Female Director Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner and Making Films for Women in the 1930s

Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s was a male-dominated space, with men like Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and countless others receiving credit for their illustrious place in film history. But, one person that film history largely forgets is Dorothy Arzner, who has the largest oeuvre of any woman filmmaker. She was the only female director working during this time and the only female filmmaker whose work moved from the silent era into sound, showing her strength in filmmaking as well as her creativity. But it isn’t just her technical prowess that deserves praise; it is also her desire to portray nuanced and complicated women, rather than the stereotypical women-as-objects seen in that era of cinema. Her films explore women, how they’re represented in classic Hollywood narratives, and how supportive friendships between women flourish, which can be seen in Dance, Girl, Dance. She made films about women for women, and addressed the many facets of being a woman, from societal standing to romantic relationships to what it means to work. Arzner was also a lesbian filmmaker, which can be seen in her critiques of heteronormative relationships and their consequences, particularly in her 1933 film, Christopher Strong.

Despite a prolific career, Arzner is not commonly mentioned with this era of Hollywood cinema and she is rarely studied. I was lucky enough to be introduced to her work by a TA in grad school, who told me only one book has been written on Arzner and how difficult is to find many of her films — only a few of them are available to stream or even purchase. I believe Arzner deserves a larger place in the canon, and more recognition for the types of films she was creating, particularly with her focus on catering to a female spectator. The films I detail below are some of her more easily found work and exemplify Arzner’s key themes around social class, work, friendship, and critiques of heteronormativity.

Work and Friendship in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Perhaps Arzner’s most well-known film, Dance, Girl, Dance is centered on a complicated friendship between dancers, Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball). Each dream of breaking out of their social class and moving up in the world of dance, with Judy using her love of art and Bubbles taking ownership of her sexuality. Each woman has a very different way of achieving their dream, but neither are punished for their respective routes. They are both working women who are playing to their strengths to try and secure themselves a better future.

Despite their differences, Judy and Bubbles do help each other throughout the film. Bubbles even gets Judy a high-paying job, despite this resulting in Judy becoming a stooge. Regardless, these women try and support each other because they are both trying to make it in this competitive world dominated by the male gaze and desire. However, despite Arzner’s nuanced depictions of their friendship, the two friends ultimately fall out and physically fight one another over a man, falling into the troubling trope of female competition. As Alicia Malone says in her book, The Female Gaze, this ending shows the limitations of Hollywood and the sacrifices Arzner made to create a film that would garner more attention.

This film was lost to history until the 1970s, when feminist film scholars rediscovered it and saw it as a rare example of a critique of the male gaze in early Hollywood. The film even culminates in Judy standing on stage and reprimanding every man in the audience for jeering and laughing at her in order to feel powerful for a few moments. Even before this speech, several scenes emphasize the man staring at the female body and coveting it as an object to be sold.

Arzner’s most well-known film is a stunning object that illustrates the importance of female filmmaking during this time. While its ending seems to go against the rest of the film’s message, Dance, Girl, Dance is ultimately a film about women achieving their dreams over anything else.

Questioning Heteronormativity in Christopher Strong (1933)

Arzner gave Katharine Hepburn her first starring role in the 1933 film, Christopher Strong, a film that questions heterosexual relationships and the expectations set for women in that time period. Hepburn plays Lady Cynthia Darrington, an aviatrix who would rather flies planes and adventure around the world than deal with men. Then, she meets married Parliament member, Christopher Strong (Colin Clive). They fall in love and start an illicit affair that leads to the destruction of Lady Cynthia and leaves Strong ultimately unscathed.

One of the film’s most interesting elements is how Arzner marks Cynthia’s transition from independent to dependent woman through her costuming. Cynthia begins the film in masculine clothing — pants, long overcoats — which makes her stick out among the other upper class women in pearls, dresses, and furs. However, as her affair with Strong progresses, her clothing becomes more feminine and more morose. The costuming climax occurs when Cynthia steps out in a sparkly dress that renders her alien to Strong and the viewer — she is otherworldly, undefinable. Yet she still falls trap to a man, and her clothing becomes mute, dark, and feminine. Strong has taken away what makes her, her.

Christopher Strong shows the sacrifices that Cynthia must make in order to satisfy Sir Christopher, while he sacrifices nothing — he gets to have his cake and eat it, too. While it seems a frustrating narrative, Arzner is depicting a story of a woman “intruding” on a marriage with more complexity and criticism directed towards the man, rather than merely punishing the woman.

Class and Romance in Get Your Man (1927)

Get Your Man is one of the four silent films in Arzner’s filmography. It is also one of the several collaborations with actress, Clara Bow. It is a film about clashing social and cultural classes and a woman who acts with her own interests in front of all else. Nancy Worthington (Bow), an American, spots a French man, played by Charles Rogers, who she wants to make her husband. So, in true American fashion, she will do anything to make it happen, even if he has been betrothed to a woman since he was a child. What ensues is a comedic reversal of a romantic game of cat-and-mouse as Nancy pursues her man and runs into roadblocks along the way.

From just that brief premise, it is apparent that Get Your Man is another example of critiquing the idea of a male gaze with Bow acting as the “gazer,” rather than the male characters. She is the one looking men up and down, trying to lure them in, which would perhaps make male audiences uncomfortable; they are no longer in a position of power and must identify with the woman gazing or come to terms with their onscreen objectification.

Even though this is a film about romance, and ends with an engagement, this is also a film about helping women. When Nancy speaks to Robert’s fiancee, Simone (Josephine Dunn), she learns that Simone is in love with someone and loathes her betrothal. Nancy, hearing this, makes it her goal to not only get her way but to also make sure that Simone gets her happily-ever-after, too. It is not a main focus of the film, but nonetheless demonstrates Arzner’s commitment to showing women helping women in any circumstance.

The film that exists now is missing two out of six reels and some of the filmstock is damaged, but what remains is a testament to the importance of film restoration and preserving cultural objects of the past, particularly those by female directors who would otherwise be forgotten.

Arzner is an example of those directors almost lost to film history due to the established canon, created by men to illustrate what they deem to be good filmmaking. However, Arzner’s film were not for men. In just these three films, Arzner’s desire to create a cinema for women is apparent. Even within the confines of the male-dominated film industry, she was able to create narratives that critiqued its practices and became a successful director as both a woman and lesbian.

Arzner’s other works include:

  • The Bride Wore Red
  • The Wild Party
  • Craig’s Wife

If you’d like to learn more about Arzner, check out:

  • The Female Gaze by Alicia Malone
  • Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne

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