Dorothy Arzner: A Genuine Woman
Hollywood in the 1930s was a busy place, churning out movies and movie stars. But one director stood apart from the rest. This director stood apart because Dorothy Arzner was a woman. Arzner was not only a female director, but she was a successful one too. She directed 17 films in 16 years. Arzner, unfortunately, is most often looked at through a screen of feminist criticism because she was a lesbian. But reading her films for lesbian innuendo is an invalid exercise. What is striking about each of her films, viewed today, is how each female character is a fleshed out, complex woman who defies stereotype. Her characters are genuine women. Reading her unfinished autobiography, one can see the characterizations in her films drawn from Arzner’s own life.
Arzner worked her way up from the bottom of the business. She started out typing scripts, and not very well by her own admission. She moved up to editing, then writing scripts, and finally moved into the director’s chair. Arzner worked with many great movie stars: Joan Crawford. Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Billie Burke, Maureen O’Hara, Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, Ruth Chatterton and Fredric March. Arzner even ushered Clara Bow into the ‘talkies.’
The Wild Party with Clara Bow is one of Arzner’s earliest films. Made in 1929, it’s set at a women’s college and many scenes take place in the girls’ dormitory. The closeness of the girls has been cited as an example of Arzner’s lesbianism influencing her films. But in fact, it’s just a fact of life. Girls form close bonds with each other, clinging with a ferocity not seen in boys’ friendships. Stella and her roommate Helen are best friends, and would do anything for each other. On the beach, Stella tells Helen and her beau, "I love Helen too." This is not lesbianism; it’s a best friend worried about her friend’s reputation. She’s so worried that she makes the ultimate sacrifice and drops out of school to save her friend. Girls do love each other and they do say it to each other. Arzner is finally putting a truth about female relationships on the screen. It’s refreshing to see such genuine characters in a film.
An incident from Arzner’s childhood may also shed light on The Wild Party. Stella won’t turn her back on her best friend Helen. She takes the blame for the love letters so Helen can keep her scholarship, after Helen covered for her many times. This may be a lesson for Arzner’s cousin Polly, perhaps. When Arzner was 5, her parents divorced and she never saw her mother again. She and her brother moved in with her aunt and uncle and Polly was her older cousin. Both girls had been given a toy that made noise, but Arzner’s didn’t always work. Her cousin Polly lost her toy, and said Arzner had stolen it. Arzner’s toy happened to be working then, so her aunt believed Polly. Arzner was incensed that her aunt thought she lied. Arzner wrote in her autobiography: "My best friend gone against me. My best friend had called me a liar! ... I was crying copiously. And the impression left on me was that I had been unjustly accused." Obviously, a best friend one can count on was something important to Arzner.
Craig’s Wife was made in 1936, later in Arzner’s career. It stars an impressive and impassive Rosalind Russell as the domestically obsessed Mrs. Craig. George Kelly, who wrote the play, was reportedly upset with the portrayal of Mrs. Craig in the film. Arzner remained quite faithful to the play, but she complicated the character of Mr. Craig by making him dominated by his mother. In an interview, Arzner reported that she told Kelly this and he replied, "That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB."
Arzner did make Mrs. Craig a sympathetic character, but one must note that Kelly provided an excuse for her behavior himself. In the play, Mrs. Craig says that her step-mom drove her mother out of her house. Mrs. Craig is obsessed with having the perfect home, the secure home that she controls and can’t be taken away from her. Arzner quite likely sympathized with such a sentiment. Her parents divorced and when her father remarried Arzner and her brother were sent to live in a boarding house. And years later, Arzner recalls seeing a woman leave her house and was told that it had been her mother asking to see her, but her father had refused to allow it. Arzner writes of meeting a fortune-teller later who knew her mother. The fortune-teller told her the story of how Arzner’s father had been taken away from her mother by the stepmother. Just like Harriet Craig’s parents.
So, at the end of the film, Mrs. Craig endures stoically with only a single tear, unlike the play, which ends with a distraught woman wandering the house and littering it with rose petals. Arzner knew that Mrs. Craig would never have relinquished control. She would never litter her house with rose petals, especially when everything was gone but her house.
Arzner was a devotee of classical antiquity and it is most obvious in Craig’s Wife. Harriet wears a toga-like dress. The two urns on the fireplace and the cool austerity of the living room both point to Arzner’s love of the classical. The Craig home is literally and figuratively a temple. As a child, Arzner accidentally burned her hands on a lamp because she wanted to touch the glass that "looked so slick." Smooth like marble. At the beginning of her autobiography, she describes a mansion as a "solid classical structure" with marble halls and a grand marble staircase. "This is no structure to be replaced by so called modem architecture," she writes. "This is as fine as one could wish for today. It has nobility."
Arzner took art and architecture classes in college and, reportedly, her Hollywood mansion was classical. The urns show up several times. The two on the mantle of the Craig home match those in the Harris home in Dance, Girl, Dance. The urns are symbols of classical balance and harmony placed in homes of discord. Also, in the Harris home, there is a gigantic urn on the terrace outside the living room. When Jimmy leans forward on the couch, his head is framed by the handles and viola! He becomes Ferdinand the bull. And in Ferdinand’s home, the restaurant, is where we discover Jimmy’s inner secret: that he still loves Elinor. The restaurant is Jimmy’s mind, where everyone knows him and where his thoughts are revealed.
Dance, Girl, Dance was one of Arzner’s last Hollywood films. Made in 1940 it stars Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball. This is the story of Judy O’Brien’s (Maureen O’Hara) journey upward from the basement to the skyscraper, from dancing for the sake of showing some leg to dancing for its own sake. At the beginning, she’s dancing and making a living with a troupe of girls in the basement club Palais Royale. The club is busted by police and the girls go to New York. Judy gets her next job dancing her ballet solo in a burlesque theater. She’s moved up to the stage. By the end, Judy has moved all the way up into a skyscraper studio of the American Ballet. Judy works hard to get to the top, just as Arzner did, and she doesn’t give up. As Jimmy says in the film, she’s "the star that keeps shining after all the others have quit." She tells the burlesque theater owners: "Who says I’m a quitter?"
Judy is often characterized as the good and passive character, as opposed to Bubbles’ naughty aggressive persona. But Judy is just a girl like any other. She’s determined to become a dancer, but still falls for the charming guy. Judy is a good person; that’s obvious. She refuses to lie in court, though the judge hints that it would be okay, to get a nice girl like her off the hook. She’s always thinking about the others: At the beginning she speaks up to make sure the girls get paid; She gets Sally a ride with Bubbles to the city; She goes to her appointment with Mr. Adams thinking that it’s for the whole troupe and not just for her. But Judy is a human and even she can be pushed around too much, and when the crowd embarrasses her and hollers at her when her dress strap falls off, she stops. She stands up to the bullies, to the men. She lets them know that they aren’t fooling anybody. Then, when Bubbles unfairly accuses her backstage of stealing her show, Judy breaks. She can’t take Bubbles shallow, selfish crap anymore and Judy explodes into physical violence.
This is a facet of human nature. She’s not any less a good person because she attacks Bubbles, but she’s all the more human. Arzner witnessed such a breaking point as a young girl, in her aunt. Arzner loved her aunt very much and thought her incredibly kind. But one day her aunt had baked a special pie and a kitten ate the top off of it. Arzner writes that her aunt flew after the cat with a heavy coal shovel and threw it at the poor thing. Fortunately, the shovel missed the kitten, but Arzner was horrified by her aunt’s explosion of violence. "She was so mild and gentle and kind and long suffering ... But it was too much for her. Now as I look back, she deserved some outlet." Just as her aunt put up with a lot, so does Judy. She’s humiliated night after night on stage until she can’t take it anymore.
At the trial, Judy is contrite but takes responsibility. She sees everything clearly now. Jimmy isn’t as important to her as she thought. When the audience wanted her to take the rest of her dress off, when they didn’t care about the dancing, only about titillation, that’s when Judy realized how important dance was to her. It made her so angry to see it dismissed.
Judy survives by persevering and finding the place where she fits in, i.e. the American Ballet. Judy is beautiful and talented, but as Madame says, she doesn’t have oomph. Judy is too sincere, and too straightforward to play games with men or to tease them with oomph. She’s too classy. The one with all the va-voom is Bubbles.
Bubbles is a wonderfully complex character. Lucille Ball does a wonderful job portraying the vivacious and ambitious show-girl. In a typical film, Bubbles might be the "bad guy," after stealing Jimmy and tricking Judy into becoming her stooge. But in Arzner’s film, the characters are more complicated than good or bad. Bubbles is a confused girl who wants to help her friends, but who also has an enormous ego. Bubbles wants to get all the guys. If a guy chooses another girl over her, it’s a threat to her ego so she has to swoop in and steal him to prove she’s still got it. So it’s no surprise she takes Jimmy out after he danced with Judy. Bubbles is smart and knows she can use her oomph to get a free ride from rich men. To her it’s a matter of business and if someone threatens her skills in attracting men, they are threatening her means of existence. She doesn’t steal Jimmy from Judy because she loves him, but because he’s rich. She yells angrily: "You never told me he had money!" So it’s also no surprise that she marries him, to get rich quick and also to spite Judy.
But, she’s just a child, as Judy points out in the courtroom scene. She thinks Judy is jealous of her and Bubbles sees everyone as a potential threat. She’s had a hard life too and basically sold her body to get where she is. Her burlesque act as Tiger Lily White is horrible to watch. She stands on stage humiliated as gusts of wind blow her clothes all around her and then blow them off while men cheer. Bubbles survives by enduring this degrading act with a smile and acting as though she’s in control of all of it.
She survives by adapting, as in the ballet Judy sees at the American Ballet A very Bubbles-esque ballerina breaks into a classical ballet, as Bubbles perhaps breaks into Judy’s world, and then she sleeps while the busy city takes over. When the ballerina reawakens in the strange city she is transformed into one of them and triumphs in the end. Just as Bubbles wakes up in the courtroom and shrugs Jimmy off her back for $50,000 to emerge triumphant
Bubbles doesn’t really mean to hurt anyone and when she does, she gets more defensive. Bubbles does care about the others. She asked sincerely "what about the rest of the kids?" when she got hired at the hula audition. But she’s not going to sacrifice her own job for them either. She pays Judy and Sally’s rent and tells the landlady not to say who paid it. She offers Judy the job, and even gets her a decent salary. True, Judy’s job is to make Bubbles’ act more popular, but she could have offered it to someone else and Bubbles thought of her friend first. She doesn’t have anything against anyone as long as they don’t stand in her way. But when Judy breaks down and gives her monologue to the audience, Bubbles gets mad. Judy’s dress had been falling off and Bubbles thinks Judy’s trying to steal her show. As soon as Judy gets backstage, Bubbles says, "Crowding my show? You jealous pig!" and then she slaps her.
At court, she is furious and yelling about how jealous Judy is of her success. Bubbles is trying desperately to stay afloat, like a child in trouble with mom. When Judy takes all responsibility and acknowledges that Bubbles meant no harm, Bubbles becomes quiet and contrite for a moment; then she’s all sunny disposition for the cameras as she reunites Jimmy and his wife and sails off.
Bubbles and Judy are fully realized characters on the screen. If Judy is the good girl, why is she sneaking out of the theater with Jimmy behind Bubbles’ back? And if Bubbles is the bad girl, why does she pay Judy and Sally’s rent anonymously? The title even points to it, this movie is about the girl in the dance. The title Dance, Girl, Dance also refers to the three-pan structure of the film. The first section is about dance as work, looking for jobs for the troupe of girls. But when we are shown New York, we see a Pedestrian Crossing sign with a warning to look both ways, and then we see the sign for Madame Basiova. It’s a subtle way to foreshadow the death of Judy’s mentor and parent figure which ends the first Dance. Then we are in the Girl and Judy learns about herself and what dancing means to her and blossoms into a woman when she kisses Jimmy at the end of their romantic night together. This ends the second section. The third part is Dance again, but this time it’s the realization of Judy’s need to pursue pure dance at the Ballet. Judy finds a new mentor in Steve Adams, obeying Basiova’s final words, "Dance, dance, dance."
Christopher Strong is another one of Arzner’s most popular films. It starred the young and dashing Katharine Hepburn at the beginning of her career. She’s so wonderful as aviatrix Cynthia Darrington that we think the movie is about her, though the title suggests otherwise. In fact, the story isn’t supposed to be about her, the novel is quite obviously about Sir Christopher Strong and the change Cynthia Darrington brings about in him. And Arzner even said in an interview with Gerald Peary and Karyn Kay: "But I was more interested in Christopher Strong, played by Colin Clive, than in any of the women characters ... I was really more sympathetic with him, but no one seemed to pick that up."
But how can the audience resist such a fascinating female character? In the novel, Cynthia is named Felicity and is always referred to as looking like a Tanagra figurine, a figure from Greek antiquity. And Hepburn fulfills the novel’s description of a boyish figure, tan and athletic with brilliant hair. When Hepburn appears dressed in a metallic moth or butterfly costume, she is magnificent. She is drawn to the light shone in Strong’s face by a lamp, but eventually she will fly too close to another light — the sun — and immolate herself.
Cynthia Darrington is a masculinized woman, but she’s still a woman. She lives like a bachelor surrounded by leather and wood, without a lot of dainty, frilly things. She often dresses in men’s clothing and she is an ace at typically male activities: racecar driving, flying and — in the novel — boating. But despite her jocularity with the boys and her independent determined spirit, there is a feminine woman waiting for the right man to let her out. Strong is the man for her, as his name implies. He’s smart, wealthy, handsome, friendly, and hopelessly attracted to this young spitfire. It’s appropriate that Cynthia wears Daisies on her dress when she and Strong first dance together and their love blooms. It is the night they are joined forever in love, their wedding night as it were, and he wears a tuxedo to match her white dress.
But Cynthia isn’t one to settle for a humdrum life. Strong loves her and she needs his love so she allows him to convince her to stop her flying and racing so she won’t be killed. He asks her when they are making love and Arzner provides a strong visual interpretation of the event He has given her a bracelet, and we see her hand reach to turn off the lamp when he asks her never to fly again. She agrees and we see that the bracelet is a shackle. She discovers she is pregnant, and is thrilled, but she knows Strong can never leave his wife, and she knows she cannot quench the desire inside of her to fly higher and break records. So Cynthia Darrington takes her final flight. Doing what she thinks is best for Strong and best for herself, she breaks the altitude record and kills herself.
In the novel, it is unclear whether she meant to commit suicide; she may be hallucinating from lack of oxygen. But Arzner was quite clear in an interview with Gerald Peary and Karyn Kay: "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 ... Suicide was a definite decision."
Just as Judy can only dance, Cynthia can only fly. These women have passions that must be listened to. Arzner portrays them with sympathy because these women aren’t all-consumed by their passions; they are real people with the same desires all women have. They both fall in love, but are also smart enough to realize when it isn’t going to work. In The Wild Party, Stella’s passion is adventure and life. She falls in love too, but for her, going to the jungle with the professor keeps her passion and her love alive.
Arzner brings the characters to the screen virtually as they were written in the novel. They are unchanged from the text. While some critics have pointed to Cynthia Darrington as a masculine woman — who wears men’s clothes — as a signal of Arzner’s lesbianism, this is unfounded. For in the novel, the character is quite often referred to as doing, saying, living, like a "man." Arzner merely portrayed that full character on the screen, no mean feat. (The only character that actually dressed as Arzner herself did is Judy’s mentor Madame Basiova in Dance, Girl, Dance.)
The other strong female role in Christopher Strong, is the role of his wife, Elaine. Elaine is the long suffering hero at the heart of the story. She loves her husband so completely that she will never leave him, though he knows he is in love with a younger woman. Arzner probably had her aunt in mind for this character’s real-life model. She described her aunt as long-suffering. Her aunt had to deal with an alcoholic husband and his abuse. He even ran off once with all their savings and left his wife all alone with four little children. He had gone to Scotland for a "fling" and he eventually came back. Her aunt put up with it all, and eventually died from an operation. Arzner’s description of her aunt, from her autobiography, could also describe poor Elaine Strong:
She was so kind and loving and the only incident that was not the most gentle was the incident of the little lie [when her aunt thought Arzner lied about which toy as hers]. But I’m sure that came about from her love of me and not wanting me to lie. There was no violent scene about it. It was an administering of justice. But he had become a symbol of the hardship and the painful, long suffering of many of he women of her time.
Arzner worked with Billie Burke several times, and as Elaine Strong she seems to embody Arzner’s aunt. Billie Burke was also in Craig’s Wjfe and played another saintly, aunt-like character: the neighbor Ms. Frazier. She’s a lonely widow who only wants to being some company and some roses to her neighbors. She’s so kind that even after everyone else has left Harriet alone, she reaches out to her.
Arzner was a strong director with a strong visual interpretation of events and character. Judy doesn’t run through the rain; she dances. Mrs. Craig unconsciously straightens everything around her. Mrs. Strong can’t sleep when her husband is out falling in love, but she still dresses up for him. Jimmy is a bull, appearing to Judy as Zeus did to Europa and seducing her, who eventually returns to his quarreling wife — Elinor as Hera. And the scene where Judy addresses the theater audience, and the film audience, will never be forgotten for its originality and startling honesty.
Arzner must have had a gift for working with actors, because all the characters in her films — but especially the women — are full-bodied human beings with complicated personalities and desires. Her films should be studied and remembered for their own merits, and not because of Arzner’s sexual orientation. Arzner did not rely on motion pictures for income and therefore had almost complete control over her films. There is very little in them, if anything, that she didn’t put there herself. It was not Arzner’s agenda to make feminist films. She set out to make memorable films that tell memorable stories and she succeeded.
Arzner, Dorothy. Autobiography. Unpublished, courtesy David Soren.
Frankau, Gilbert. Christopher Strong. London: Hutchinson and Co., ltd, 1932.
Johnston, Claire, ed. The work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1975.
Kelly, George. Craig’s Wife. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1926.
Mayne, Judith. "Lesbian Looks: Dorothy Arzner and Female Authorship." How do I look? Oueer Film and Video edited by Bad Object-Choices. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991. p103-143
Dance. Girl. Dance. Summary and critique, source unknown
Christopher Strong. Dir. Dorothy Arzner. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Colin Clive, Billie Burke, Ralph Forbes, Helen Chandler. RKO, 1933.
Craig’s Wife. Dir. Dorothy Arzner. Perf. Rosalind Russell, John Boles, Billie Burke, Alma Kruger. Columbia, 1936.
Dance. Girl. Dance. Dir. Dorothy Arzner. Perf. Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Oupenskaya. RKO, 1940.
The Wild Party. Dir. Dorothy Arzner. Perf. Clara Bow, Fredric March, Shirley O’Hara, Marceline Day, Joyce Compton. Paramount - Famous Players-Lasky, 1929.