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.

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