fantasy is often manipulated within mainstream ideology, particularly how conservative voices can utilize women's fantasies to serve reaction against women's social gains. It works like this: Exactly the opposite motives are assigned to women characters than real women would have within the social sphere (a recent example is the secretary-protagonists' use of sado-masochistic gear to truss up the boss in Nine to Five, as if what women wanted was to torment bosses sexually rather than just to get equitable working conditions). In the play Craig's Wife, Kelly's pejorative use of the word independence, repeated various times, indicates that his dialogue stands as an ideological reaction to women's gaining the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920. Harriet's argument to Ethel in the play goes like this: for women, romance is foolish and impractical. Once snared in romantic love, women are "obliged to revert right back to the almost primitive feminine dependence and subjection they've been trying to emancipate themselves from for centuries" (note how Kelly directly borrows from feminist rhetoric). Harriet tells her niece that she gained financial independence "as the result of another kind of independence; and that is the independence of authority—over the man I married" (emphasis Kelly's). Kelly's ideological counter-attack against women's emancipation uses the tactic here of making Harriet seem unnatural, for she seeks to overturn the Great Chain of Natural Hierarchies. Kelly makes it seem "unnatural" that Harriet should self-consciously and from the start oppose a husband's authority. (Similarly Mazursky had to reintegrate the independent woman into the heterosexual couple as soon as possible, i.e., as soon as she was capable of sexual arousal after her divorce.)
In the play Harriet tells Ethel that the key to having security, economic and social "protection," and a home was to "secure their permanence" by manipulating a man's idealism and romantic attitude toward marriage. As in the [Ronald] Reagan era, the conservative position may start out paying lip service to the rhetoric of progressive gains ("equal rights," "social welfare," etc.) but soon reveals in its diction its law-and-order, militaristic stance ("protection," "authority," "securing their permanence"). Phyllis Schlafly is a master of such tactics—for example, she recently declared to the press that sexual harassment does not really pose a threat to working women because women who are chaste in their appearance, who do not provoke trouble, do not get harassed. For the woman who received such formulae from her culture, she is expected to protest defensively: "But I'm a good girl (wife, mother, lover, woman). I always try to ____________ (act sincerely and honestly, be good, avoid overt displays of sexuality, keep my eyes cast down, visibly disappear so I won't get noticed and get in trouble)." The power of Kelly's, and Schlafly's, attack on women's independence is that they understand and can adapt previously accepted, i.e., hegemonic, fantasies both men and women hold about women's roles. Hegemonic fantasies about what women are or should be are often manipulated in mainstream cultural pronouncements so that the woman—even if she clings to only socially acceptable desires—is often held to blame for her own socially inferior position and for both her own oppression and that of others. Kelly's play Craig's Wife offers an excellent demonstration of how blame-the-victim ideology works.
Arzner's film does not do this. The film cuts down Harriet's discussion with Ethel to the lines cited below. Here Harriet still is manipulative but, as a woman, she speaks both realistically and consciously of her social role as "homemaker." The dilemma of love in marriage (Does marriage kill love?) is laid out with all its sides sympathetically presented, just as such contradictions exist within the hegemonic fantasy held about middle-class marriage.
Harriet: Did it ever occur to you that love is a liability in marriage? I saw to it that my marriage was emancipation for me. I had no private fortune or special training, Ethel. The only road to independence for me was through the man I married. I married to be independent.
Ethel: Independent of your husband, too?
Harriet: Independent of everyone.
Ethel: Walter adores you. He's the most trustworthy man in the world.
Harriet: I don't have to trust him. I know where he is and what he does. If I don't like it, he doesn't do it anymore.
Ethel: It doesn't strike me as honest.
Harriet: Dear Ethel, if the woman is the right kind of woman, it's better that the destiny of the home be in her hands than her husband's.
As the film Craig's Wife completely develops the bad fantasy of the manipulative wife, not only does it explain the causes for Harriet's behavior, but the film's ending, in fact, leaves Harriet well off. She has the house, now all to herself. She has received a telegram announcing her sister's death, and this news opens her up to emotional life through the direct and cathartic experience of grief. And she has for a neighbor a warm, sympathetic widow who lives alone and who has just stopped by to leave off flowers and thus hears about the sister's death. Harriet had previously rejected this neighbor's visits as intrusive, yet now with the breakdown of her previous, rigid domestic routine, the film's final mise-en-scène leaves it open for us to assume that the neighbor, an emotionally willing source of support, will return. For me, it seemed that in the conclusion of the film Arzner refers to another (usually very well-hidden) aspect of middle class women's fears and dreams: the men will die off early with heart attacks or go off with younger women, etc., but then the older women will have the fine consolation of each other, their gardens, their mutual companionship, and their homes.
That this development is desirable for a middle-aged woman, or at least a pleasant hegemonic fantasy, is reinforced by what happens to the other middle-aged women characters in the film, all of whom are developed morefully than in the play. Harriet had harassed both her housekeeper, Mrs. Harold, and her husband's aunt, his mother's sister who lives with the Craigs—Miss Austin. In a gratifying fantasy resolution to both women's problems, Miss Austin finally explains to her nephew Walter how Harriet has manipulated him all these years, and then she invites Mrs. Harold to accompany her around the world as her traveling companion. The maid and the maiden aunt have never had Harriet's opportunity to get a house, to establish "homes" as middle class wives. Their future, as the film envisions it, is a pleasant fantasy about class solidarity among older women who can and will opt for independence, companionship, and expanded horizons. Walter had had two mothers living with him—his aunt and his wife. At the end of the film he finally asserts his "manly" independence—principally by messing up Harriet's immaculate parlor and then moving out. At the same time, both Harriet and his aunt are now free of him, and the film gives no indication that emotionally either will miss him. In her frustration, Miss Austin first confronted Harriet and then old Walter that the only reason she had stayed with the Craigs all these years was because of a deathbed promise to her sister to take care of him—bonding between women having kept her there. In the course of the film she explains to Walter several times how Harriet has removed him from his friends and has him completely under control and socially isolated. In contrast to Walter and Harriet's fate, Miss Austin finally declares, "I'll travel around the world so I won't become little. These are the rooms of the dying and the laid out."
Only when Walter could understand the manipulative aspects of romance couldhe become an independent adult. The hegemonic fantasy gratifications promised by marriage, with all their illusory and limiting aspects, exist in men's minds, too. After all, as Harriet says in her realpolitik, marriage is a bargain. A man fools himself who does not want to see what it really means to have A Wife: a servant, an ego-tender, a domestic organizer, an arranger of leisure and sexual desire. If a woman manipulates a man for economic security, the myth of romance and the need for A Wife often keep a man emotionally a child.
The hegemonic fantasy about the wife who invests all her emotional energy into maintaining her social position and home, which were her marriage-right, has many negative connotations. As in Ordinary People or "Rip Van Winkle" or medieval pageant plays, she becomes equated with the castrating bitch, the phallic woman, the devil's wife. Because of the woman's drive for control over it, the domestic sphere itself seems civilizing, inhibiting, and castrating (What does it inhibit? Male adventure, duty, comradeship, etc.). In such a guise, the castrating wife—or the domestic sphere—even appears in contemporary film theory, as in the following discussion by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith about melodrama as a genre:
It (melodrama) often features women as protagonists, and where the central figure is a man there is regularly an impairment of his "masculinity"…. In so far as activity remains equated with masculinity and passivity with femininity, the destiny of the characters whether male or female, is unrealisable; he or she can only live out the impairment ("castration") imposed by the law.
Such an interpretation of melodrama strongly contrasts with Arzner's own interpretation of the sexual political situation at the end of Craig's Wife, where, through her negative example, the phallic woman has given her weakling husband for the first time in his life some "balls." According to Arzner, she designed the "whole production" of Craig's Wife, which differed as follows from George Kelly's work:
I did try to be as faithful to his (Kelly's) play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees with gratitude because Mrs. Craig made a man of him.
When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height and said, "That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB." He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.
Craig's Wife also utilizes the three other ways of dealing with fantasy gratifications and punishments which I found in An Unmarried Woman, but they do not stylistically define the film. However, such elements do reinforce Arzner's stylistic and thematic strategy of exploring women's condition in depth. If a conflict and its resolution are mentioned, they are not dropped (as with Patty's discussion of abortion and marijuana in An Unmarried Woman), but are taken up again and the causes of the conflict sympathetically explored. For example, Craig's Wife early shows us Mrs. Passmore deceiving her husband, but later, in discussing Fergus Passmore's murdering her, Walter Craig defends her: "She fell in love with Fergus and then fell in love with someone else." Ordinarily in narrative film, such a social scandal may be introduced so as to provide the occasion for the major characters to confront each other, but rarely are the villain's (villainess') motives in that secondary incident explored.
Second, denigrating connotations in reference to the female characters are allowed in Craig's Wife, but these connotations are not just presented as givens; rather they are pushed and explored. The flowery neighbor, effusive and gushy, is shown to feel lonely without a "house full of children" and responds sympathetically to Harriet's grief. The connotation "effusive" gives way to "motherly" to "warmly concerned."
Similarly, at the film's opening, as Miss Austin dines with her nephew, she seems to be the meddling older woman, at least in part. In that, in seeming to need to control her surrogate son's life and to accept his economic largess, she stands as Harriet's double, but an older, more beneficent motherly version. As the film progresses, this connotation of her character gives way to a far richer vision of both her role in Walter's life and the options she herself has.
Finally, there are a few fantasy gratifications that the film just lets stand. In particular, Ethel is rescued by her fiancé, who takes off work from the college where he teaches, travel to Ethel's side just because Ethel's aunt would not let him talk to the young woman on the phone. Two aspects of such a fantasy fulfillment are worth mentioning. First, it ispure fantasy because the fiancé seemingly faces no economic constraints from his job, his position in the public sphere, which would keep him from taking off work to pursue love. Second, rescue by a male is one of the major hegemonic female fantasies, and Arzner lets it stand—for the ingenue. Arzner does the same thing at the end of Dance Girl Dance, only with a father-figure rescuer instead. As in An Unmarried Woman, when a fantasy fulfillment is presented as Total, it reaffirms that mainstream culture would encourage young women to wish. Arzner does not directly challenge the fantasy of the male rescuer, but she uses other tactics to underscore that it is, in fact, an unlikely resolution if economic and social considerations are also weighed.
In An Unmarried Woman the characters give speeches which pass on in one way or another received ideas and established knowledge, both "what everyone knows" and what is commonly attributed to certain types of persons and situations. In this way the characters' speeches both are appropriate for the type of person speaking and build that characterization. Erica and her women friends' speeches distill, usually in an ideological way, current notions about love, women, and sexuality. The speeches also create a portrait of a "modern" woman, Erica, whose ideas and dilemmas then have resonance with many of the spectators' ideas and dilemmas. Similarly, in Craig's Wife, much of the dialogue is directly about "the rules of the game." In both films other elements affect how we react to the direct discussion of social coding within the dialogue. Such elements include how the narrative episodes are structured and paced, how much and what kind of "attention" is paid, visually and audially, to certain aspects of the characterization, and when and why such cinematic "attention" is withheld.
Viewers are not dumb for watching soap operas, for getting caught up in melodrama's conflicts, for the narrative arts that deal with the domestic sphere treat things which people need to think about. There are, structurally, many tensions generated in the nuclear family because of its relation to capitalist production and commodification, and we use fiction, especially melodramatic fiction, to explore these tensions. The very concept of "family" is heavily ideological and contains so many contradictions that it may be impossible to satisfactorily mediate the desires aroused by the concept (and by our primary emotional experiences in families) and the reality of what "family" means in women's daily lives. The woman character is placed structurally within these narratives so as to represent the contradictions between dependence and autonomy, between love and money, that all women are thrust into under capitalism. We are forced both symbolically and in our relations to bridge the gap between society's emotional norms (romance, motherhood, fidelity, loyalty, sacrifice, caring, etc.) and its realities which contradict those norms.
Women's space, both economically and socially, remains identified with the domestic sphere. This is true cross-culturally. In contrast stands the realm of public life and official political, institutional, and symbolic power. In our own culture, as Rayna Rapp writes:
… the concept of the family is a socially necessary illusion which simultaneously expresses and masks recruitment to relations of production, reproduction, and consumption—relations that condition different kinds of household bases in different class sectors. Our notions of the family absorb the conflicts, contradictions, and tensions that are actually generated by those material, class-structured relations that households hold to resources in advanced capitalism. In sum, "family" as we understand (and misunderstand) the term is conditioned by the exigencies of household formation, and serves as a shock-absorber to keep households functioning.
As I have pointed out, the narrative arts, especially melodrama, deal with the historical reality that women are enmeshed in in four general ways. Each way can and usually does recoup the discussion of the conflict in terms acceptable to the bourgeois patriarchy. If the conflict is mentioned, perhaps indicating a solution, but then the topic dropped from consideration, it becomes a matter of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. A resolution may be both indicated and denigrated; this is the most common way to deal with a "sticky" problem, letting the viewer know, "Of course you do not want that." Or fulfillment may be openly granted, especially to women characters, and then contained. (In this way, Coming Home was the first Hollywood film I saw which indicated that women might prefer some form of sex other than fucking, but then oral sex could be depicted as the preferred form of sex only if offered by a paraplegic man.) Finally, fulfillments will be allowed that reaffirm the patriarchal order.
A narrative text allows for much projection on the reader/viewer's part, allows for a multiplicity of readings. However, across texts such asnovels, ads, situation comedies, soap operas, melodramas—all the narrative arts which commonly deal with the domestic sphere—an image of what it is that women are supposed to be or want emerges. I call this the hegemonic female fantasy. It is both in our heads and imposed on us. In terms of the cultural products we receive, it is a bourgeois patriarchal creation. Inside our heads, it is something we use, something we react to or against, and something that limits us. The feminist movement, especially in its cultural wing, has created counter fantasies, other options, other ways of regarding both our past and our current situation. And it is dialectically in the interaction between feminists developing new concepts as part of a movement for social change and the actual fact of revolutionary change that a whole new hegemonic female fantasy might emerge.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1893
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 grain" to find underlying tensions created by their directors' femaleness—even visually conveyed defiances, disguised as compliance.
In America, again only Dorothy Arzner survived the transition from silents to sound, and alone directed until 1944, retiring when she chose to. Arzner, whose father's restaurant in Los Angeles brought her into early contact with the stars, started out wanting to be a medical student, and ended up directing seventeen features in the course of her career. While she saw from the very start that "[i]f one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director," she pragmatically began in filmmaking with typing scripts, then serving as a film cutter, an unusually gifted editor, a writer of stories. And where many of the kinds of women who were directors in the years after WWI were put in the newly created scenario departments of the 1920s, Arzner refused that, insisting on directing, as she also later insisted—with the same strong-mindedness—on talking full responsibility for her films, with the final decisions and the final cut hers.
At the same time the uneasiness of her situation may be suggested by the fact that she was "the total professional, perhaps rarely went out on an innovative limb, but she never botched a film, lost her temper with colleagues, and could always be counted on for a clear and sleekly competent package." Other kinds of uneasiness are suggested by stories of her comportment on the set, her habitual solemnity, her "non-talking direction": the very low voice in which she spoke, her practice of havingothers shout her orders to actors and crew, at a nod or signal from her. In a 1936 newspaper article entitled "Hollywood's Only Woman Director Never Bellows Orders Herself," the reporter tellingly notes:
Practically all successful directors are dominant people who know when to do a bit of outright bullying, and how. Players might not take kindly to bullying from a woman; they'd call it nagging. And so there's only one woman director in Hollywood.
(The act of directing appears to have been even more charged for [Ida] Lupino: "I don't believe in wearing the pants…. You don't tell a man, actors, crews. You suggest to them. Let's try something crazy here. That is, if it's comfortable for you, love.")
Arzner makes the uneasiness explicit when she speaks of needing to make a box-office success with each picture.
I knew if I failed in that, I would not have the kind of fraternity men had one for another to support me. No one was handing me wonderful stories to make. I was usually having actors' first starring roles, and naturally they were only concerned with their own lives.
Given her own force it is not surprising that Arzner's work—however artificial some of it may look to us now—is marked by strong-willed independent central women characters, and the kinds of strong actresses who could portray them. These she had a remarkable ability to recognize when they were unknown—Rosalind Russell and Sylvia Sidney, among them—and of course Katharine Hepburn, whose career was importantly advanced by Christopher Strong, though it has been pointed out that Arzner is not credited with this.
The woman pilot heroine of Christopher Strong (1933) is a strikingly bold creation, the young and just beginning Katharine Hepburn with her purposeful strides, her brusque talk of enormously ambitious feats, the extraordinarily alert and direct look she gives to the world and to her married lover as well. The schizoid nature of female social conditioning is particularly apparent in the heroine's shift of costume from down-to-business leggings, jodhpurs, mannishly cut flying jackets—to dazzlingly slinky gowns and flower-bestrewn wraps. Arzner clearly felt she needed to reassure her audience that this "new woman" is still recognizably a "real woman" for all the bold courageously ambitious self-sufficiency that would suggest otherwise.
Flight as a metaphor for freedom and transcendence is as stirring in this film as in Larisa Shepitko's Wings four and a half decades later. The kind of gusto and love of her work that Arzner herself voiced about the various phases of her moviemaking career, she puts into Lady Cynthia Darrington's relation to flying as well. As opposed to Craig's Wife (1936), made from a hit Broadway play whose author, George Kelly, felt only hostility to the woman at its center, Christopher Strong—its script a collaboration between Arzner and a woman screenwriter she worked frequently with before and after this film, Zoe Akins—is entirely supportive of its heroine. The camera isenchanted with her, her strikingly free physical movements whether she is leaning back on both elbows or sprawled with a leg positioned in unladylike but graceful casualness, a fire often blazing behind her in token of her passionate intensity. She not only is in the driver's seat of the car, her passenger the man she comes to love—but of the plane, she taking him aloft.
Links between women are also striking, Cynthia's with the Strong daughter Monica, and with her lover's wife, played by Billie Burke, with whom she shares long exchanges of looks in very tight closeup in a final sequence of the film. Arzner truly does show "genuine empathy with the 'womanly women' who also populate her movies—the repressed, conservative females who live in the shadows of the world." Links between women, even women in extreme conflict, appear in as early an Arzner film as Sarah and Son (1930), where two mothers vie for a son, born to one, raised by the other. Though the woman who has raised the boy has been deceitful, in a crucial final scene she invites the other to join her—ready to share—when the barely conscious boy calls for Mother. (This is also a film striking for the numbers of women involved in its shaping.)
Though Hepburn's character bows out to the angel-of-the-house wife, the way she does so, even her final suicidal flight, is an active recordbreaking feat of the kind that makes her convincing as a revered model for the bold young women in the film. Pauline Kael, certainly not known as a feminist, is understandably and revealingly fascinated by Hepburn/Cynthia's other act of self-sacrifice, her agreeing to comply with her lover's request, as soonas they sleep together, that she not fly in an important match.
There were many movies in the thirties in which women were professionals and the equals of men, but I don't know of any other scene that was so immediately recognizable to women of a certain kind as their truth. It was clear that the man wasn't a bastard, and that he was doing this out of anxiety and tenderness—out of love, in his terms. Nevertheless the heroine's acquiescence destroyed her. There are probably few women who have ever accomplished anything beyond the care of a family who haven't in one way or another played that scene…. It is the intelligent woman's primal post-coital scene, and it's on film; probably it got there because the movie was written by a woman, Zoe Akins, and directed by a woman, Dorothy Arzner.
The theme may not be unique to Arzner, but the shading is crucial, the attention drawn to the man's request, and the sense we are given of what is lost. (This offers an interesting comparison with Lupino's Hard, Fast, and Beautiful, and the giving up of a tennis championship there. Lupino's interviews—not to speak of her films—indicate her own profound conflicts about conventional gender roles. Arzner's relation to work is far less ambivalent than Lupino's, her male figures mostly straw men, and the concessions made to them finally less important on the deepest level, because less internalized.) Although it is true at the same time that Cynthia's narrative function demands "that she ultimately bring/restore [both couples in the film] to monogamy," the patriarchal discourse seems to me not to triumph here.
Though Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) too is placed within Hollywood (and patriarchal) conventions, dancer heroine Judy's (Maureen O'Hara's) breaking off her performance for a direct accusatory confrontation of the male audience is "a return of scrutiny" in what is assumed to be a "one-way process," with the "effect of directly challenging the entire notion of woman as spectacle." Equally telling is the grossness in various contexts of the male spectator; and the sympathetic motherly "director" play by Mme. Ouspenskaya, who is authoritative and full of contempt for the Hollywood scene and for the gross male who has the power to say yes or no. Arzner is clearly ambivalent about the vital, glamorous vulgarity of Bubbles, the Lucille Ball showgirl—but the scorn for Hollywood implicit in the film, and for the need to be a flesh peddler to survive there, is doubtless something Arzner herself felt in no small part, in this next to last of her films, close to her retirement. Ouspenskaya's heavily male coded clothes and appearance, her mannishly worn hair, are strikingly like those of Arzner herself in many photographs of her.
This Ouspenskaya mother figure is unequivocally fine. While the males in the film are ciphers or fools, the ties between the women are what are really important in the film. So is work, for its own sake as opposed to the leering crude agent under whose male gaze the group performs. There isa powerful sense of female solidarity: Madame watches out for her girls, and Adams' (Ralph Bellamy's) woman secretary supports Judy and is the first to clap with understanding of Judy's speech to the audience. The Arzner heroine is indeed a self-determined woman, who insists "on initiating and carrying out her own projects and pursuing her own desires, rather than taking her place as part of the projects of men and as object of their desires"—whatever conventional capitulations to patriarchy Arzner felt compelled to have her make in the final sequence.
When Arzner retired, Lupino had not yet begun, and for some years no women directors were working in America. Muriel Box, however, was getting her filmmaking career underway in England, a director whose name recurs in that country as often and in the same way as Dorothy Arzner's does here, and whose films were capable without being distinctive. But Box's casual account of how she happened to become a director is worth including here because it makes clear yet again how women's situations cross national boundaries: "I am often asked: When did you first begin to direct films?… I give the year as 1950 or my age as forty-five. Neither is strictly true. Both refer to my entry as a director only into feature films; I started with documentaries much earlier…. My chance to direct in the documentary field would not have come but for the scarcity of male directors in wartime."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7945
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 suggested earlier in this book that Arzner's screenplay for The Red Kimono is indicative of her commitment not only to the exploration of the connections between women, but to those connections as they are shaped and complicated by social class. In this chapter I will examine how the attention to social class and women's lives is foregrounded in four of Arzner's films—Working Girls (1931), Nana (1934), The Bride Wore Red (1937), and First Comes Courage (1943). As the title of this chapter indicates, each is concerned with women's working lives.
It is significant that the attention to social class, in Arzner's films, is given especially to working women. To be sure, in early films like Get Your Man (1927), American and European definitions of social class are juxtaposed, with attendant differences in sexual morality. Clara Bow's character exploits these differences to her benefit, as if to suggest that the brash, entrepreneurial attitude towards love that she embodies issymptomatic of an approach to social mores quite different from the European aristocratic values with which she clashes. More typically, however, it is through jobs and careers that women's encounters with social class occur. Sarah and Son and Dance, Girl, Dance use women's careers on stage to explore the differing class associations of vaudeville versus opera (in Sarah and Son) and burlesque versus ballet (in Dance, Girl, Dance). In Honor among Lovers, the obstacles to romance between Julia (Claudette Colbert) and Jerry (Fredric March) are specifically those of social class, since Julia's status as Jerry's secretary puts her outside the wealthy circles in which he circulates.
As coincidence would have it, the four films discussed here have something besides the working girl in common. They were perhaps the largest failures in Arzner's career. By "failure" I do not mean that the films were artistic failures, although in two cases this is true—Nana and The Bride Wore Red are less interesting than Arzner's other films. More important, these four films marked low points in Arzner's career, and all were failures commercially. While I think First Comes Courage is better than many critics (including Arzner herself) allow, it was Arzner's last film, and the project that precipitated her departure from Hollywood. The biggest commercial flop of Arzner's career was Working Girls, a film worthy of the kind of attention that Dance, Girl, Dance and Christopher Strong have received.
By grouping together four failed works, I am not necessarily suggesting that flops occurred whenever Arzner turned her attention to social class; attention to the intersections of class and gender is common in most of her films. In these four works, the working girl is portrayed through and against the conventions of romance, and the connection of "work" and "romance" is often awkward. As a result, the conventions of Hollywood romance are defamiliarized, even to the point of appearing downright silly. This foregrounding of the limitations of Hollywood romance may account for some of the perceived limitations of these films by the critics and audiences of the time.
Working Girls was the third of four films on which Arzner and screenwriter Zoë Akins collaborated. The film was, for all intents and purposes, shelved by Paramount; it never had a national release and received virtually no studio publicity. It never had a general release and is available only in archival prints to this day. This is unfortunate, since this film is one of Arzner's most significant achievements, and it is the most successful of her collaborations with Akins. Stylistically, it is daring and innovative.
Working Girls tells the tale of two sisters, May and June Thorpe, who come to New York City from Rockville, Indiana, determined to make careers for themselves as "working girls." The ambiguity of the film's title is never addressed directly in the film. But the double meaning of "working girl," in its innocent literal sense and in its acquired sense that women who worked outside the home were morally suspect (eventually the term "working girl" became a code for "prostitute"), is evident throughout. The two sisters must learn, simultaneously, the sexual politics of both work and romance. May and June move into the Rolfe House, a boardinghouse forsingle, working girls like themselves, i.e., women from rather poor backgrounds who have few available funds. The sisters go to work: they get jobs and boyfriends. As in all of Arzner's films featuring communities of women, strong bonds exist among the women who share the living quarters. Yet Arzner gently parodies such institutions. Miss Johnstone, the administrator of the home, is as busy shutting windows to keep out the sounds of music and partying across the way as she is taking care of business; one of the boarders remarks sarcastically that hearing music is supposed to be bad for their morals.
One of the most interesting developments in the film is the change that separates the two sisters as the film progresses. At the beginning of the film, they are virtually interchangeable, an effect emphasized by the similar coloring, makeup, and dress of the two actresses. The only significant difference is that May, the older of the two, seems a bit more mature and reasonable than her younger sister, June. As the film progresses, their dress changes considerably, with one sister becoming more frilly and feminine (and more irresponsible in her relationships with men), and the other more severe, butch, and businesslike (like Arzner herself, one is tempted to note), and much more astute in her relationships with men.
June interviews for a job as a research assistant to Von Schrader, a German scholar, and when he makes clear that he is looking for someone more educated, she calls her sister in, and May gets the job. June sets out to find herself a more frivolous job as a model, but she is snobbily rejected. June begins to pay more attention to her dress and appearance, and she finds a job at a telegraph station in a hotel. Her first two customers become the romantic leads for June and her sister; one is a wealthy Harvard man (who sends a telegram to an ex-girlfriend), and the other is a saxophone player, who quickly invites June to have dinner with him.
Boyd Wheeler, the Harvard man, soon meets May in a shoe store. Unbeknownst to May, he is on the rebound (which June knows because of the telegram he sent); May and Boyd begin a romance. June is suspicious of the liaison precisely because of the class differences between them. Meanwhile, Kelly, the saxophone player, showers June with gifts. In the film's early scenes, June appears to be the more frivolous sister. Yet as the film progresses, she proves to be the wiser and more practical one. She is never swept off her feet by Kelly in the way that May is by Wheeler, and June's undisguised interest in material things makes her appear not so much naive and superficial as cunning and straightforward. Most important, June does not do what May does, namely, sleep with her boyfriend.
The question of premarital sex is presented in the film less as a moral issue than a practical one. May becomes pregnant, but in the meantime Wheeler has returned to Louise, his former sweetheart—a woman, none too coincidentally, of his own social background. June takes charge of the situation. First, she goes to May's employer, the German scholar, who had let May go when he became aware of his attraction to her and her lack of interest in him. June begs him to give May back her job, and he agrees. Shortly after May begins to work again, she accepts the marriage proposalhe had made six months before, and he, confused and in a moment of weakness, agrees. When June discovers that her sister is pregnant with Wheeler's child, she is the one who breaks the news to the German scholar. June's job proves once again to be an asset, since she discovers through a telegram that Wheeler sends to sweetheart Louise that their engagement has ended, at her request. Once June has this information, she proceeds with her plan to force Wheeler to marry her sister.
One might expect that the intersecting working lives and romantic lives of the two sisters would conclude on this note—May with Wheeler in a curious but necessary cross-class marriage made possible mostly by June, who is more appropriately paired with Kelly, the musician. However, there is a twist to this symmetry; June and the German scholar fall in love, as if to suggest yet another cross-class fantasy, one involving education and learnedness as much as wealth (Wheeler may be a Harvard man, but he is never seen at work, and he is drunk most of the time).
The changing fortunes of the two sisters are represented by their changes in appearance. As I've mentioned, the two women are dressed identically at the beginning of the film, and during the first few scenes it is difficult to tell them apart in terms of appearance. However, as the film progresses, June begins to dress in a less frilly, stereotypically "feminine" way, while May, who without her sister's direction would be virtually lost, becomes the more feminine dresser. The contrast in dress is made most strikingly in the decisive scene of the shift in power between the two sisters, when June tends to her ill sister in their room at Rolfe House. June wears a uniform that tends to be associated, in all of Arzner's films, with independence and autonomy (not to mention with Arzner's own style of dress): a suit and tie, with a beret. The difference between the two sisters, at this point, is not just one of clothing, for May's pregnancy becomes quite clear to her sister (and to the audience) during this scene.
A common preoccupation in Arzner's films is the contrast not only between individual women, but also between communities exclusively composed of women and mixed communities of men and women. In Working Girls, this contrast takes shape as a movement back and forth from Rolfe House, where men are permitted only in the reception area (and are gawked at by the residents), to the working world; the contrast is also evoked by the juxtaposition of Rolfe House and the unidentified, but supposedly dangerous, community that exists within earshot—from which music and dancing are heard. Interestingly, the working world from which Rolfe House provides a refuge is defined from the outset more in terms of the male/female interactions that it enables than in terms of work in any classic sense of the word. Indeed, the only really traditional concept of a women's work force occurs during the credits of the film, where we see women in silhouette at typewriters, and it is perhaps no coincidence that this abstraction of women in the work force never really finds a concrete match in the film. The work situations that May and June find for themselves are unusual. May goes to work for the German scholar, whose office and home are one, and June finds it odd that home and workplace should thus be combined. June's job in the telegraph office is not a typical work environment, in that she has unusual autonomy—not to mentionaccess to vital plot information! In both cases, the women's jobs are immediately defined in terms of their romantic lives—the scholar proposes to May, and June's first few minutes on the job introduce her to her sister's future husband and her own romantic companion for most of the film.
Working Girls seems to establish contrasts (like romance/work) only to collapse them. Try as Mrs. Johnstone might to keep the noise and accompanying festivities at bay by closing the windows, the inhabitants of Rolfe House nonetheless create their own fun, whether by disobeying the rules of the house or by creating a female world of laughter and dance. Similarly, the worlds of home and paid labor, for women, are never separate. This intersection of seemingly opposing spheres finds, in Working Girls, a stunning representation in a scene that is among the most effective and gorgeous in any of Arzner's works. May and June have had a busy day of finding work and finding male companions. The doors of Rolfe House lock at midnight, and unless a girl has signed out for the night, missing the deadline means certain expulsion. June returns five minutes before midnight, in a taxi, from her evening spent with Kelly, who has showered her with presents. At three minutes until midnight, May arrives with Mr. Wheeler, the Harvard man, to whom she already affectionately refers as "Big Frog" (he calls her "Little Frog").
The elevator in Rolfe House shuts down at 11 P.M., so the two sisters must climb up several flights of stairs to their room. Virtually all communication in the film is observed by others, and this scene is no exception, as Loretta, the elevator operator, functions here (as she often does in the film) as a witness. After they have been let into the building by Loretta, the two sisters begin to mount the four flights of stairs to the room they share. From a long shot of the two women about to mount the stairs, the camera moves forward to frame them more closely, and follows their movements up the stairs. Striking effects of light and dark frame them as they climb, exhausted. Visually, the pair are in a state of suspension, their movement upwards at once an ironic reminder of both their aspirations and their limitations. They live in a home that forces the women to climb stairs after 11 P.M.; their fatigue is a reminder of the contrast between the taxi (June) and the personal automobile (May) that have brought them to the door and the institutional surroundings they call home. Yet they are moving upwards, mirroring their own desires to come to the big city and make their fortunes.
Although June and May are still dressed quite similarly, if not identically, their first full day in the city has already produced a significant difference between them. June is loaded down with packages, gifts from Kelly—from candy and perfume to an umbrella and overshoes—while May has nothing. Although May is the older sister, this extended walk up the stairs marks the first shift in their relationship, wherein June is defined as the more astute and the more mature. Their conversation about men reveals an almost startling cynicism and wisdom on June's part and foreshadows how she will prove to be both more clever than her sister and her sister's protector.
June tells May that Mr. Kelly warned her that "a lot of these swell guys think any girl that works is fair game; and you're so darned soft…." May is quick to point out that this Mr. Kelly is a new acquaintance as surely as Boyd Wheeler is, to which June replies: "Don't you worry about me not knowing how to say no. I even know how to say no and yes at the same time—which is something you'll never learn." May insists that she doesn't want to learn such a thing, and the remainder of the film will demonstrate how saying "no and yes at the same time" is indeed what separates the two sisters. May is drawn to Wheeler's wealth and the fact that he is a Harvard man, but June points out that all she managed to get from him was a meal, whereas her saxophone player showered her with gifts.
The difference between the two sisters is identified specifically in terms of their understanding of class. June tells her sister that she doesn't want her "running around with somebody who thinks [she's] not in his class." When May suggests that she may well marry Boyd Wheeler some day, June exclaims, "Gosh, what a fool I've raised for a sister!" May may well be the older sister, but June is quickly assuming the role of wiser, more experienced sibling.
May doesn't pay the price for her naiveté, since June ensures that the cross-class marriage her sister dreamed of occurs, even if not in quite the same terms May had imagined. But for June, there is a most curious pay-off. When she goes to Von Schrader to tell him that May is marrying someone else, he quickly falls in love with her. When June interviewed with Von Schrader for the job that eventually went to May, her lack of education and general knowledge was pointedly observed by the German scholar. Yet by the conclusion of the film, these two are paired. The pairing is suggested in a peculiar way, because Kelly enters the frame of June and Von Schrader just as she is telling the European that she needs a lot of petting. Kelly's exclamation is the last line of the film: "Why June, you always told me you didn't like petting!" Framed between the two men, June seems to be demonstrating her ability to say "no and yes at the same time," as if to suggest that the "work" of managing relationships requires a precise and finely honed script. Indeed, June's role in Working Girls embodies both sharp observations on the complex nature of women's work and a fantasy of women's power to shape the world around them.
If June demonstrates the ability to say "no and yes at the same time," Working Girls also demonstrates Arzner's unique ability to say the same to the conventions of Hollywood cinema. Working Girls explores the stakes, for women, of binary opposites, ranging from home/workplace, to romance/work, to gender/class. It is impossible to neatly separate one term from the other in this film. The scene of May and June climbing the staircase in Rolfe House provides a stunning mise-enscène of what might be called a threshold space, literally and figuratively. The vision of Working Girls is profoundly ambivalent, in that it is impossible to make clear and absolute distinctions between different realms, and also in the sense that the film both celebrates and critiques how women's work comprises so many complex variables. Arzner's own position as a working girl may have been vastly different from that of May or June, but her own relationship to the Hollywood cinema comprised complex variables as well.
I don't know if Lizzie Borden chose the title of her 1986 film Working Girls in conscious homage to Arzner's film, but there are some striking parallels between the two works. In both cases, however different the points of emphasis (Borden's film is about a group of prostitutes who work in a middle-class bordello), being a "working girl" means understanding economics in sexual as well as business terms. In addition, the bordello in Borden's film is presented in some of the same ways as Rolfe House in Arzner's film—a female community where women manage to create a utopian space despite the imposition of rules. Arzner had censorship problems with Working Girls, undoubtedly due in part to the direct approach to May's pregnancy and June's more savvy approach to the relationship between sex and money. The only film in which Arzner directly addresses prostitution is Nana, the film for which she was hired to replace another director, and which Samuel Goldwyn intended as a starring vehicle for Russian actress Anna Sten.
I hesitate to make too much of the script adapting Émile Zola's novel to the screen (the final film departs so sharply from the novel that the credits read "suggested by Zola's novel"). Arzner's habit was to work closely with the writer, and to have a writer on the set at all times, and the conditions of production of Nana would appear to have made this difficult. However, in the case of Dance, Girl, Dance, where Arzner was similarly brought in to manage a project begun by someone else, Arzner's own changes to the already existing script resulted in what is perhaps her most successful and personal film. Nana is not one of Arzner's great successes, but some elements of the screenplay are suggestive of Arzner's preoccupations in other films. Most obviously, the relationship between Nana and Satin is foregrounded from the outset of the film. In Zola's novel, the relationship between the two women (first as fellow prostitutes, later as lesbian lovers) is important, but certainly not as central as in the film. Hence, in what is recognizable as a typical Arzner touch, Nana is defined from the outset as part of a community of women, and the friendship between her and Satin is a constant in the film.
Nana is a working girl in the tradition of the female leads of Sarah and Son and Dance, Girl, Dance; in these works the world of performance is intimately connected to that of sex. Nana's working life combines prostitution and the stage, and the two worlds are forever intertwined. Unlike the two other films in which women performers are central, here the central opposition is between "sex work" understood in two different ways: literally (as a prostitute) and figuratively (as a performer). Indeed, some of the most interesting moments in the film occur when there is deliberate ambiguity between performance and sexuality.
Nana is introduced in the film as a poor woman, scrubbing floors under the watchful eyes of a married couple; Nana's mother has just died and Nana cannot afford to buy a tombstone for her grave. To the man she exclaims: "It's men who make women whatever they are. I don't know what I'll be—but I won't be weak. And I won't be poor." Titles announce that a year has passed, and Nana enters a café in the company of Satin and Mimi, the three of them clearly coded as prostitutes (or "common women," as a man whom Nana eventually humiliates puts it).
Nana's display sparks the interest of Greiner, an impresario, and he sends a man to Nana who tells her that Greiner "has made more women …" Nana interrupts him: "Made them what?" "Made them famous," the man continues. "Oh," Nana replies, "now he interests me." Nana's humiliation of a potential client catches the impresario's eye, and the play on the word "made" suggests the interdependence, in the film, of Nana's work and her sexuality. To anyone familiar with Émile Zola's novel, this is hardly stunning news. But the film Nana functions in a more interesting way as a "reading" of Zola in Nana's relationships with other women. Zola's novel begins with theatre-goers—virtually all male—discussing the new discovery, Nana. Bordenave, the theatre manager, abruptly corrects anyone who refers to the space as a theatre—"You mean my brothel!" he interrupts, a virtual rhythmic cadence throughout the opening chapter. When Nana finally appears on stage, she is first laughed at and then recognized as a remarkable spectacle. The power of this "man-eater" (as Zola calls her) is measured by her hypnotic, mesmerizing effect on the male spectators. Hence, Zola's novel plays on absolute gender distinctions—male/female, onlooker/performer.
In the film, however, and in keeping with the foregrounding of Nana's connection with Satin, Nana's appearances on stage are less absolutely defined in terms of a female performer versus a male onlooker. To be sure, attention is drawn in the film to the expectations of the male audience vis-à-vis Nana, but equal attention is drawn to two other spectators, Satin and Mimi. These two fellow prostitutes have visited the theatre regularly, trying to see their friend, but each time they are told that Nana doesn'twant to see them. Meanwhile, Nana expresses concern about her two friends. When Nana finally comes on stage, the male members in the audience are appropriately dazzled by her performance (and a rather odd performance it is; despite the fact that Goldwyn wanted to make Sten a star in her own terms, her stage performance in Nana is like a bad imitation of Marlene Dietrich). They are not, however, the only spectators; Satin and Mimi have taken their seats in the balcony and impatiently (and angrily) await the arrival of the friend they think has betrayed them. ("When does our lady of the sewers come on?" one asks the other.) Mimi and Satin are moved to tears by Nana's performance, and shots of their reactions to their friend onstage provide an interesting counterpoint to the reactions of the male members of the audience.
Much attention has been paid, in feminist film theory, to the polarity of the gaze in classical cinema—where man is "bearer of the look," to use Laura Mulvey's phrase, and woman its object—and in particular to those situations, like Nana onstage, which epitomize the absolute division between woman as object and man as subject. I have always found Zola's novel also to be a stunning demonstration of this process, and it is perhaps one of many non-coincidences that Zola's influence on the cinema has been noted by many filmmakers and theorists alike. But in Arzner's Nana, there is no absolute polarity, no rigid opposition, between woman as performer and man as onlooker, since women in the audience are active spectators and impassioned onlookers. Indeed, reaction shots of the women are as fully a part of the continuity established in this scene as shots of the men are.
This is, I believe, one of the distinctive features of how "women's work" is presented in Arzner's films, particularly women's work onstage. There is no simplistic division between the male gaze and the female object, and women are active and complex subjects, regardless of what they are subject of or subjected to. It is significant in this context that the most famous scene in any of Arzner's films, Judy's speech to the audience in Dance, Girl, Dance, may address the audience as male, but the audience we actually see is not exclusively male. For in Dance, Girl, Dance, as in Nana, the working world of women is just that, and not a rarefied sphere where women exist only as victims or only as objects of male pleasure.
Unfortunately, however, this "reading" of Zola, and of some of the conventions of classical cinema, demonstrated in the foregrounding of the friendships among Nana, Mimi and Satin, and in the presentation of Nana's performance as one eagerly consumed by women as well as men, is not sustained in Nana. The film becomes centered on a conflict between two men, both of whom are supposedly ruined by their contact with Nana. In Zola's novel, Nana dies of smallpox, and she is surrounded by a circle of fellow prostitutes as she dies. Meanwhile, in the street, men are gathered, drawn both by her death and by the announcement of war. A rigid boundary line separates the world of men from the world of women in the novel; the men dare not enter the room, where Nana's death and disfigurement are described by Zola in stunningly repulsive detail. In the film, Nana dies by her own hand, clearly an easy, and not particularly satisfying, out. Instead of the sustained exploration of the intersections between gender, work, and performance that one might expect, given the beginning of the film and its representation of women in the theatre, the film moves towards a conclusion of tired clichés of the ruined woman who sacrifices herself. The spectacle of Nana's suicide cannot erase, however, the stunning mise-enscène of the stage, where Nana's status as a working girl combines the pleasures and dangers of the look with the exploitation and delight of performance.
Even in a film that is ultimately disappointing, like Nana, there are elements suggestive of Arzner's unique touch and her ability to draw, even from material seemingly resistant to such inflections, complicated and complex portraits of women's lives. The Bride Wore Red was, for Arzner, an unsatisfying film. While the film echoes the preoccupations that are much more extensively developed in other films, The Bride Wore Red does focus, somewhat more explicitly than other films directed by Arzner, on the importance of costume and performance to any notion of female identity; and thus the notion of women's work, in this film, includes the realms of fashion and self-presentation.
The plot of The Bride Wore Red is based on a practical joke. Two wealthy men are spending the evening gambling in a nightclub, and engage in a discussion about the evidence of class and good breeding. Using the image of a roulette wheel, one (Count Armalia) insists that chance decides who is rich and who is poor, while the other (Rudi Pal) insists that breeding accounts for absolute distinctions. In order to make his point, Armalia insists that the two men go to the seediest club they can find. Joan Crawford, playing Anni, a barmaid, becomes the concrete manifestation of Armalia's wager. Count Armalia, who argues in favor of the "performative" quality of social class, offers her a large sum of money and an all-expense-paid vacation if she will pose as a member of the aristocracy. She agrees and departs for Terrano, where she soon charms another wealthy man—none other than Rudi, the man with whom her benefactor made his original bet. Count Armalia's words to Rudi prove to be prophetic; describing Anni, he says, "Have her properly washed, dressed and coiffured, and you wouldn't be able to tell her from your fiancée."
With her new identity, Anni (now Anne Vivaldi) arrives at the train station and meets Giulio, the local postman and the film's embodiment of peasant purity. Indeed, the opposition of high class and low class is displaced, as the film progresses, by the opposition of city and country. As coincidence would have it, the maid assigned to Anni in the hotel is her old friend from the bar, Maria, who has found true happiness in the country. The film shows the poor—whether maids like Maria or postmen like Giulio—as more attuned to the values of the simple, nature-bound life. The process of the film will be to demonstrate to Anni that what she really desires is a life with Giulio, not with Rudi. Her encounter with the wealthy at the resort may make her long for the riches that Rudi can offer, but it also makes her long for a life in closer touch with nature, neatly represented by Giulio.
Anni wins Rudi's affections away from Maddelena, his fiancée. In a twist typical of Arzner, Maddelena is one of the wealthy, but possesses none of their hypocrisy or arrogance, thus complicating the simple division between upper and lower classes. One of Arzner's preferred actresses, Billie Burke, plays the role of wife to Maddelena's father. As is typical for Burke, she is frilly and feminine, but there is a dry, almost acidic side to her portrayal of the suspicious and cynical woman of the world.
In order to make sure that Rudi proposes to her, Anni extends her stay at the hotel. In the meantime, Contessa di Meina (Burke) wires Armalia, supposedly a close friend of Anne Vivaldi's family, to inquire about Anne. His response—specifying the ruse and Anni's real status as a "cabaret girl"—gets lost when Giulio, carrying the telegram to the hotel, is met by Anni, and they kiss. But when Giulio discovers that Anni plans to marry Rudi, he threatens to deliver the copy of the telegram kept in the office. And this he does, during the farewell dinner for Anni and Rudi. Once her charade is discovered, Anni leaves the hotel and meets Giulio; having acknowledged her true feelings for him, Anni accepts his offer of marriage, and the film ends.
Performance is central to The Bride Wore Red, and even though the performance is not so literal or explicit as in Nana, the film nonetheless emphasizes from beginning to end the extent to which women's identities—sexual as well as class—depend upon performance. And women's social class also determines what kind of sexual performance is expected of them. Crawford's Anni is introduced through her performance of a song at the bar, and when she is introduced to the count she immediately assumes her status as an object to be consumed; indeed, she asks of the count if he has come to "stare at animals in the zoo." The central performance that she undertakes in the film, of course, is her attempt to act like a "lady." Two particular elements are significant here: her assumption of arrogant speech with servants, and her entrances in different types of clothing down the staircase of the hotel.
When Anni arrives at Terrano, Giulio offers to take her to the hotel in his cart, and she questions whether he should expect a lady to accept. When Anni arrives in her room, the maid enters and asks Anni if she would like her clothes unpacked. Just as Anni is basking in the luxury of being waited upon, she recognizes her old friend Maria. The assumption of wealth is equated with artifice, which comes as no surprise; but the film demonstrates the performative aspect of such speech by drawing on one of Arzner's preferred themes—female community and friendship. Indeed, even though Anni's relationship with Giulio is meant to be her passage to true self-discovery, she appears far more honest, frank, and direct with Maria. During one striking exchange between the two women, Maria wears one of Anni's costumes, making the "quotation" of artifice an important aspect of their relationship.
Similarly, Anni is assisted in her performance by one of the waiters, who subtly instructs her how to eat properly. Later, when she is about to depart with Rudi, she thanks the servant and tells him—in her best aristocratic tone—that a large check will be sent to him later. He informs her that this is not necessary, and that his cousin (virtually everyone in Terrano seems to be a cousin of Giulio) asked him to watch out for her. Still later, when Anni leaves the hotel in disgrace, only this servant continues to treat her like a "lady"—by opening the door for her after others refuse.
If the film contrasts Anni's "authentic" speech with her "performed" speech, in virtually every case the performed speech occurs in public places, while the authentic speech occurs either behind closed doors or in the expanses of forest that surround the hotel, but which are portrayed as quite distant from the social world the hotel represents. Similarly, the entrances Anni makes down the hotel staircase are public performances. Three such entrances occur. It is not surprising that dress is central to each entrance; what is interesting are the different and complex inflections that dress acquires. The title of the film refers to Anni's dream dress, a red, sequined evening gown, which is one of her first purchases once she is endowed by Count Armalia. But when she wants to wear it the first night at the hotel, Maria dissuades her, convinced that it is more appropriate to the seedy club where they knew each other when. Instead, Anni wears an outfit that is demure and excessive at the same time—a white dress with a veil, flowers in her hair, and a fan which she holds before her face. Anni receives the attentions of the crowd, presumably because she is distinctive, yet still one of them.
On the evening of her farewell dinner, once Anni has managed to get a marriage proposal from Rudi, she decides to wear her red dress. As she descends the stairs she once again is the object of attention (shades of Bette Davis wearing a red dress to the ball in Jezebel!). Maria advised her not to wear the dress when Anni arrived at the hotel. Now, however, Anni assumes that since she is about to become Rudi's wife, she no longer has to worry about following conventions; she can flaunt them. The dress does indeed provoke a reaction, as if to suggest that Anni always treads a fineline between being acceptable and outrageous, and in more general terms to suggest that the class identity she seeks is a function of appearance. The red dress signifies simultaneously Anni's desire for and her exclusion from the very values to which she aspires.
The complexity of "appearances" achieves yet another dimension when Anni comes down the stairs one final time to the notice of the crowd, at the film's conclusion, when her deception has been revealed. She wears a nondescript black cape—nondescript in the sense that it does not suggest one particular class affiliation; and it is indeed so nondescript that it could be worn by virtually anyone in the film, working-class or aristocratic. Once Anni and Giulio are reunited, she takes off the cloak to reveal a peasant costume that she wore to the "festa"—a carnivalesque celebration in which everyone dresses in supposed authentic peasant garb. Oddly, then, Anni adopts a costume from the most elaborate performance of the film to claim her authentic self. The film suggests not only that gender and class, for women, are equally a function of dress, of appearance; it also suggests, obliquely, that there is virtually no such thing as a female identity that does not rely on costume, staging, and performance. Whatever authentic identity Anni captures at the film's conclusion, it is an identity manufactured by the kind of women's work that keeps the illusions of performance alive.
Several times in the course of Arzner's career she was asked to finish films that others had begun. Her final film, First Comes Courage, marked the first time that another director had to finish a film she had started. Arzner became quite ill during the production of the film, and Charles Vidor finished it. As discussed earlier, for reasons having to do with more than her health, this was Arzner's last film as director.
First Comes Courage is set in Norway in 1942, and tells the story of Nicole Larsen (Merle Oberon), an Allied spy who receives her information by virtue of her romance with a German Nazi stationed in Norway, Major Paul Dichter (Carl Esmond). Dichter knows there is a leak somewhere, and a visiting Nazi has suspicions about Nicole. She passes on her information through bogus visits to an eye doctor, who then transmits her information by embedding it in eyeglass lenses. A message that suspicions are forming about Nicole reaches Allied officer Allan Lowell (Brian Aherne), who has been transferred to field service in order to assist the Norwegian underground by wiping out Nazi strongholds. Most of the film takes place as an alternation between Lowell, preparing for and executing his plans in the Norwegian town where Nicole lives, and Nicole, attempting to divert suspicion from herself while continuing to amass information. That a relationship exists between Lowell and Larsen is made evident through cross-cutting, although the specific nature of the relationship is made clear only when he is captured by the Nazis.
Allan has come to the Norwegian village to preside over a bomb attack and to eliminate a key Nazi. After he is captured, Nicole must develop a ruse in order to help him escape from the hospital where he recuperates after the shooting that killed his companion. She is advised by the eye doctor to take Rose Lindstrom, a nurse at the hospital, into her confidence. Withsome hesitation, Nicole does so, and the two are able to move Lowell, dressed in a Nazi uniform, to Nicole's house.
Interestingly (and typically for Arzner), Rose's intervention occurs at just the moment when Nicole sees Allan for the first time and discovers that her comrade is also her lover from the past. The relationship that has been, throughout the film, the basis of spatial opposition, established only through cross-cutting, is now fully a part of the present tense of the film, a function of a single dramatic space. Nicole's alliance with Rose is significant for two reasons. First, Nicole must endanger her cover as a traitor in order to save Lowell, and second, this risk occurs in an alliance with another woman who functions, however briefly, as an indication of the strength of female bonding.
Indeed, for a brief moment, the highly anticipated reunion of Allan and Nicole is overshadowed by the alliance between the two women. Rose is blonde; she is a large, heavy-set woman, whose physical appearance contrasts markedly with the delicate brunette figure of Merle Oberon. The contrast between the two women plays on the butch (Rose)/femme (Nicole) imagery that appears frequently in portrayals of women in Arzner's films Rose proves, as well, to be as unwavering in her strength as Nicole; when she is questioned by the Nazis, once she is suspected of having assisted in Lowell's escape, she refuses to break. Molly Haskell assesses the relationship between the two women: "True to Arzner, the most moving character in the film is a woman, a nurse, who assists Oberon and refuses to denounce her even when her own family is threatened. And the most moving scene is the one in which they embrace in a rapture of mutual understanding that transcends war, and that will nourish each of them in their lonely women's destinies in a way that romantic love never can."
The bombing and assassination are to go ahead as planned, and as coincidence would have it, Dichter has planned for Nicole to become his bride on that very day. Dichter is increasingly uncomfortable with the suspicions cast his way about Nicole, and he feels his marriage to her will displace those suspicions. For Nicole, the marriage offers yet another opportunity to have more access to information. The wedding goes off as planned, and it is an odd ceremony, indeed—the couple march down an aisle of Nazis and wed beneath a Nazi flag, their hands joined over a copy of Mein Kampf. But Dichter has discovered the truth about Nicole; he passed false information about a munitions factory only to her, and it was bombed shortly after, thus proving her identity as a spy. He tells Nicole that she will die in a fake accident, but Allan appears on the scene to kill him before he can execute his plan.
Meanwhile, the raid is going off as planned, and both Dichter and Von Elser (the suspicious Nazi) are killed, while Allan and Nicole emerge unscathed. Allan tries to convince Nicole to return to England, but she insists that she must stay in Norway, particularly now that she has the additional status of widow of a Nazi officer. After a final kiss, Nicole disappears into the forest, while Allan rejoins the Allies, who are about to sail off. As he departs, a final series of match shots situates the two of them as they smile while the distance between them grows.
To be sure, Nicole Larsen is a different kind of working girl than May and June, Nana, or Anni; the profession of spying is hardly like those of research assistant or telegraph operator (Working Girls), prostitute (Nana), or cabaret singer (The Bride Wore Red). But Larsen's career as a spy is presented in ways remarkably similar to Arzner's other films preoccupied with women's work. Larsen's work involves a performance with her Nazi informer, where the typical activities of womanhood—companionship and dress, not to mention grace and charm under pressure—become, for her, strategic means to acquire information. The audience is informed of Nicole's true identity almost immediately in the film, since the first scene finds her walking down the town street to the friendly greeting of a Nazi and the bitter reprimand of a townswoman, only to enter the eye doctor's shop where, in the darkened room, he shines a light in her eyes and her true identity is revealed. Hence, from here on in, virtually all of Nicole's performance is recognized as a ruse, a disguise.
Where First Comes Courage differs from Arzner's other work is in the mythic heroism attributed to Nicole. Her work is that of a patriot, not just that of a woman trying to survive. But even here, First Comes Courage functionsas an interesting grid through which to read other films about women and work. Nicole has two stirring speeches in the film, one in which she confronts the Nazi whom she marries out of her devotion to the cause, and another in which she tells Allan, her true love, that she cannot leave with him and forsake her activities in Norway. When Dichter tells Nicole that he knows she is a spy, she expresses contempt for him and denounces his weakness (all along he has been more concerned about his own safety than the principles he supposedly cares about); this revelation of her contempt makes her performances as a devoted companion even more impressive.
Nicole's most impassioned speech comes at the film's conclusion. Throughout the film there has been an interesting role reversal, to the extent that Nicole occupies fully and comfortably the position of "hero," with Allan in much more of a supporting role (although he kills Dichter, Nicole had previously saved Allan's life). After the success of the raid and the death of the Nazis, it is Allan who tries to convince Nicole that she should retreat to safety, and Nicole who insists upon the need to continue to fight.
There are curious echoes, in the final moments of the film, of a far more successful film released in the same year as First Comes Courage—Casablanca. The final encounter between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is one of the best-known scenes in American film, from Rick's insistence that Ilsa depart with her husband, rather than stay with him, to his famous remark that "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in thiscrazy world. Someday you'll understand that." At the conclusion of First Comes Courage, Allan says to Nicole that she has "done more than any woman could be expected to do." She tells him: "I'll quit when you quit." He insists that "we're not saying goodbye again ever." While the words may not be as classic as Bogart's "hill of beans," Nicole's reply to Allan rings familiar: "Oh but darling it isn't that kind of world any more. People don't dance and laugh and ski, as we once used to." I am not suggesting that any allusion to Casablanca is deliberate (the films were in production at approximately the same time), but rather that the mythic qualities associated with love and war, which find perhaps their most classic expression in Casablanca, are both cited and turned around in First Comes Courage. For in Arzner's film, Nicole expresses views that are more typically expressed by male heroes. Put another way, then, First Comes Courage twists the gender conventions of the war/spy genre, and in the process, celebrates women's work, not as love and romance, nor as a substitute for love and romance, but as what makes everything else possible.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3387
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 title role, while in 1955, Christian Jaque directed a lavish cinema-scope spectacle featuring Martine Carol. More recent exploitive Italian and Swedish adaptations have traduced Zola's indictment of debauchery into sexually explicit accounts of Nana's affairs.
The only Hollywood version of Zola's novel was made in 1934 by pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner. Despite the renewal of interest in her films and, in particular, in her depiction of determined women, relatively little attention has been paid to her screen version of Zola's tale of the powerful slumland prostitute who exacts a terrible price from her aristocratic clients. The film deserves more detailed consideration, however, not only as an inchoate expression of proto-feminist positions, but as a case study of the circumstances that conditioned this sanitized adaptation of the celebrated French naturalist text.
Given the structures of the Hays Code, a screen version of Nana was likely to be a risky business, but for producer Samuel Goldwyn, Zola's rags-to-riches story of a vaudeville actress appeared an ideal launch vehicle for his new star-to-be, Anna Sten. Such were the compromises required to bring Zola's frank account of Second Empire decadence to the screen that the final bowdlerized adaptation bore scant resemblance to the original, andboth Zola's heirs and French cinema critics protested at Hollywood's emasculated treatment.
Before analyzing Arzner's reworking, a consideration of the production problems is desirable. With a screenplay by Justus Mayer, Leo Brinski, and Harry Wagstaff Gribble and a theme song by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Goldwyn promised a less sordid, more romantic version of Zola's down-to-earth novel. Direction was initially entrusted to the experienced George Fitzmaurice, but with over half the film completed, a dissatisfied Goldwyn ordered a fresh start with Dorothy Arzner as a replacement director. The abandoned footage appears to have been too close to Zola for the producer's comfort, and several redraftings of the screenplay were required before final approval. Some of the script changes can be deduced from accounts of the original film's progress. Whereas the Fitzmaurice version included Nana's violent lover, Fontan, and had scenes with Nana as "the street brat, then as the greedy, reckless youngster starting as a demimondaine of the boulevards, the woman dodging the police," these elements have no place in Arzner's film.
If establishing an acceptable script was the first problem, working with Goldwyn's Ukrainian actress came a close second. The producer had convinced himself that in Anna Sten he had discovered the new Garbo or the new Dietrich. For over two years he groomed her as the new Hollywood glamor girl. However, the star's thick accent and poor command of English tested both Fitzmaurice and Arzner during filming, and repeated retakes were necessary.
Rarely could Goldwyn's judgment have been more awry than in his promotion of Sten. The mistaken belief that the actress could be molded by Hollywood was compounded by the choice of Nana as a launch vehicle. A moment's reflection would have confirmed the naturalist text as fundamentally unsuitable. True, the novel tells of a woman with captivating sex appeal, but neither the earthy, destructive traits in Nana's bisexual personality, nor the sexually explicit character of Zola's descriptions lend themselves to the promotion of a desirable, but essentially unavailable, screen goddess. Even with a sanitized script, Nana remained a tricky venture.
The action of Zola's novel is set in the decadent Paris of the Second Empire. Nana, the wayward daughter of Gervaise Coupeau, has graduated from prostitution to theatrical stardom. Weak on talent but strong on sex appeal, she becomes a free-spending, free-wheeling courtesan who shamelessly ruins successive lovers. Respectable families are destroyed, wealthy financiers beggared, and powerful men humbled. Capriciously, she reverts to rough street trade, has a lesbian relationship, then a passionate affair with a sadistic actor. Following a successful return to the stage, she becomes a national celebrity when the horse named after her triumphs over foreign opposition at Longchamp. After a total eclipse and travel abroad, she returns to Paris only to die hideously from smallpox contracted from her son. Simultaneously, the declaration of war against Prussia heralds the demise of the Second Empire with which she had been so closely identified.
In his depiction of Nana, Zola breaks with the sentimental tradition of the kind-hearted woman of pleasure so dear to the Romantics. Nana is a hard-nosed, destructive whore. As a moralist, Zola sought to demonstrate through Nana's rise the moral bankruptcy of a self-indulgent society given to sexual license, and, in a celebrated image of a gilded fly spreading disease from the gutters throughout society, he presents his heroine as an instrument of working class revenge. The tone is uncompromising, the detail explicit.
The film's story line is necessarily simplified to achieve not only a manageable screen narrative, but also to remain within the bounds of the Hays Code. Nana's numerous secondary lovers, for example, are telescoped into the lecherous Archduke and the impresario, Greiner, who is himself a conflation of the theater director, Bordenave, and the Jewish financier, Steiner. Understandably, the racial stereotyping of the impresario is omitted. Narrative economy is also achieved by representing Nana's repeated theatrical appearances and social activities as single episodes. Given that lesbianism was to be banished from the screen, Mme. Robert and Laure de Piédefer are accorded no more than a passing reference, while Nana's sapphic intimacies with Satan are transmuted into a vague allusion by Arzner's disgruntled Satin. Again, since the depiction of male brutality toward women was taboo, the sadistic Fontan has no role in the film.
Zola's readers may regret more substantial changes in plot development and characterization which severely diminish the scope of the author's thesis and the aesthetic richness of his novel. The omission of Nana's rival actress, Rose Mignon, truncates treatment of the theater, while theelimination of the journalist, Fauchery, entails a double loss. His absence deprives Sabine Muffat of an adulterous affair, and the consequent removal of his newspaper article depicting Nana as the golden fly robs the narrative of its mise en abyme sophistication. The film also denies Nana motherhood and, more significantly, depicts her as choosing to take her own life rather than falling a victim to her son's smallpox. Jettisoned, too, is her affair with the racehorse owner, Vandeuvres, and with this go the Longchamp scenes and her ruined lover's dramatic death in his burning stables. Muffat is spared the humiliation of imitating a dog to please Nana, but with this is lost Zola's illustration of proletarian revenge on French aristocracy. The novel's surrogate moral voices are also abandoned in the omission of Muffat's religious friend, Venot, and the pious widow, Mme. Hugon. Her absence follows from the simplified plot in which Georges Hugon becomes André Muffat's younger brother, thus concentrating Nana's pernicious influence in a single aristocratic household. Georges himself is an amalgam of Zola's two Hugon brothers and, unlike his literary counterpart, does not commit suicide.
The general edulcoration of the story line not only deprives the film of episodes and characters that illustrated unpalatable moral realities, but also curtails the broader critical thrust of Zola's narrative, namely the exposure of widespread corruption and decadence in Second Empire France. The Goldwyn product was essentially intended as a variant of the well-tried formula in which true love, that between Nana and Georges, is thwarted by the social conventions it seeks to deny. Even within the potential straitjacket of a romantic screenplay specifically evolved to satisfy Goldwyn and the Hays Office, Arzner reworks the theme to leave the stamp of her own distinctively subversive ideological inflection.
Throughout her films, Arzner depicts women struggling to define themselves, in their own terms, within a patriarchal society that implicitly denies them their discrete identity and, therefore, their authenticity. Her heroines face acute dilemmas, for, in asserting this difference and challenging patriarchal discourse, they risk an uncomfortable ostracism, whereas conformity with male-determined roles and attitudes, however demeaning, is rewarded. As Claire Johnston writes:
Patriarchal culture is presented as the dominant force imprisoning women in de-humanizing images, and it is for this reason that the struggle of Arzner's heroines is predominantly waged against cultural definitions of women, of images they are supposed to adhere to without, however, being able to escape them finally because the penalty for doing so would be isolation.
In her version of Nana, Arzner articulates her position through the dislocating interplay of three competing discourses: the dominant patriarchal, the burgeoning female, and the disruptive romantic. Normalizing patriarchal discourse affirms established male and female role models, and upholds traditional morality through family structures. Subverting these assumptions is the muted, often defensively ironic, voice of female discourse. Directly challenging the patriarchal value system is romantic discourse that prioritizes relationships above social hierarchies and their related power structures. For Arzner, Nana becomes an ideological battleground.
Whereas Zola introduces Nana through her sensational stage debut, Arzner foregrounds her protagonist as a disadvantaged female determined to succeed where her mother, Gervaise, had failed. Nana defends her dead mother as a victim of patriarchal society, and rejects poverty and powerlessness as inevitable conditions of her own existence: "My mother was not bad, she was weak. It's men who make women whatever they are. I don't know what I'll be, but I won't be weak and I won't be poor."
Nana's articulation of the baleful influence exerted by men in women's lives counterposes the complacency of her mistress who has unreflectively internalized patriarchal attitudes. For her, as for the males in the film, there are "good" women and "bad" women—there are virgins and whores. With this introduction. Arzner presents Nana's challenge to such assumptions.
At the essentially male domain of the Café of the Seven Trout, Nana is exposed to the dehumanizing, gender stereotyping to which women are subjected. As unaccompanied females, Nana and her companions, Mimi and Satin, are typecast as "common women." An oafish, drunken soldier is the first to exhibit crude patriarchal behavior. In turn, patronizing and aggressive, he pesters Nana, but has no answer to her assertiveness and mocking tongue:
NANA. Oh, what a nuisance you are! Go away please …
SOLDIER. No common woman has ever dared … A woman who sits about in cafés must not insult …
NANA. Oh, I understand you soldier, I understand you so well. You see it was wrong of us to speak to you at all. Women of our kind have so little to do with soldiers.
SOLDIER. I'm inclined to overlook it because of your eyes.
Nana's response is to push the soldier into a fountain, and the spontaneous applause around the café validates for the viewer her principled stand against demeaning male assumptions.
The powerful impresario, Greiner, presents Nana with her next challenge. She is prepared to see her new admirer, but only on her terms: "Tell the great Greiner I shall be pleased to meet him here, or not at all." Such unconventional, "virile" behavior brings the impresario to her table. Again, Nana brilliantly counters his sexual flattery:
GREINER. May I observe you have a lovely mouth. There is so much to a woman's mouth.
NANA. I know that. I have to fill it three times a day.
The scenes at the café raise important ideological issues: the female right to social independence and to sexual choices. In their attitude to Nana, both the soldier ("your eyes") and Greiner ("your mouth") betray the patriarchal assumption that the female body exists, not in itself and for itself, but essentially to serve the male. Nana's unabashed self-confidence, her quick-witted rejoinders, and her role-reversal treatment of the male as merely the sexual toy her victims fondly imagined her to be place her in the image of the most memorable Hollywood vamp of the thirties, Mae West.
The gender issue is explored from a different perspective in Nana's stage debut. Here Nana-the-actress unashamedly presents herself as an object to be admired. She has initiated the action, it is on her terms, and she rejoices in her power. The camera frames the actress from the predominantly male audience's perspective, but, more significantly, records the viewers' excitement and subjection in Nana's reverse angle point-of-view shots.
Nana has been empowered by her stage triumph and, although she can exploit male sexual fantasies to her advantage, she is constantly under pressure to defend her independence. Each captivated male will assume possession; Nana will insist on her freedom. Her relationship with Greiner illustrates the point. At the theater he bluntly asserts his power and does not take kindly to Nana's only weapon, an ironical, punning rejoinder:
GREINER. I am the potter, you are the clay. I will do the modelling. That is quite clear, eh?
NANA, So, I am to be you and you are to be me.
GREINER, You are to be what I make you!
His subsequent failure to keep Nana to himself ends in a torrent of abuse. His "angel" has reverted to "the whore": "You slime of the streets … you alley cat. I took you from the streets. I made your name the best known in Paris…. To betray Greiner is to cut your theatrical throat. You'll go back to the park bench where your revenue is assured."
Through the love affair between Nana and Georges, Arzner demonstrates the conflict between the conformity of patriarchal positions and the iconoclastic nature of romantic ideology. André Muffat is cast as the archetypal advocate of patriarchal attitudes; Nana and Georges as the dangerous subversives. André, borrowing the discarded Fauchery's description of Nana in the novel, denigrates her as "a gilded fly … that's hatched in the gutter and carries poison." She is an Eve figure, a temptress who "is all physical." Dismayed at Georges's liaison with Nana, André considers it his duty to save his younger brother from perdition. Ignoring Georges's (irrational) protestation of love, André assumes the (rational) language of honor, responsibility, and moral rectitude:
Our house bears a fine name and we should both respect it…. You talk like a child, not like a grown man and a soldier. There can't be love for a woman like that…. You're incapable of thinking clearly or acting sanely…. I love you too much to see you wreck yourself as you aredoing.
Georges, in his love for such a woman, has clearly sinned against tribal tenets; he has let the male side down and will be posted abroad.
André cannot accept that Nana's relationship with Georges is based on mutual love. He mistakenly believes that Nana can be bought off, for, in his gallery of female stereotypes, Nana is the sexual adventuress out for financial gain: "You didn't think…. I'd let him wreck his life with a woman like you! Your reputation is too well known; you attract, you seduce, you destroy."
Arzner's Nana, however, refutes this cliched patriarchal definition, and, rounding on her self-appointed judge, she points out that he is himself the victim of such attitudes. For Nana, André has denied himself his own freedom by his unquestioning acceptance of such values and has thus condemned himself to an emotionally stunted, unauthentic life:
NANA. All your life you have tried to be what you are not.
ANDRE. All my life I have been what I am.
NANA. That's what I say. You would crucify him [Georges] for what you have never known.
ANDRE. I never wished for a woman like you.
NANA. You have! Your mind has lied to you all these years. You hypocrite.
Once again it is Nana who emerges from the confrontation with dignity, andher reading of André is validated when he eventually returns to her as a subservient lover, no more sure of his "possession" than was Greiner. Ironically, having chastised his bachelor brother for betraying family honor, André, the family man, now betrays the values that previously governed his life. In his new ranking of emotions above duty, he concedes, in a back-handed compliment to Nana, a lowering of his standards:
I love you, that repays me for everything…. No man in Paris ever gave up more for a woman … I don't mean money … I mean everything I lived for … My code, my standards they have all been lowered. My pride has gone and I don't care … as long as I can have you.
Nana, too, sacrifices her integrity by becoming André's mistress. Her relationship with Georges had brought a new sense of personal worth, and an awareness of values that transcended those of an exploitive patriarchal society. Her fierce rejection of André's financial bribe, her spirited separation from Greiner, and her refusal of a theatrical manager "who asked too much" signal this evolution. However, the strength of her new-found self-respect is eroded when, treacherously deprived of Georges's letters, she believes herself forgotten. Facing poverty, she trades herself against André's promise of a stage part. Her need for public approval is evident in her expectation of "wonderful people clapping their hands and loving me." For her new paymaster she feels nothing, and for herself only contempt: "I don't love you. Nothing can repay me for what I have done." As she mockingly addresses André's portrait she reveals that, in her self-disgust, she has internalized the male concept of "bad" women: "The good Muffat. The holy Muffat. The Muffat who hated bad women, but learned to love one." The irony now, however, is also directed against herself, and her apology confirms her poor self-image: "I'm sorry. I was rotten anyhow." The declaration of war, which brings the two military brothers face to face, seals her fate. The man she loves, but whom she has betrayed, squares up to the man who "owns" her. Whereas in the novel it is a love-stricken Georges who takes his own life, here it is Nana, overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and worthlessness, who turns a gun on herself: "Listen Georges. This is best … I could never bring happiness to you. I never brought happiness to anyone, not even to myself. You see I was born all wrong. Now I can go, and I'm glad I am going, very glad."
This pained self-awareness of Arzner's Nana marks her a very different creature than Zola's unthinking creature of nature. The author's hard-nosed prostitute, created as a corrective to the idealized view of the good-hearted whore, is redeemed in the Hollywood film version to possess precisely those virtues of generosity, dignity, and understanding her literary creator had sought to deny.
Should Nana's suicide be seen as a happy release from an impossible dilemma? a "generous sacrifice?" a "sudden burst of patriotism and self-denial?" an "act of spontaneous bravery … which must be noticed and respected?" a "gross misrepresentation of the author's intended image?" Whatever the construction placed on Nana's death, the logic of the narrative locates the origins in her unhappy, and unresolved, relationship with a patriarchal society that constantly denied her freedom and independence. Her repeated negative self-assessments, the internalized judgments of the dominant ideology, chart her ultimate sense of failure to impose alternative female-centered values. A valiant failure, nonetheless, and a defeat that does not legitimate the destructive conditioning of patriarchy that has also marred the lives of Georges and André. If the death of Nana proves anything at all, it confirms the need to rethink the discredited attitudes that have brought about such tragedies.
In the context of the Arzner/Goldwyn Nana, Hollywood's silver screen serves not only as a means to reflect projected images, but also as a screen that filters, that removes the gritty substance of Zola's naturalist text to leave a sufficiently anodyne version to satisfy the Hays Code. This sanitized innocence is, however, illusory. By subverting the bowdlerized material she inherited, Arzner exposes the pernicious effects—for male and female alike—of patriarchy, and proposes far more challenging concepts about the male-female relationship than either Goldwyn or the men from the Hays Office could ever have imagined.