Where to begin with Dorothy Arzner

A beginner’s path through the work of Dorothy Arzner, a technical and thematic visionary whose subversive, feminist films were made when she was, for some years, Hollywood’s only working female director.

The Wild Party (1929)

Why this might not seem easy

Dorothy Arzner occupies a unique space in film history. Working her way up the ranks from screenwriter to editor, she eventually became – for a time – the only female director working within the Hollywood studio system. Her films offered audiences new approaches to storytelling. Her protagonists were snappy and headstrong, subverting traditional gender roles on a mission to determine their own identity. She directed and co-directed 20 films, and her legacy of technical innovations is embedded in the fundamentals of filmmaking, which she later taught to students, including Francis Ford Coppola, at UCLA.

Dorothy Arzner

However, accessing Arzner’s films is no easy task. Most of her work during the silent era is lost, and many of her films that survived are rather obscure. Though several titles were rediscovered by feminist film theorists in the 1970s, she is yet to receive the same recognition as her male contemporaries. The retrospective of her films at BFI Southbank in February is a unique opportunity to appreciate these elusive gems from one of the most important figures in 20th-century filmmaking, who just so happened to be a woman.

The best place to start – The Wild Party

Arzner’s editing skills, particularly on Blood and Sand (1922), had earned her a reputation for efficiency and economy, but she threatened to quit Paramount if they didn’t let her direct. Her debut, the silent Fashions for Women (1927), is sadly a lost film, but as Hollywood transitioned to sound, she was tasked with directing Clara Bow in the studio’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929). In this, Arzner’s earliest extant feature as director, her innovation led to the fashioning of the first boom mic, made by attaching a microphone to a fishing rod, allowing her nervous star to move about more freely.

Bow dazzles as college student Stella, the quintessential party girl of the roaring 20s, whose non-conforming attitude is used to delve into themes of freedom and class, offering audiences a snapshot of women’s experience of the social and cultural shifts of the 1920s. Film critic Helen O’Hara wrote that this is probably the first American film to deal with the subject of female bonding in a positive, affirming way. There’s a heterosexual romance, but Arzner foregrounds the female friendships, showing she could take a conventional flapper story and turn it into a spirited analysis of the condition of women.

What to watch next

Working Girls (1931)

Despite receiving no studio publicity and no general or national release, Working Girls (1931) was Arzner’s personal favourite, and her influence is present in every frame. It’s the story of two sisters, naive Mae (Dorothy Hall) and streetwise June (Judith Wood), who move to New York in pursuit of jobs and independence, only to discover the one-sided sexual politics of work and romance. They reside in a rundown hotel for ‘working girls’, and Arzner parodies this institution while, once again, centring the strong female bonds that develop there.

Their conversations articulate Arzner’s sharp observations on the intricacies of women’s work and her fantasy of women’s power to shape the world around them. While at first the sisters are analogous, their metamorphosis is emphasised through costume as Mae becomes more frilly and more irresponsible in her relationships, while June’s attire mimics Arzner’s own, with a shrewder, more business-like approach. (Arzner’s trademark butch style infuriated Louis B. Mayer when she made 1937’s The Bride Wore Red, her first and only credited film as director for MGM. Some have speculated that this hostility blackballed her career, but her sexuality was a detail she couldn’t hide, and according to actor Marjorie Main, “didn’t bother to”.)

Fortunately, the commercial failure of Working Girls didn’t dampen Arzner’s spirit, and her next film, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), gave us her scathing take on marriage. Audiences were captivated by this peculiar story of wealthy but innocent Joan (Sylvia Sidney), who marries Jerry (Fredric March), a humble reporter and philandering alcoholic. Joan proposes an open marriage, telling Jerry “If being a modern husband gives you privileges, then being a modern wife gives me privileges,” before taking Cary Grant as a lover. Although many newspapers refused to publicise the film due to its racy title, the film was a box office hit, and stands as an archetype for feminist commentary on screen.  

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Following the end of her contract with Paramount, Arzner’s freelance career began with her film Christopher Strong (1933), another biting interrogation of monogamy. Made for RKO, the film starred Katharine Hepburn as adventurous aviator Lady Cynthia, who embarks on an illicit affair with a respected MP, Sir Christopher Strong (Colin Clive). Arzner portrays genuine moments of connection between Cynthia and Christopher’s wife, Elaine (Billie Burke), subverting typical narratives of women as rivals. Her approach was extraordinary for the time, and when Elaine proclaims, “Marriage and children make any woman old-fashioned and intolerable,” almost 100 years later it still packs one hell of a punch.

Unfortunately, the gaps between her films began to widen thereafter. In Nana (1934), Arzner expertly intertwined the worlds of performance and sexuality in her only picture that directly addresses prostitution. While intended to be Anna Sten’s relaunching as a rival to Greta Garbo, the film was ultimately a box office disappointment. It would be two years before her next film, Craig’s Wife (1936), a melodrama set over 24 hours in the life of a materialistic wife who marries to attain independence and believes that “love is a liability in marriage”. The film is an indictment of a system where womanhood is made to deform itself, and it established Rosalind Russell as a tour de force in her breakout performance.

1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance is her most famous film, and made a star out of Lucille Ball. This part-peppy RKO musical, part-subversive feminist melodrama, is a backstage study of friendship, ambition and jealousy, which famously features Maureen O’Hara’s castigation of the male gaze. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, who described it as Arzner’s “most intriguing film” and a “meditation on the disparity between art and commerce”.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

After completing many films for other directors, Arzner fell ill on the set of her final film, First Comes Courage (1943), and found herself replaced by Charles Vidor. She bowed out of Hollywood twisting the gender conventions of love and war, her signature style dominating this drama, starring a superb Merle Oberon. 

Where not to start

Sarah and Son, from 1930, isn’t a great starting point, as it features Ruth Chatterton’s fake, thick accent, stylised acting, and the kind of static cinematography that was common in the early years of sound cinema. Fortunately, its thematic strengths offset its technical flaws, and it’s worth returning to as an early example of Arzner’s exploration of women’s careers on stage, intricately connecting the world of performance to sex. 

A League of Her Own: The Cinema of Dorothy Arzner runs at BFI Southbank in February.