Kicking off my new weekly series of posts, the “Saturday Night Spotlight” on female filmmakers, I have chosen to shine that light on Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the talented director who was the first woman admitted into the Directors Guild of America. Openly lesbian, Arzner was the only woman with a notable directorial career in Hollywood between the late 1920s and mid-1940s. She was a pioneer not only for her achievements as a female working in a male-dominated field (she was the first woman to direct an Oscar-nominated performance: Best Actress for Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son, 1930), but also because she created the first ever boom pole on the set on The Wild Party (1929) – attaching a microphone to a fishing rod instead of placing the microphone on or near the actors – which revolutionized the way that sound was recorded for films. Some of Arzner’s films are hard to find, but a few are available on DVD: Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Others, like Nana (1934), Craig’s Wife (1936) and The Bride Wore Red (1937), pop up on the Turner Classic Movies TV channel from time to time. I hope you get the chance to check out some of Dorothy Arzner’s movies, not only because of their place in film history, but also because they’re really good movies.
Christopher Strong (1933) – Following her film debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Katharine Hepburn had her first starring role in this pre-Code drama about an aviatrix (no doubt inspired by real-life pilot Amelia Earhart) who falls for a married man (Colin Clive, two years after he played Dr. Frankenstein). Although the film is named for Clive’s character, it is Hepburn, as the independent and strong-willed Lady Cynthia Darrington, who is the star. Beautiful cinematography by Bert Glennon, impressive editing by Arthur Roberts (with the assistance of montage master Slavko Vorkapich, making the last five minutes of the film a knockout) and costumes by Howard Greer and Walter Plunkett (who could forget that stunning moth gown?) show that Arzner was at the top of her game here.
Nana (1934) – Despite the fact that this drama flopped at the box office, it is a fascinating film thanks to the central performance by Russian beauty Anna Sten and gorgeous cinematography by Gregg Toland (who incorporated a skillful usage of pulling focus in one of the shots). The film is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1880 novel of the same name, a daring tale of a prostitute who becomes a great star of the French stage, only to have her love life cause her downfall. Sten’s confidence as Nana and her languid, Dietrich-like singing of the Rodgers & Hart tune “That’s Love” – viewed through what we usually think of as the male gaze but rendered by a female, lesbian filmmaker – give the film added flair.
Craig’s Wife (1936) – Thought of as a “woman’s picture,” this melodrama stars Rosalind Russell (above right, with Billie Burke) as a manipulative woman willing to do anything to maintain her “perfect” life. Russell made a career out of playing strong, outspoken women (His Girl Friday, Design for Scandal, Flight for Freedom, Roughly Speaking, Auntie Mame) and Craig’s Wife gave her yet another interesting, complex role. Here she is a wife who looks upon the traditional expectations of domesticity and motherly love with disdain, far more intrigued by money and power (things that are usually part of a man’s world). While a male director might have painted such an unlikeable female protagonist with a different, less subtle brush, Arzner puts her own unique, female spin on the story.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) – Combining comedy, drama and music, this film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2007, a yearly selection of films chosen for preservation based on their importance and impact on the industry and on audiences. Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, first playing aspiring dancers and then burlesque performers, claw at each other in the struggle for stardom, highlighting the difficulties of being women trying to survive in a tough world. This theme is prominent throughout Arzner’s filmography and it reflects Arzner’s life as a woman trying to persevere in a business operated by men.