Nearly forty years after her death in 1979, Dorothy Arzner remains one of the most fascinating American filmmakers to work within the Hollywood studio system. While a few of her films, such as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Christopher Strong (1933) are finally available on DVD; others, such as Working Girls (1931) survive only in bootlegs and in a few archival 35mm prints. This must change, since Arzner was in the 1930s and 1940s the only woman directing in Hollywood, and her films offer a distinctively lesbian feminist view of American society.

Working Girls is a brutally honest film, coming as it does at the height of the Depression, depicting precisely what it was like to be a young woman – far from home in a big city – trying to get ahead in a hostile world. Working from a screenplay by Zoë Akins (who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1935 for her adaptation of the Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid), with razor sharp editing by Jane Loring, Arzner creates a fresh, compact, and decidedly female centered tale, which remains shockingly relevant even today.

Working Girls is a feminist film that employs a queer camp sensibility also found in Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936). Both films are sharp in their critique of the institution of marriage as one of the only potential avenues for female social mobility in Depression-era America. As I have written elsewhere, Arzner reveals heterosexual marriage as “an instrument to hold both women and men hostage to appearances and enforced roles, and perhaps most significantly, hostages to excessive consumption”.1 Arzner exposes the crass fiscal relationship between class and heterosexual marriage, often employing jaw-dropping ironic feminist humor from a distinctly female point of view.

The film focuses on two young sisters from Rockville, Indiana, June (Judith Wood) and Mae (Dorothy Hall) Thorpe, who arrive in New York and take up residence in Rolfe House, a rundown hotel for “working girls,” and begin searching for a job. June has an interview with Dr. Joseph von Schraeder (Paul Lukas), a German scholar who’s looking for a stenographer. June’s lack of education rules her out, but when Mae meets with von Schraeder, he finds her much more qualified, and hires her. June tries for work as a model, but finds that once again, her fairly obvious lack of education bars her from even that position. Finally, June gets a job in a hotel telegraph office, where she meets Pat Kelly (Stuart Erwin), an itinerant saxophone player, and they begin dating.

Meanwhile, Mae takes up with alcoholic Harvard man Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), but June is suspicious, not only because of the class difference between Mae and Boyd, but also because Boyd has just broken off a relationship with another woman. June gets along well with Pat Kelly, precisely because she’s on the same social level as she is. But June is convinced that things will not end well with Mae and von Schraeder, and she’s right; von Schraeder is gradually smitten with Mae, and asks her to leave his employ when she turns down von Schraeder’s proposal of marriage. Things become more complex after this, as Mae becomes pregnant during an ill-advised liaison with Boyd Wheeler – who then promptly skips town and returns a month later, engaged to another woman – leading to a wholly unexpected denouement in the film’s final minutes.

Arzner depicts the drab life of these women, and the men who flit about them, with a great degree of compassion and dry humour. Zoë Akins’ screenplay is based on a play, Blind Mice, written by veteran Hollywood scenarist and novelist Vera Caspary, working with Winifred Lenihan, which in turn is based on Caspary’s novel Music in the Street, featuring a nearly identical plot line, and many of the same characters. It is worth noting that Caspary went undercover at a rooming house for real life “working girls” to do research for her novel; this brief passage from the text of Music in the Street perfectly describes the women of Working Girls:

There are girls with avid, searching eyes and girls dull with the discontent of long office days ahead, girls rebellious because they have only impersonal business hours to contemplate, and girls eager because an office and its men and its activities is a livelier place than the kitchen. There are girls tired because they been awaked by raucous-voiced alarm clocks after insufficient sleep; girls hungry because they rose too late for coffee and breakfast food…and timid girls wondering if they shall have to suffer this morning for yesterday’s errors.2

Arzner foregrounds the relationship between the two young women in Working Girls, strongly implying that same sex alliances offer the potential for more honest and fun relationships built on genuine friendship and sisterhood, rather than economic dependency. Heterosexuality and marriage are requirements for social mobility much more than romantic ideals in Arzner films. Arzner was always ahead of her time. She pulled no punches in her treatment of sexuality. Because of this, as Judith Mayne notes, even in the wide-open Pre-Code era, “Arzner had to battle with the censors over the film’s explicit treatment of pregnancy (and therefore sex) outside of marriage.”3

Dorothy Arzner’s Working Girls is an astonishingly fresh Pre-Code film made by a very smart lesbian feminist director. Given the circumstances, it is surprising that the film was ever made; even so, Paramount gave the film a rather limited national release. It is a miracle that the film even survives. This makes any public screening of Working Girls all the more important. Arzner was way ahead of her time. Let’s hope she finally finds her winking, knowing audience.

 

Working Girls (1931 United States 77 minutes)

Prod Co: Paramount Publix Corp Dir: Dorothy Arzner Scr: Zoë Akins, based on the play Blind Mice by Vera Caspary and Winifred Lenihan, and Caspary’s novel Music in the Street. Phot: Harry Fischbeck Ed: Jane Loring Costume Des: Travis Banton Mus: Ralph Rainger

Cast: Judith Wood, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Paul Lukas, Stuart Erwin, Frances Dee

 

Endnotes

  1. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “The Narcissistic Sociopathology of Gender: Craig’s Wife and The Hitch-Hiker,” Film International 2 March 2014 http://filmint.nu/?p=10870
  2. Vera Caspary, Music in the Street (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1929), pp. 151- 152.
  3. Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 57.

About The Author

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Foster is an author and an experimental filmmaker. Her most recent books include Disruptive Feminisms: Raced, Gendered, and Classed Bodies in Film (2016) and A Short History of Film (2013), co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon.