When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.
—Dorothy Arzner (1)
Dorothy Arzner was one of the very few women (including Ida Lupino) who established a name for herself as a director in the film industry of the 1920s and ’30s. Despite the extreme sexism prevalent in Hollywood, Arzner was able to establish what remains to this day the largest body of work by a woman director within the studio system. Nonetheless, she has been virtually ignored in most film histories. It was only with the emergence of the “herstory” projects of ’70s feminism that scholars began to reclaim women such as Arzner from relative obscurity. Her career in Hollywood is approached today mainly for its exceptionalism, as for years she was the sole female member of the Directors Guild. Yet, her innovative work is central to any number of film history sub-headings: the studio system, the genre film, the development of sound technology, the star system, the representation of women in the Hollywood mainstream.
Though born in San Francisco, Dorothy Arzner’s life was shaped by Hollywood from her early life, when her parents moved to Los Angeles and opened a café frequented by many silent film stars and directors. Arzner spent two years studying medicine at USC and worked for a time as an ambulance driver, but a visit to a movie studio inspired her to go into the film industry. She had connections with William DeMille, who at the time was a major director at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the parent company of Paramount Studios. She started as a typist, but within three years had moved up, first to screenwriter, and then to editor. Women frequently held these positions in early Hollywood, and Arzner distinguished herself as an editor, most notably in the Rudolph Valentino vehicle, Blood and Sand (Fred Niblo, 1922). In her work on the film’s bullfighting scene, she saved the studio thousands of dollars by intercutting stock footage with original material in several scenes, impressing director James Cruze, who employed her as a writer and editor for several of his films. Arzner had garnered a great deal of leverage through this and her work on over fifty other films at Paramount, eventually threatening to move to rival Columbia unless given a directorial position. In 1927, Paramount conceded, putting her in charge of the silent Fashions for Women, which became a commercial success.
Her subsequent features also performed well, and in 1929 she directed Paramount’s first talkie, The Wild Party, with established star Clara Bow and Frederic March in his first leading role. For Arzner, this was familiar material, as she had edited a silent version of the same story. This film is particularly important to the history of sound technology in that Arzner had technicians rig a microphone onto a fishing rod, essentially creating the first boom mike, which allowed Bow to move more freely on the set. The Wild Party was a success both critically and commercially, and, set in a women’s college, it introduced some of the coded lesbian themes often cited in Arzner’s work (Leontine Sagan would make Mädchen in Uniform in Germany just two years later). Her films of the following three years are prime examples of Hollywood before the Hayes Code. Anybody’s Woman (1930), follows the consequences of a wild night for chorus girl Ruth Chatterton, the star of many of Arzner’s films, and Working Girls (1931) is a stark, knowing portrayal of women trying to get by in New York during the depression. Interestingly, the feminist director Lizzie Borden would use this same title for her filmic exploration of the daily lives of sex workers fifty-five years later.
Arzner made eleven features at Paramount from 1927 until 1932, when she left to begin work as an independent director for several of the studios. The films created in this period are her best known, and they also established Arzner’s talent for launching the career’s of young actresses including Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933), Rosalind Russell in Craig’s Wife (1936), and Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). She was linked romantically with a number of actresses, but lived much of her life with Marion Morgan, choreographer for Dance, Girl, Dance. She stopped directing features in 1943, for reasons that remain unclear (although playwright R.M. Vaughn has speculated on this question in his play “Camera, Woman”). Arzner continued working over the next three decades, making Women’s Army Corps training films and commercials for Pepsi, at the request of her friend and rumored lover Joan Crawford. She also produced plays, often for one of her favorite actresses to work with, Billie Burke (famous for her role as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). In the ’60s and ’70s, she was a popular professor at the recently established UCLA film school, teaching screenwriting and directing until her death in 1979.
Feminist film historians, using feminist literary revisionary models established by women such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, rediscovered the oeuvre of Dorothy Arzner in their attempts to recuperate women from the past as part of the larger project of feminist film studies. Historians reclaimed the body of Arzner’s work in the name of adding women to the dominant canon of directors that had been instantiated with the auteur theory of the ’40s and ’50s by (male-centered) film critics such as Andrew Sarris. These feminist film critics were equally invested in establishing a canon of women filmmakers to argue that there existed a separate, identifiable female, or feminine, aesthetics of film. Exemplifying this position is Claire Johnston’s 1975 collection Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema, and this has set the terms for much of the work on Arzner that followed. Yet, this idea of a clearly ascertainable set of codes that distinguish a woman-made from a man-made film is premised upon assumptions that have been scrutinized for some time now. The founding belief operating here is that a female director (like a female writer) will make a distinctively different film than a male director because of some essential and unmediated relationship between gender identity and artistic production. Problems arise from such a presupposition; for example, this presumes that “woman” is a stable, coherent category that has not changed in different historical and cultural contexts. Yet, feminist and poststructuralist insights concerning the instability of identity and the performativity of gender have come to challenge the essentialist foundations of gender-specific author studies.
Still, the question of the relationship of film practice to gendered producers and receivers of film text cannot be left behind. For one, as long as the paradigm of film analysis based on auteurism prevails, the study of women directors remains an important part of feminist interventions into canonical film studies. But in the wake of the move from essentialist theories to social constructionist models for understanding the production of gendered subjects, the kinds of questions asked of film have significantly changed. In discussing the films of Dorothy Arzner, the question has moved from ‘how do her films represent a female worldview’ to ‘how do these film-texts interrogate or even disrupt the hegemonic (read: masculinist) ideology of dominant Hollywood cinema?’ Still, it is important to complicate even this question in order to avoid reducing the analysis of her films to a simple dialectic: is Arzner simply a female dupe of the studio system or a feminist rebel in a male-dominated system? Many of Arzner’s critics have taken up one side of this debate or the other (usually, the former). Different questions must be asked of Arzner’s work in order to alter the terms of such Arzner criticism. One significant question is how does Arzner appropriate the Woman-as-Image upon which dominant Hollywood cinema relies and to what effect?
Arzner considered herself a Hollywood director, directing what the studio needed, and to which her prolific output at Paramount is a testament. She succeeded in the studio era through her skill and drive, but she was helped by her ‘mannish’ style and appearance (she almost always dressed in men’s suits and ties), which ironically made her stand out less among directors of the day even while she departed from the feminine image. Her ability to defuse her exceptionality allowed her to succeed as a director within Hollywood codes and expectations. Even after leaving Paramount in 1932 and working independently, her films were primarily melodramas, but these were still produced within the studio system. Perhaps somewhat more successful than any attempt to label her as an overtly proto-feminist director has been the movement to categorize Arzner as a director concerned with the cinematic workings of femininity. In this respect, her identity as butch lesbian may have allowed her a certain distance from and perspective on her on-screen heroines. Her films, for the most part, fall under the rubric of Woman’s Melodrama, and as such reflect paradigmatic women’s roles. Still, as a studio director, this may have had more to do with what the studio felt was appropriate to assign to a woman then what Arzner herself was interested in or capable of working with (as her screenwriting in genre features such as action films and westerns proves). Nevertheless, the thematic of women’s private and public lives is clearly evident in the titles of her feature films, Fashions for Women, Sarah and Son (1930), Working Girls, Craig’s Wife, and The Bride Wore Red (1937), for example. Even in her last film, a spy thriller entitled First Comes Courage (1943), a woman is cast as the ‘hero’ of a Casablanca-like tale (though both films were in production simultaneously, so the question of influence is moot). A critique of performative female sexuality, often explicitly built into the narrative, and the possibility of women’s community emerges in much of her work.
The melodrama Craig’s Wife exemplifies these themes and brings Arzner’s active role as auteur to the forefront. It centers on Harriet Craig, a woman obsessed with control over her home. Yet, unlike the one-note play upon which the film is based, Arzner made significant changes to alter the anti-feminist sentiment of the original. This was common for Arzner to revise original source material to stress the complexity of women’s lives. She often worked closely with scriptwriters, almost always women, keeping them on the set with her as she shot. In this case, Arzner worked with scriptwriter Mary McCall to depathologize the character of Harriet Craig, originally intended to be vilified by the audience and side instead with the put upon husband. Harriet Craig is characterized as a cold woman who cannot connect with the human beings around her. Yet, under Arzner’s direction, Rosalind Russell gives a much more complicated performance, which becomes a subtle critique of the institution of marriage and the limits imposed upon women under patriarchy. Harriet speaks of the role she plays as wife to Walter Craig in exchange for the security of a home. And although Harriet certainly dominates her home and those who occupy it, including her husband, the emphasis on the performative nature of her role as wife makes the question of her “betrayal” difficult to resolve. The movie utilizes the trope of “honesty” to trouble the heterosexual contract. Harriet’s niece, Ethel, refers to Harriet’s “practical-minded” description of the marriage contract as “bargain” she must strike in order to secure the permanence of her home as “dishonest”. Yet, the film places “honest” heterosexual relationships under scrutiny. The direct comparison the film makes is to the Passmores, a married couple whose “dishonesty” is built on the woman’s sexual indiscretions that lead to the murder-suicide committed by the husband. This is reframed by Harriet’s emotional comparison to her own mother, who was abandoned by Harriet’s father for a younger woman. Harriet’s teary speech, detailing her mother’s loss of home and ultimate death of “a broken heart” shows well the costs of entering into the marriage contract “honestly”. These two women’s deaths certainly challenge the naïve “honesty” Ethel clings to in her own romantic relationship.
Yet, as Arzner often does in her films, the distanciation from the heterosexual romance is coupled with the alternative posited by the possibility of women’s community. Harriet’s “dishonesty” is ultimately punished within the narrative by her being left alone in the house. She is abandoned in a series of scenes by all the occupants of the house: first Mazie, a servant and her (unemployed) boyfriend, then Ethel and her professor boyfriend, Aunt Austen and another servant, Mrs. Harold and, eventually, Walter himself. What is notable in these pairings is the least ambivalent is the one non-heterosexual coupling—Aunt Austen and Mrs. Harold, who are to commence a trip around the world. It is they alone who represent a connection that is not defined by the heterosexual contract and its subsequent domestication of women. Whereas the married couple is tainted by the deaths of Mrs. Passmore and Harriet’s mother (as well as Harriet’s sister), the female couple becomes a life-affirming alternative route. This route is also presented to the audience as way out for Harriet from her domestic entombment.
Arzner and McCall made significant changes to the script in regards to Billie Burke’s character, the neighbor Mrs. Frazier. Instead of a one-dimensional bitter widow, as originally written, Burke’s Mrs. Frazier is a life-affirming grandmother, seen frequently in her fecund rose garden rather than inside her own home, standing is opposition to Harriet. Mrs. Frazier, though a peripheral character, is central to the film’s recuperation of Harriet. After everyone leaves Harriet to her house, she receives a telegram of her sister’s death. This moment allows Arzner to redeem Harriet from condemnation. Earlier in the film, Aunt Austen is skeptical of Walter’s belief that Harriet “will be heartbroken” if her sister dies. The narrative sets Aunt Austen as the wisest of the characters (along with Mrs. Harold), introducing the audience to the manipulative Harriet the audience eventually sees themselves. Yet, this moment in the conclusion of Harriet’s quite visible (and quite beautiful, as filmed in close-up with a lingering shot of Russell’s tear-stained face) “broken heart” finally breaks with Aunt Austen’s otherwise accurate description of Harriet’s demeanor. The Aunt’s total condemnation of Harriet becomes impossible to swallow in this moment. Since this is one of the only scenes we see Harriet without an observer of any kind, the audience is asked to reconsider what has come before as performance, and this break as representative of the “true” Harriet.
Significantly, Harriet’s breakdown in this melodrama is not over Walter’s walking out but rather over the loss of a sister. Against Aunt Austen’s earlier speculations, we see that Harriet truly loved her sister. This paves the way for the entrance of Mrs. Frazier, who comes in and sympathizes briefly with Harriet but leaves soon after, not knowing how to handle this unexpected moment of vulnerability. Mrs. Frazier leaves without Harriet’s knowledge, before Mrs. Frazier hears Harriet’s request for her to stay (for the first time). Harriet’s “honest” love for her sister leads her to act on her desire for community with women. Although Harriet never chases Walter out the door as he leaves, she distinctly chases after Mrs. Frazier. In fact, having taught this film for some years, it always surprises my students how much more they wanted Mrs. Frazier to return to Harriet than Walter. For much of Arzner’s work, sexuality stands as a threat to women’s community. Women, in the heterosexual contract, must play their part, as opposed to the more “honest’ form of love between women. To this extent, Harriet is often seen posing for Walter, especially in the shrine of her living room. Surrounded by classical Greek sculptures, the pivotal scene shows Harriet posed by the mantle, draped in a white toga-like dress with gold details. She appears the Vestal Virgin guarding the hearth.
This image stands as a motif for Arzner; many of her films use the trope of virginity as that which allows women’s community to thrive—the sisters in Working Girls before May becomes pregnant, or, in The Wild Party, the bond between Helen and Stella, before Stella mistakenly climbs into Gil’s berth. Nowhere is the threat of sexuality more evident than in Christopher Strong, which introduces Cynthia Darrington (Katherine Hepburn in a role that would come to be her stock in trade), an independent aviatrix, as a woman over twenty-one who has never had a love affair. Her love affair with Christopher Strong is ultimately her undoing and she dies in a suicide plane crash, pregnant with his child. Arzner’s films expose that strain of the heterosexual “bargain” that “shackles” women (referred to in the dialogue of Christopher Strong where Christopher gives a bracelet to Cynthia, the bracelet appearing in a close-up as a signifier of their lovemaking). As June says in Working Girls, virginal women have to learn “to say yes and no” at the same time in order to remain unshackled to the heterosexual contract. Of course, implicit in such a statement is the acknowledgement of the performative aspects of romantic love for women. This is the “dishonesty” of Harriet’s love is her conscious distance from her own performance. She plays the role of the good wife (unlike Mrs. Passmore), all the while aware that it is a role, in order to guarantee her security. Although Craig’s Wife does not justify her fears within the narrative, Arzner’s other films make the threat clear. Harriet’s counterpart, for example, in Christopher Strong is Mrs. Strong, notably played by Billie Burke. Her security is clearly threatened by Cynthia and Christopher’s affair. This threat is underscored by the Strongs’ daughter Monica and her own affair with married man Harry, who eventually seeks a divorce to marry Monica. It appears that the heterosexual contract is hemmed on all sides by the threat of abandonment or, indeed, death. It is only in women’s community that such threats are held in abeyance, for example, Cynthia’s suicide appears to be a sacrifice made for Mrs. Strong rather than Christopher, or Stella’s sacrifice for Helen in The Wild Party, or June’s securing of a proposal for May so she is not abandoned in Working Girls.
With Todd Haynes directing an upcoming biopic about Dorothy Arzner, hopefully these films (those that are still available) will be introduced to a whole new audience beyond the student of the odd feminist film class or the frequenter of women’s film festivals. It may provide an incentive to re-master and re-release some of the lesser-known films such as The Wild Party and Working Girls, mentioned above. The most popular films for the feminist venues have certainly been Craig’s Wife, Christopher Strong, and Dance, Girl, Dance. This last film is Arzner’s best-known work and rightfully so as it is paradigmatic of her oeuvre in that it is preoccupied the themes named above, that is, “with the shifts from modes of interaction and community based on opposite-sex, versus same-sex, relationships.” (2) Further, it deals with these shifts in the context of women’s explicit work of performance—in this instance, dance. This film starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball foregrounds dance as women’s avenue to self-expression and economic independence. In doing so, it also highlights another consistent theme of Arzner’s films, the contrast of social paths for women, usually embodied in two central but opposed characters, and the class distinctions that underlie this opposition. In Dance, Girl, Dance, Judy is a struggling ballet student trying to make it into the world of professional dance; Bubbles is also a dancer but makes a success of it in the world of burlesque, performing vamp routines as “Tiger Lily White”. Both simultaneously pursue romantic and work lives that will hopefully allow them some mobility of social class. Yet, even though the spectator is meant to identify with Judy’s refusal to sacrifice artistic expression for economic gain, the film nevertheless refuses to vilify Bubbles for doing so.
Dance, Girl, Dance is a fascinating study for feminists to this day because it stands up to the developments within feminist film theory as it has developed over the decades from heterosexist notions of voyeurism through queer revisions of sexual difference to more complicated versions of racial and class ambivalences which frame questions of sexual representation. First recovered for woman-centered film festivals, this film was used in women’s film classes as a test case for the study of the male gaze. Its penultimate scene of Judy, who has been hired as a ‘stooge’ for Bubbles burlesque show, confronting the mocking audience has been lauded as representing a palpable refusal of the male gaze. Judy’s stopping the narrative to “return” the gaze of the diegetic audience has been interpreted as a filmic metaphor for a feminist critique of voyeurism. Yet, this interpretation has been complicated over the years, as film theorists have revised it to accommodate the growing field of feminist criticism. Centrally, it has been pointed out by Mayne and others that the audience Judy confronts is not only men; indeed, there are women among the audience, and it is a woman who initiates the applause for Judy’s speech.
This recognition has led to broader interpretations of the film’s workings, in that dance is not simply accepted as way to speak of femininity as a performance of sexual difference for a presumed male desire. Arzner’s significant change to the script when she took over the project as director was to replace the male dance teacher with a woman, a female coded very much like Arzner herself. Madame Basilova, Judy’s dance instructor, dresses in ties and appears quite “butch” in demeanor. The film’s presentation of the relationship between Judy and Basilova in the film has inspired comparisons between the many photos of Arzner with her “femme” actresses as well as drawing from biographical connections to Arzner’s life partner, Marion Morgan, a choreographer in her own right. There is certainly a number of “looks” exchanged between Judy and Basilova which center around their distinction from each other; in fact, when Basilova puts on a frilly hat, putting her on the side of “femininity”, she is killed by a bus.
Yet, this “queer” interpretation itself needs to be complicated further by the class dynamics of the Bubbles–Judy comparison, which turns upon Bubbles’ lower class encodings to build our identification with Judy. Yet, even Bubbles is constituted by racial markers which stress her particularly “white” femininity when the film casts black actors in the periphery to underscore who can and who cannot cross class lines, who is and is not constituted as desirable. The use of blackface in a key dance sequence, performed by the American Ballet Company, drives this point home; new “hybrid” forms of dance may make the link between Bubbles’ form of burlesque and Judy’s more classical form of ballet, but it nevertheless is built upon the appropriation of Afrocentric forms that cannot be allowed center stage, so to speak. So, the matter of who can be subject to the gaze and who cannot needs to be revised by taking into account the complex discourses which constitute gender, such as race, class, and sexuality.
The question of the male gaze (and the woman’s refusal of it) has been a particular fecund point of debate in Arzner’s films. With the emergence of Queer Film Theory, authors have used feminist revisions of Arzner’s films to expose the compulsory heterosexist strain in hegemonic feminist film theory such as the now infamous essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey. Queer film theorist Judith Mayne has been at the forefront of reclaiming Arzner’s film texts and the feminist-fetishized image of Arzner herself in order to make the point that the figure of the lesbian, particularly the butch, troubles the heterosexual presumptions underlying the male gaze. Further, her argument allows for the reintroduction of desire and the exchanges of gazes between women—a much-ignored possibility in the pantheon of feminist film theory. It also challenges the assumptions, stated above, concerning Arzner’s own appropriation of masculine drag. When Laura Mulvey casts the female spectator as a form of “transvestism”, Arzner’s unique position as a female director dressed in male drag stands in sharp contrast to the essentialist, heterosexist presuppositions built into the concept of the “male gaze”. In light of the writings of Judith Butler and others, the question of Arzner donning men’s clothes becomes less of a desire to “fit into” the male world than an act of masculine performativity which speaks to the historical and discursive relations of gender to film production, that is, how gender must be “performed” on both sides of the camera.
Fashions for Women (1927)
Get Your Man (1927)
Ten Modern Commandments (1927)
Manhattan Cocktail (1928)
The Wild Party (1929)
Anybody’s Woman (1930)
Sarah and Son (1930)
Paramount on Parade (1930)
Working Girls (1931)
Honor Among Lovers (1931)
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Christopher Strong (1933)
Craig’s Wife (1936)
The Bride Wore Red (1937)
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
First Comes Courage (1943)
Blood and Sand (Fred Niblo, 1922) editor
The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923) editor
Inez from Hollywood (Alfred E. Green, 1924) editor
The No-Gun Man (Harry Garson, 1924) screenwriter
When Husbands Flirt (William A. Wellman, 1925) screenwriter
Red Kimono (Walter Lang, 1925) screenwriter
Old Ironsides (James Cruze, 1926) screenwriter
Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch (eds), Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1994
Patricia Erens, Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, New York, Horizon Press, 1979
Lucy Fischer, Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989
Boze Hadleigh, Hollywood Lesbians, New York, Barricade Books, 1994
Claire Johnston (ed.), Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema, London, British Film Institute, 1975
Annette Kuhn, The Women’s Companion to International Film, London, Virago, 1990
Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Bloomington and Indiana, 1994
Judith Mayne, Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990
Judith Mayne, ”Lesbian Looks: Dorothy Arzner and Female Authorship” in Bad Object-Choices (eds), How Do I Look?: Queer Film and Video, Seattle, Bay Press, 1991
Raymond Murray, Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video, New York, Plume, 1996
Ginette Vincendeau, “Dorothy Arzner: La mise en scène du Féminin” in Positif, no. 341-342, July–August 1989
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Dance, Girl, Dance by Louise Cole
Brief work history
Some of her films can be purchased here
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Online articles can be found here. Just scroll down.
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