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Cinema and Media Studies Dorothy Arzner
by
Theresa Geller

Introduction

In 1936, Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897–d. 1979) was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America; it would be seventy-four more years before a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, would win an Academy Award for directing. To date, women remain profoundly underrepresented in the DGA, constituting about 7 percent of the guild. Within the context of such pronounced and continuing discrimination against women in this field, Arzer’s success in the industry is all the more compelling. Although there were other women directors predating Arzner, her productive and successful career as a Hollywood film director in the studio system remains unparalleled. Between 1927 and 1943, she made seventeen features, most of them critically well received and profitable. Her extensive body of work, along with inventing the prototype for the boom mike (by attaching a microphone to a fishing pole), certainly makes her an important figure in American film history. That she was a woman in this field, however, is often the first and most salient detail commented on in biographies and other literatures, despite the fact that Arzner herself resisted the importance others placed on her gender. Because of her unique career as a prolific female film director—indeed, there are only a handful of women with comparable careers to this day—she figured centrally in the recovery projects of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminist film historians looked to Arzner as a forerunner of the women’s film movement, spearheaded by filmmakers Laura Mulvey, Chantal Ackerman, and Yvonne Rainer. Accordingly, Arzner’s films were rediscovered, screened at women’s film festivals, and interpreted in terms of a female aesthetic—an aesthetic demonstrated across various forms of cultural production. Although the gender essentialism that informed the claims to a female aesthetic waned, interest in Arzner remained. Her films—mostly women’s melodramas—provide a counterpoint to the ways Hollywood cinema represents women as spectacle. More recently, Arzner has figured centrally in discussions of lesbian and gay film history and queer cinema broadly defined. Her “masculine” appearance and lesbianism—including a life-long relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan—continue to be of interest to many, including director Todd Haynes, who has spoken of filming a biopic of Arzner’s life. Subject of documentaries, creative work, and several scholarly book-length studies and essays, Dorothy Arzner, her life and her films, continues to fascinate spectators and scholars alike.

Biography

There are notably few conventional biographies of Dorothy Arzner. The most thoroughgoing work on Arzner to date is Mayne 1994. Still, Mayne’s often-cited work is a study of representation as opposed to a typical biographical work. As Mahar 2006 details, although she received a good deal of public attention while she was making films, Arzner receded from the public eye when she retired from filmmaking in 1943. Thirty years later, her films were rediscovered and circulated at women’s film festivals, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, which in turn generated a great deal of interest in the director herself—an interest sated, in part, by the extensive interview recorded in Kay and Peary 1974. With the rise of second-wave feminism, Arzner became a central figure in feminist film criticism; Parker 1973 reads Arzner and her films within a feminist framework. Biographical work on Arzner usually falls into these two camps—as an exemplary figure for feminist film criticism, or in larger historical works on women filmmakers, as in Hurd 2007, Mahar 2006, and Wakeman 1987. Mayne 1994 provides the most extensive biography of Arzner, beginning with her indeterminate date of birth in San Francisco (most likely in 1897, but Arzner claims 1900) and Arzner’s family’s subsequent move to Los Angeles after the devastation of the earthquake. Mayne 1994, Slide 1996, and other biographies tell a very similar story about Arzner’s early years; despite meeting famous stars and directors like Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett at her father’s business, Hoffman Café, Arzner had little early ambition to enter the world of film. She was a very good student with ambitions in medicine; however, an internship at a doctor’s office quickly dissuaded her from a life in medicine, and she subsequently turned to filmmaking. Slide 1996 and Hurd 2007 detail her early career, starting as a typist and quickly making her way up to editor. Parker 1973 details many of Arzner’s collaborators in the film industry. Dorothy Arzner, Film provides some details about her career after her retirement from Hollywood in 1943, stressing that she continued to be active, directing Women’s Army Corps training films throughout World War II and Pepsi-Cola commercials for Joan Crawford in the 1950s; as the website states, she eventually landed at UCLA, where she taught filmmaking from 1959 to 1963.

  • UCLA Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner, Film.

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    This website focuses on Arzner’s time as a teacher at the University of California at Los Angeles. It interviews her colleague at the school, Howard Suber, who speaks to her role as a mentor for young filmmakers.

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  • Hurd, Mary G. Women Directors and Their Films. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

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    The author discusses Arzner in her first chapter, titled “Pioneers.” The chapter provides a brief biography and discussion of Arzner’s work, concentrating specifically on the fact that Arzner’s films survived Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound cinema.

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  • Kay, Karyn, and Gerald Peary. “Dorothy Arzner Interview.” Cinema 34 (1974): 10–20.

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    A detailed interview with Arzner conducted by the authors over several months, with Arzner adding final comments and corrections to the final version. Arzner talks about how she got into filmmaking, her work as an editor on a Valentino film, and her early collaboration with James Cruze.

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  • Mahar, Karen Ward. Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Studies in Industry and Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

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    Details how the emergent film industry was open to women in film-related careers from about 1896 to 1916, but then shut them out when it solidified as a big business. Because of Mahar’s time frame, Arzner is addressed as an exception, enjoying a measure of success when most women’s film careers had ended.

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  • Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Women Artists in Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

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    The only book-length study focusing solely on Arzner—her public and private life—with particular attention given to her relationships with women and the ways her lesbianism continues to impact the discourses that surround her. Provides one of the few discussions of Arzner’s life after Hollywood. The second part of Mayne’s book examines Arzner’s films in accessible, detailed discussions.

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  • Parker, Francine. “Approaching the Art of Arzner.” Action 8.4 (July–August 1973): 9–14.

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    This is an exceptionally informative and comprehensive essay on Arzner’s career, including nuanced readings of her films and rarely discussed information about her many collaborators, including renowned cinematographers Gregg Toland and Harry Fischbeck.

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  • Slide, Anthony. The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors. Rev. ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996.

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    An excellent overview of early women filmmakers who worked (mostly) in silent films. The chapter dedicated to Arzner, both biographical and focused on her early films, provides solid historical research on Arzner’s career. Notably, unlike other works focused on women filmmakers, Slide does not eschew Arzner’s lesbianism but rather foregrounds it at several points throughout the chapter. See pp. 103–115 in particular.

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  • Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors. Vol. 1, 1890–1945. New York: Wilson, 1987.

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    A frequently cited reference work; Wakeman provides an overview of Arzner’s career and the films she worked on and directed. See pp. 3–8 in particular.

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Film Career

As several biographies of her note (especially Quart 1988 and Heck-Rabi 1984), once decided on a film career, Arzner knew early on that she wanted to direct; however, she recognized the need to start at the bottom, so she took a job as a typist. Slide 1977 traces Arzner’s rise in Hollywood—not only her talent but also fortuitous collaboration with both men and women, beginning with her promotion to “script holder” (managing continuity) when she joined Alla Nazimova’s production company. Margulies 1975 details Arzner’s split from Nazimova to become chief editor at Realart, and how her experience editing the Rudolph Valentino vehicle, Blood and Sand, for Paramount impressed director James Cruze, who took an interest in her professional career. She found success as an editor with Cruze, but quickly moved on to directing; as Anderson 2003 and Quart 1988 discuss, Arzner’s early directorial projects in silent film were successful and immediately established her as a star-maker, promoting the careers of Esther Ralston, Katherine Hepburn, and Ruth Chatterton, and amplifying the success of Clara Bow, as the star transitioned to sound films. Heck-Rabi 1984 cites newspaper and trade paper reviews to paint a picture of Arzner’s reputation as a director who could take over difficult projects and see them through to completion, as well as transform films with “B” budgets into “A” productions. Her last two films for Paramount were less than successful, and by 1931 she was no longer under contract; however, as Acker 1993 details in an overview, Arzner would go on to direct some of her most memorable films as an independent director. Margulies 1975 gives the pat facts: in 1943, Arzner retired after she became ill with pneumonia while directing First Comes Courage. Mayer 2009, however, widens the context, suggesting several possibly intersecting reasons for Arzner’s early retirement from filmmaking, including institutional sexism and homophobia.

  • Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 1993.

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    A comprehensive encyclopedia of women filmmakers; Acker provides detailed biographical information about Arzner and her complete filmography. Acker provides several accounts from Arzner herself and from those who worked with her.

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  • Anderson, Melissa. “Ladies First.” The Village Voice, 30 July–5 August 2003, 102.

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    Anderson reviews several films by Dorothy Arzner, including The Wild Party; Dance, Girl, Dance; and First Comes Courage for a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

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  • Heck-Rabi, Louise. Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1984.

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    In her chapter on Arzner, Heck-Rabi provides one of the most comprehensive discussions of the filmmaker. It covers not only her career but also engages with the body of feminist theory founded on the analysis of Arzner’s films.

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  • Margulies, Lee. “Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” Action 10.2 (March–April 1975): 14–18.

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    A report on the Director’s Guild of America tribute to Arzner, including photos of the event. Notably, it attributes Arzner’s rediscovery to the women’s movement. Robert Wise credits Arzner for fighting for creative control—a continuing issue for directors. Francis Ford Coppola thanks Arzner for encouraging him as a young film director.

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  • Mayer, Sophie. “Queen of Hollywood.” Sight and Sound (March 2009).

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    Written to accompany an Arzner retrospective at the British Film Institute, Mayer gives a short biography and provides brief reviews of Arzner’s films.

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  • Quart, Barbara Koenig. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1988.

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    This is a straightforward auteurist approach to Arzner’s films. Quart sketches Arzner’s career trajectory, connecting the strength of her own determination in Hollywood to that of her female characters and the strong actresses who portrayed them. The book places Arzner in historical context, as the book is a study of past and contemporary women directors. See, in particular, pp. 22–36.

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  • Slide, Anthony. Early Women Directors. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1977.

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    The author provides a brief overview of Arzner’s early career in a collection on women directors of silent film. The chapter consists mostly of still images, many rare, from Arzner’s first films. See pp. 92–101 in particular.

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Lesbian and Gay Film Studies/Queer Theory

As Slide 1999 and Mayne 1991 bring to light, Arzner represents not just a role model of a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field but also another exceptional figure—a butch lesbian in the public eye. While second-wave feminists “discovered” the early woman director in the 1970s and 1980s, the work of lesbian and gay film historians, like Mann 2001 and Doty 1993, began to construct their own histories of influential gays and lesbians in film. While she was one of the only women directors (along with Ida Lupino) working in the studio system, Gaines 1992, Doty 1993, and Wallace 2008 point out she was certainly not alone as a homosexual working in Hollywood, placing Arzner within a community of queer cultural producers. Although many film scholars, including feminist film critics, perpetuated the silence around Arzner’s sexuality, others feminist critics refused to do so, especially Mayne (Mayne 1991), who detected in images of Arzner a butch persona that troubled essentialist claims about her on-screen “female aesthetic.” Slide 1999 and Mann 2001 situate Arzner in a queer community, starting with Arzner’s early apprenticeship with openly bisexual Nazimova, and working on the Rudolf Valentino vehicle, Blood and Sand. Both of these trajectories—working with gay actors (open and closeted) and having affairs with actresses—are evident in the queer histories written about Arzner, including Slide 1999, Mann 2001, and Wallace 2008. Gaines 1992 and Wallace 2008 examine Arzner’s relationships with queer cultural workers, such as costume and set designers. As with Arzner’s centrality to the nascent feminist film theory of the 1970s, Arzner also figures into foundational work in queer theory, exemplified by Mayne’s contribution to the “How Do I Look?” conference in 1989 (published in Mayne 1991). Following Mayne 1991 and Doty 1993, Erni 1996 and Gaines 1992 look to Arzner’s gender performance and female masculinity to theorize queer positivity and queer transgression, respectively. Of course, her biographical status as a lesbian raises controversy around the very issue of the auteur and its validity as an analytical rubric, particularly in light of the poststructuralist critiques of author; the terms and stakes of these debates are outlined in Doty 1993 and Gaines 1992, while other works, like Henderson 1999 and Wallace 2008, take Arzner’s biographical status for granted, turning their attentions to the ways her identity as a lesbian impacted the content of her films.

  • Doty, Alexander. “Whose Text Is It Anyway? Queer Cultures, Queer Auteurs, and Queer Auteurship.” In Making It Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. By Alexander Doty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

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    Doty reclaims gay director George Cukor and lesbian director Arzner for a queer critical agenda. Doty forwards a queer version of authorship through queer readings of films such as Christopher Strong and Dance, Girl, Dance.

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  • Erni, John Nguyet. “Eternal Excess: Toward a Queer Mode of Articulation in Social Theory.” American Literary History 8.3 (Fall 1996): 566–581.

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    In a discussion of Doty’s theoretical model of queer positivity, Erni comments on the way in which Arzner’s queerness was visible within the heteronormative mass culture of Hollywood.

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  • Gaines, Jane. “Dorothy Arzner’s Trousers.” Jump Cut 37 (July 1992): 88–98.

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    A comprehensive scholarly article that presents a radical reading of Arzner’s work by challenging the usual auteurist approaches, which see Arzner as the source of all meaning in her films. Gaines forwards an interpretive position that she identifies as vicarious transgression, identifying in Arzner’s work the queer disruption of heterosexual ideology. Gaines develops a performance theory of collaboration, examining Arzner’s collaboration with male costume designers.

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  • Henderson, Lisa. “Simple Pleasures: Lesbian Community and Go Fish.” Signs 25.1 (Fall 1999): 37–64.

    DOI: 10.1086/495413Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Henderson compares the way desire functions (particularly at a psychoanalytic level) in Arzner’s films as a contrast to the community ethos foregrounded in Go Fish (by Rose Troche [Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1995]).

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  • Mann, William J. Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969. New York: Viking, 2001.

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    A significant work of film history, studying the influence and role of gays and lesbians in Hollywood. Although this covers some of the same material as does Slide’s history, it provides the context of Arzner’s place both within a larger gay and lesbian subculture of early Hollywood and as part of a lesbian network.

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  • Mayne, Judith. “Lesbian Looks: Dorothy Arzner and Female Authorship.” Revised versions of a paper presented at the “How Do I Look?” conference, New York City, 21–22 October 1989. In How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video. Edited by Bad Object-Choices, 103–143. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1991.

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    Mayne’s paper addresses Arzner’s lesbianism, staging an intervention into the heterosexual presumption underlying feminist film theory. Transcripts of discussion with attendees of the conference, including Tom Waugh, B. Ruby Rich, and Teresa de Lauretis follow Mayne’s chapter.

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  • Slide, Anthony. “The Silent Closet.” Film Quarterly 52.4 (Summer 1999): 24–32.

    DOI: 10.1525/fq.1999.52.4.04a00040Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Slide focuses on the silencing of homosexuality in Hollywood’s history, particularly in early cinema. He argues Arzner was one of the few members of Hollywood who outwardly presented her lesbian identity.

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  • Wallace, Lee. “Dorothy Arzner’s Wife: Heterosexual Sets, Homosexual Scenes.” Screen 49.4 (2008): 391–409.

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    Craig’s Wife marked gay actor William Haines’s transition to the less closeted profession of interior designer; he worked with Arzner on the interior set design (uncredited) for the house. Within this context, Wallace produces a queer reading of the film by examining its representation of sexuality and space.

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Feminist Film Theory

With the rise of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a substantial movement to recoup women artists from their invisibility in history. Early feminist writing on Arzner, such as Houston 1994 and Dowd 1973, first worked to reclaim her as an important figure in both women’s history and film history alike. Yet, reclamation projects quickly became more scholarly as a feminist film theory began to establish critical terminology for undertaking textual studies; Houston 1994 and Geller 2003 map this shift from simple recovery project to critical engagement with feminist film criticism, in which Arzner’s films emerged as exemplary texts. The bulk of early feminist writing on Arzner was centered on the way her films orchestrated discourses of sexual difference—in Houston 1994 and Johnston 1988, Arzner’s films represent a critique of the structures of dominant cinema, particularly of the male gaze. It is no coincidence that Arzner is central to the formation of this body of feminist film scholarship, as readings of her films and an interview with the director are included in one of the very first anthologies dedicated to bringing together the body of work constituting the field of feminist film theory, Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology (Kay and Peary 1977). Kaplan 1976 helps to clarify the theoretical underpinnings and intellectual history of feminist film theory in a review of the work of Johnston and Cook in Johnston 1988; Kaplan 1976 traces the origins of this body of thought to the confluence of semiotics, French psychoanalysis, and later Marxism. Mayne 1985 exemplifies the ways in which Arzner’s films lend themselves to the key questions of feminist film theory, such as the now famous interrogation of the male gaze, but Mayne also builds on this to elaborate on the significance of female authorship. This emphasis on the import of female authorship as a critical disruption of dominant cinematic practices is expanded and fleshed out in later work, including Mayne 1990. Geller 2003 historicizes Arzner’s centrality to feminist film theory, and the feminist criticism of her films that it produced, but also suggests the limits of such readings, particularly in terms of their frequent obtuseness to issues of race and sexuality.

  • Dowd, Nancy. “The Woman Film Director through the Years.” Action (July–August 1973).

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    This brief article aims to reclaim women directors from historical invisibility. Dowd discusses Alice Guy, Germaine Dulac, and Arzner as important figures in the history of directors in light of the influence of auteurist approaches to film history.

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  • Geller, Theresa L. “Dorothy Arzner.” Senses of Cinema 26 (April 2003).

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    As part of the online journal’s “Great Director” series, this entry provides a brief biography but primarily focuses on Arzner’s films and their subsequent critical reception. It emphasizes Arzner’s significance to feminist film criticism and the subsequent critical debates. It includes a filmography and discussion of key films.

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  • Houston, Beverle. “Missing in Action: Notes on Dorothy Arzner.” In Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Edited by Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch, 271–279. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

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    Brief but often cited in Arzner scholarhip. This article focuses on Arzner to insist on the need for feminist intervention and rewriting of film history. Houston also examines some of Arzner’s films, proposing that they share similar features, such as narrative interruptions and pointed moments in which spectator identification is broken.

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  • Johnston, Claire. “Dorothy Arzner: Critical Strategies.” In Feminism and Film Theory. Edited by Constance Penley, 36–45. New York: Routledge, 1988.

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    One of the foundational academic works on Arzner. For Johnston, Arzner’s films are progressive, despite their studio origins, because they render the male universe strange, foregrounding the contradictions in patriarchal discourse.

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  • Kaplan, E. Ann. “Aspects of British Feminist Film Theory: A Critical Evaluation of Texts by Claire Johnston and Pam Cook.” Jump Cut 12–13 (1976): 52–55.

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    Kaplan’s review of the work of Johnston and Cook, including Johnston 1988, aims to identify the theoretical and critical underpinnings of what Kaplan terms “British feminist film theory.” The article discusses how structuralism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism influence Cook and Johnston’s writings on filmmakers Arzner and Raoul Walsh.

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  • Kay, Karyn, and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology. New York: Dutton, 1977.

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    One of the very first anthologies of feminist film criticism, includes reprints of the editors’ earlier essay and interview, Kay and Peary 1974 (cited under Biography). Arzner is referenced by several authors; however, E. Ann Kaplan’s “Interview with British Cine-Feminists,” including Arzner scholar Pam Cook, is particularly noteworthy.

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  • Mayne, Judith. “Feminist Film Theory and Criticism.” Signs 11.1 (Fall 1985): 81–100.

    DOI: 10.1086/494201Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mayne works to complicate Laura Mulvey’s notion of the gaze to account for the contradictions, ambivalences, and complexities found in filmic subjectivity. The essay utilizes Arzner’s films to discuss the importance of female authorship in the creation of female spectatorship.

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  • Mayne, Judith. The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema. Theories of Representation and Difference. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

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    A comprehensive textbook, engaging the foundational issues in feminist film theory while providing an encyclopedic overview of contemporary and historical women filmmakers. Mayne provides the necessary foundation for the study of women’s cinema, working through the crucial concepts of feminist film theory, and later discussing Dorothy Arzner at length.

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Critical Studies of Individual Films

With rediscovery of her films and their subsequent restoration and circulation at film festivals and retrospectives, several of Arzner’s titles have received a great deal of critical attention. The interest in her, catalyzed by the foundational scholarship of Peary, Kay, Johnston, Cook, and others, led to close readings of Arzner’s films, at first framed by the structuralist and psychoanalytic approaches of British feminist film theory. Supplemental studies, debates, refutations, and improvements on these theories followed, most notably queer readings of her films that troubled the unspoken heterosexist presumptions of earlier interpretations. In most critical studies of Arzner’s films, certain motifs are spotlighted: communities of women, economic disenfranchisement of independent women, understanding and loyalty between pairs of women, women’s management of professional life or career, the costs and compromises of heterosexual romance for women, and women’s objectification by men and privileged moments of refusing the male gaze in the narrative, often symbolized by a woman on stage. As queer theories of gender performance and fluid definitions of identity and desire have disseminated, masculine wardrobe, non-normative gender behavior, looks, and other intimacies between women have replaced the male gaze as the crucial interpretive question in discussions of Arzner’s films. Rounding out the critical frameworks employed with Arzner’s films, New Historicism has provided historical context for more richly nuanced understandings of her body of work, especially in terms of the discourses of sexuality and gender that shape them. Cultural studies has further helped to expand film critics’ interpretive horizons, bringing new sets of questions to Arzner’s films. Still, there is more room for growth in critical analyses of these films. Release of more of Arzner’s films on DVD (much less Blu-ray) would certainly help to enrich film criticism. More formal analysis is certainly needed to supplement and reinforce the several thematic and historical studies that already exist. Only a few studies compare Arzner with other film directors; as works of a filmmaker closely associated with specific genres, especially the melodrama, it would be a logical next step to place Arzner’s films in dialogue with others akin to it; the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk might afford new insights into her work.

Blood and Sand

Arzner was editor on this film (directed by Fred Niblo, Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, 1922), and also filmed the bullfight scenes shot with Valentino. Gaines 2002 refers to this film as a test case for the problems of the auteurist approach as a mode for interpreting Arzner’s films, because the film was, in fact, directed by Niblo; however, this does not preclude the possibility of locating the “analyzable Arzner” in the film text.

  • Gaines, Jane M. “Of Cabbages and Authors.” In A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra, 88–118. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

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    This chapter by Gaines offers an anti-auteurist approach to the study of Arzner. In a section titled “The Analyzable Arzner,” Gaines maps the limits of the auteurist approach in film studies. Gaines examines Blood and Sand to challenge the presumption of authorship.

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The Bride Wore Red

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (MGM, 1937). While Butler 2004 is critical of Arzner’s film and her direction of Joan Crawford, deriding the film as just another class-crossing weepie, Casella 2009 reads the film as deeply subversive. While Butler suggests that Arzner’s novelty as a woman director provided her with a longer career than her talent alone could carry her, Casella’s feminist reading of Arzner’s oeuvre provides a different rationale for the film standing as one of Arzner’s few flops, implying instead that the film’s critical stance against patriarchal discourses might well account for its tepid reception, turning Crawford into “box office poison,” according to the Independent Film Journal in 1938.

  • Butler, Nicholas. “The Bride Wore Red.” Senses of Cinema 33 (October–December 2004).

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    Butler gives a brief review of Arzner’s film, starring Joan Crawford. It is not a positive review of the film or of the director.

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  • Casella, Donna R. “What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 50.1–2 (Spring and Fall 2009): 235–270.

    DOI: 10.1353/frm.0.0033Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive feminist analysis of the contradictions between the public discourse surrounding Arzner as a female director and the ideological tensions of the films themselves. Although the article addresses several films, it offers one of the very few discussions of The Bride Wore Red, arguing that it represents one of Arzner’s most subversive films.

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Christopher Strong

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Columbia Pictures, 1933). This film has received more critical attention than have most of Arzner’s other films. While many critiques, like Kuersten 2009, Peary 1974, and Shrage 1990, focus on the feminist implications of the characterization of aviatrix Cynthia Darrington (very loosely based on the life of British aviatrix Amy Johnson), Durham 2001 and Kort 1982 pay attention to male characters of the film. Kuersten 2009, Peary 1974, and Shrage 1990 all examine the film’s tensions between career and domesticity, motherhood, and heterosexual romantic love, arguing that the film represents Arzner’s privileging of female desire and critical vision of those patriarchal discourses and social imperatives that thwart it. Suter 1988 deepens this analysis by presenting a close reading of the formal elements of the film to substantiate the author’s theoretical claims concerning the occlusion of feminine discourse.

  • Durham, Carolyn A. “Missing Masculinity or Cherchez L’Homme: Re-Reading Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong.Quarterly Review of Film and Video 18.1 (January 2001): 63–70.

    DOI: 10.1080/10509200109361512Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While other scholars have brushed off Arzner’s assertion that she was more interested in the character of Christopher than of Cynthia, Durham starts from this point, interpreting the film as a critique of masculinity and suggesting that much can be learned through the film’s implicit separation of sex from gender.

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  • Kort, Melissa Sue. “Spectacular Spinelessness: The Men in Dorothy Arzner’s Films.” In Men by Women. Edited by Janet Todd, 189–205. Women & Literature 2. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

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    A discussion of Arzner’s male characters from several films. Although a feminist interpretation is the goal, this article repeats the common misapprehension that attributes Arzner’s frequent masculine attire to a “compromise” the director made to fit into a male world and, at times, condemns Arzner for her “weak” male characterizations. Partial version (odd-numbered pages only) online.

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  • Kuersten, Erich. “Dizzy from the Altitude, Happy to Plummet: Pre-Code Cinema and the Post-Code-Shock Syndrome.” Bright Lights Film Journal 63 (February 2009).

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    This accessible article discusses the shifts in gender representation from pre-Code to post-Code films, providing a discussion of Christopher Strong as a pre-Code critique of “domestic boredom, child worship, and marriage’s so-called sanctity.”

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  • Peary, Gerald. “Dorothy Arzner.” Cinema 34 (1974): 2–9.

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    A discussion of the feminist themes of Christopher Strong, attending to both Arzner’s directorial approach and Katherine Hepburn’s performance to highlight the film’s progressive sexual politics. Peary provides a close reading of the film and its several female characters, arguing for Arzner’s early feminist vision of a woman’s career imperiled by men and romantic love.

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  • Shrage, Laurie. “Feminist Film Aesthetics: A Contextual Approach.” In Special Issue: Feminism and Aesthetics. Edited by Hilda Hein and Carolyn Korsmeyer. Hypatia 5.2 (Summer 1990): 137–148.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.1990.tb00422.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The essay puts forth a contextual approach to film studies as an alternative to the psychoanalytic and semiotic methods that have dominated film criticism. Shrage turns to a reading of Arzner’s film, Christopher Strong, to show the way in which female desire is represented as incongruous with the institutions of marriage and heterosexuality.

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  • Suter, Jacquelin. “Feminine Discourse in Christopher Strong.” In Feminism and Film Theory. Edited by Constance Penley, 89–103. New York: Routledge, 1988.

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    Densely theoretical discussion of the orchestration of patriarchal and feminine discourses in Arzner’s film. Citing the work of Stephen Heath, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, Suter presents an intellectually rigorous feminist and poststructuralist analysis of the film. First published in Camera Obscura 1.2 (1979): 135–150.

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Craig’s Wife

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Columbia, 1936). One of Arzner’s personal favorites, and a box office success. Representing a story of a wealthy woman (Rosalind Russell) who dismisses the romantic idealism associated with marriage, contesting it with an explicit statement on women’s economic and social limitations, Danforth 2010 and Lesage 1982 laud Arzner’s adaptation of Walter Kelly’s play for paring down the misogynist dialogue and emphasizing Harriet’s motivation. Harriet’s relation to the domestic household is an organizing theme examined by Basinger 1993 and Bruno 2003, and is put into historical context by McHugh 1994.

  • Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930–1960. New York: Knopf, 1993.

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    Basinger provides a brief discussion of Craig’s Wife as one of many examples of how the women’s melodrama focuses on the woman’s world, particularly that of the home. See pp. 245–248.

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  • Bruno, Giuliana. “Fashions of Living.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 20.3 (2003): 167–176.

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    An erudite, interdisciplinary piece of scholarship in feminist architectural studies. It includes a section, “Traveling Domestic: The House Wife,” which reads the Craig house itself as a character in the film.

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  • Danforth, Emily M. “Craig’s Wife.Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27.5 (2010): 378–379.

    DOI: 10.1080/10509208.2010.494558Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In an issue organized as a collective plea to have certain movies made available on DVD, it is notable that three different reviews focus on Arzner films. Danforth’s review makes the case for Craig’s Wife, noting its uniquely complex secondary characters, and its overarching critique of the limited economic options for women historically.

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  • Lesage, Julia. “The Hegemonic Female Fantasy in An Unmarried Woman and Craig’s Wife.Film Reader 5 (1982): 83–94.

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    Lesage points out some of the differences between George Kelly’s play—a barely masked misgoynist screed against women’s emancipation—and Arzner’s film, which militates against the play’s condemnation of Harriet. Focusing on story more than the visual style, Arzner is lauded for directing the film in a manner opposed to the negative hegemonic female fantasy.

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  • McHugh, Kathleen A. “Housekeeping in Hollywood: The Case of Craig’s Wife.Screen 35.2 (1994): 123–135.

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    An interpretation of the film as reflecting changing domestic roles in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. McHugh argues that Harriet’s unemotional discourse about marriage is opposed to a more contemporary emphasis on affective attachment symbolizing wives’ changing responsibilities from practical household labor to more affective and emotional work.

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Dance, Girl, Dance

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (RKO, 1940). Arzner’s only nominative musical, Dance, Girl, Dance is primarily focused on two women dancers, Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball); Kay and Peary 1973 and von Hoff 2006 foreground the role of dance, and the competing styles of dance—burlesque, ballet, and contemporary—represented in the film. The genre of musical is also a focus of much scholarship; for Cole 2004, the musical film is an example of “high camp,” while for McLean 1993, the musical form allows for a critical rupture of the narrative. Most, if not all, of the scholarship on the film is feminist to a greater or lesser degree, focusing on the central issue of the male gaze, though Chell 1991 does so to argue that Arzner may not have been as critical of the male gaze as others contend. Kay and Peary 1973 first drew attention to the pivotal scene in the film in which Judy confronts the audience (not all men, but mostly), shaming them for their voyeurism. The feminist analysis of this scene has since been deepened and expanded into complex arguments about the cinematic apparatus and its construction of gender, exemplified by the work of Fischer 1989, which is referenced in both Grant 2001 and McLean 1993. Indeed, Grant rehearses the discussion of Arzner’s film by several scholars to highlight the debates and stakes of auteur theory for feminist film studies.

  • Chell, Samuel L. “Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl, Dance: Engendering the Male Gaze.” In Special Issue: Feminist Film Theory/Criticism. Edited by Janine Marchessault and Susan Morrison. CineAction 24–25 (Summer–Fall 1991): 75–79.

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    Chell claims that Arzner’s film represents the male gaze as complex, resisting reductive interpretation; yet, while the article is overshadowed by striking images of butches gazing intensely at femme women (Arzner at an actress, Maria Ospenskaya at Maureen O’Hara), the content of the article never acknowledges these gazes. The author, instead, recoups the gaze in terms of the male characters.

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  • Cole, Louise. “Dance Girl, Dance.” Senses of Cinema 33 (2004).

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    A brief review of Arzner’s film. Cole suggests the film might be understood as “high camp” but also contextualizes it in terms of other musicals of the era.

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  • Fischer, Lucy. Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

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    In this extensive discussion of a women’s film tradition—one that constitutes a form of “counter-cinema”—Fischer includes a discussion of Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance in her chapter “Shall We Dance? Woman and the Musical.” Informed by psychoanalytic theory, Fischer argues that Arzner uses the musical to refuse the male gaze and its fetishization of the woman. See pp. 148–154.

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  • Grant, Catherine. “Secret Agents: Feminist Theories of Women’s Film Authorship.” Feminist Theory 2.1 (April 2001): 113–130.

    DOI: 10.1177/14647000122229325Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A thorough overview of the debates surrounding auteur theory in critical film studies. This piece sketches out the debates concerning film authorship in terms of how they informed feminist film criticism. Notably, Grant covers nearly all of the key scholars of Arzner, rehearsing their discussions of Dance, Girl, Dance, which they presented in their original works.

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  • Kay, Karyn, and Gerald Peary. “Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance.” Velvet Light Trap 10 (Fall 1973): 26–31.

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    Reviews Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance at the height of its circulation at women’s film festivals. A lengthy discussion, describing the film as a woman’s coming-of-age story, attending to the differences between the two female lead characters (Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball). Also addresses the film’s representation of dance—burlesque, contemporary, and classical ballet.

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  • McLean, Adrienne L. “‘It’s Only That I Do What I Love and Love What I Do’: ‘Film Noir’ and the Musical Woman.” Cinema Journal 33.1 (Fall 1993): 3–16.

    DOI: 10.2307/1225631Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McLean explores how the “musical woman” or the singing woman in film noirs functions as a narrative rupture. In the article, McLean incorporates Lucy Fisher’s reading of Dance, Girl, Dance, as it presents a refusal of women’s performance, notably musical, for the voyeuristic male gaze.

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  • von Hoff, Dagmar. “From Dance to Film: The Cinematic Art of Leni Riefenstahl and Dorothy Arzner.” In Visual Culture in Twentieth-Century Germany: Text as Spectacle. Edited by Gail Finney, 41–51. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

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    Discusses the two filmmakers in very specific terms of the influence of dance on their films and the role of dance within their differing films to question the conventions of the gaze in cinema. The chapter presents an evocative comparative reading of Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light and Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance.

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First Comes Courage

Directed by Dorothy Arzner, uncredited, and Charles Vidor (Columbia, 1943). Arzner’s last film as a feature-length director (and one she didn’t finish), First Comes Courage has received less critical attention than the other films have, in part because of the shared directorial credit (with Charles Vidor). Haskell 1975 discusses the film in terms of a theme many recognize in Arzner’s work—the positive representation of women’s community, particularly as an alternative to the heterosexual and patriarchal imperatives of romance and motherhood. Carson 2010, more recently, examines the film’s plotline concerning the story of a woman spy (Merle Oberon) as an unexpected role to be taken up by a woman; she compares the film to the more successful spy romance film Casablanca.

  • Carson, Diane. “First Comes Courage.Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27.5 (2010): 375–377.

    DOI: 10.1080/10509208.2010.494556Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author draws attention to the film’s gender reversals and unexpected focus on a woman as heroic spy, willing to sacrifice love for country. Comparing Arzner’s film to Casablanca, which came out the same year, makes the exceptionality of a strong, intelligent female lead in this genre of film all the more apparent.

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  • Haskell, Molly. “Women in Pairs.” The Village Voice, 28 April 1975, 77–78.

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    Haskell discusses the gender expectations for women of domesticity, romance, and motherhood and finds alternatives in the films of Arzner, particularly Dance, Girl, Dance and First Comes Courage. Arzner’s female pairs first appear as oppositional, antagonistic roles for women; however, because the women end up friends, the films ultimately forward positive images of women’s community.

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Merrily We Go to Hell

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Paramount, 1932). Only recently released on a DVD collection of pre-Code films, this lesser-known entry in Arzner’s oeuvre deals with social-problem issues as an early women’s melodrama. Blum 2009 describes the film as a prescient examination of a marriage undone by alcohol addiction and cheating, topics given more leeway in the pre-Code era. Cook 1988 provides a much more scholarly discussion of the film, providing a structuralist analysis of the narrative in terms of the oppositions and parallels represented in the film in order to demonstrate its interrogation and ultimate refusal of male ideology.

  • Blum, Sarahjane. “The Decade after The Decade Before: Merrily We Go to Hell.” The Brooklyn Rail (June 2009).

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    A review of Arzner’s film on the occasion of its release in The Forbidden Hollywood DVD series from Universal (which acquired Paramount Pictures’ back catalogue). Blum’s review of the film credits it for its adult approach to alcoholism and philandering.

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  • Cook, Pam. “Approaching the Work of Dorothy Arzner.” In Feminism and Film Theory. Edited by Constance Penley, 46–56. New York: Routledge, 1988.

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    Among the groundbreaking essays on Arzner, this article examines the critique of patriarchal ideology in Dance, Girl, Dance and the lesser-known Merrily We Go to Hell. Cook undertakes a structuralist reading of the film, analyzing its oppositions and narrative reversals. Both films present a series of tableaux, and narrative interruptions in the form of gags and pregnant moments.

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Nana

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1934). This vehicle for Anna Sten, assigned to Arzner because of her repuation for being a star-maker, was an adaptation of the novel by Emile Zola. Cousins 1995 addresses the film as an adaptation, suggesting that the Production Code interfered with the more critical content of the original material in its translation to the screen; however, the work nonetheless acknowledges the feminist implications of the film version. Curtis 1996 provides very different insights about the film in an interview with actress Mae Clark, who provides brief anecdotes about the making of the film and working with a woman director.

  • Cousins, Russell. “Sanitizing Zola: Dorothy Arzner’s Problematic Nana.” Literature Film Quarterly 23.3 (1995): 209–215.

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    Deals with the film adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel. Despite the bowdlerization of Zola’s naturalist novel due to the stridency of the Production Code, Cousins credits Arzner for directing the film in a way that subverted patriarchal ideology within the narrative of the film.

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  • Curtis, James. Featured Player: An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clark. Filmmaker series 49. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996.

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    This is an extensive interview with actress Mae Clark, who played Satin in Arzner’s film. In the interview, Clark speaks of working with Arzner as a woman director and the studio’s failed attempt to transform Anna Sten into a star in this vehicle for her.

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The Wild Party

Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, 1929). As Kenly 1987 notes, this is a film set at a college campus, part of cycle of films to employ this setting, focusing on the experiences of young women coeds. Cruver 2004 looks at the various elements that make the film historically significant, particularly as Clara Bow’s first talking picture. However, both Cruver 2004 and Davis 2009 attend to the film’s portrayal of women’s intimate relationships and the problematization of heterosexual relationships as central to women’s lives.

  • Cruver, Kendahl. “The Wild Party.” Senses of Cinema 33 (2004).

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    This entry strikes a balance between noting the historical relevance of the film—Clara Bow’s first talking picture, Arzner’s clever rigging of the first boom mike, Arzner’s use of close-up to offset Bow’s silent film gesturality, etc.—while providing a thoughtful discussion of the film’s narrative and characterization, especially its portrayal of women’s close friendship.

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  • Davis, Nick. “The Wild Party (1929).” In Fifty Key American Films. Edited by Sabine Haeni and John White, 19–24. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    A close, albeit brief reading of the film, noting the usual themes of problematic heterosexual unions and Arzner’s proclivity for showing intimate friendships between women. However, Davis also notes Arzner’s style in the film as straddling formal elements of silent and sound cinema.

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  • Kenly, William S. “Paramount: The Early Sound Years.” MoMA 44 (1987): 6–7.

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    Kenly briefly references Arzner’s The Wild Party as starting a cycle of films set on college campuses.

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Creative Works

Arzner has been a figure of fascination for academics and historians; this is evident not only in published scholarship but also film documentaries. Beavan 1994 is a short documentary about Arzner for the BBC, while others include Arzner in broader documentaries addressing early women filmmakers, particularly those made to accompany written histories, such as Acker 1993 and Slide and Goodman 1993. However, Arzner also appears in contemporary creative works. Images of Arzner and her films, particularly Christopher Strong, are reproduced artworks aimed at reclaiming images of women as objects (and subjects) of lesbian desire, as in Corinne 1984, which includes a photo collage, and the inventive postmodern mockumentary of Cottis and Brooke 1990. The queer desire that Arzner represents to many is reimagined and reinterpreted by queer artists. Freeman 1998 offers an award-winning screenplay envisioning Arzner’s circle of women in 1930s Hollywood. Vaughan 2000 is a play that envisions Arzner’s last days as a studio director, on the set of her film First Comes Courage, in an attempt to envision reasons for the director’s exit from Hollywood and to connect it to homophobia and the silencing of lesbian and gay desire in film history.

  • Acker, Ally, dir. Reel Women Archive Film Series: Filmmakers on Film. DVD. Roslyn Heights, NY: Reel Women Media, 1993.

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    Ten-part film documentary series, based on the book Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1993). Using rare clips and interviews, Acker recounts a groundbreaking herstory of Hollywood directors, screenwriters, producers, and editors, including Dorothy Arzner.

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  • Beavan, Clare, dir. Dorothy Arzner: A Profile. London: British Broadcasting Corp., 1994.

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    A documentary about Arzner, including an interview with Pam Cook.

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  • Corinne, Tee. Women Who Loved Women. San Francisco: Pearlchild, 1984.

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    A collection of photos of women, including two of Dorothy Arzner. Judith Mayne discusses these images at the end of Mayne 1994 (cited under Biography).

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  • Cottis, Jane, and Kaucyila Brooke, dir. Dry Kisses Only. VHS. New York: Women Make Movies, 1990.

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    An experimental pastiche of cultural images, including remastered clips from Christopher Strong, with commentary by Theory Woman. Challenges hetero bias in feminist film theory.

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  • Freeman, Marilyn. Sophisticated: The Hollywood Story of Miss Dorothy Arzner. Olympia, WA: Wovie, 1998.

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    Although Rose Troche has gone on record as working on a screenplay about Arzner, experimental filmmaker, digital media artist, and award-winning independent filmmaker Marilyn Freeman has already completed an award-winning feature-length screenplay that evokes the inner circle of women—their intrigues and their romances—in Hollywood in the 1930s.

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  • Slide, Anthony, and Jeffrey Goodman, dir. The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors. VHS. Santa Monica, CA: Direct Cinema, 1993.

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    Discusses early women filmmakers, like Arzner, as a significant presence in the early days of Hollywood. Utilizes film clips, rare photos, and interviews with survivors of the era.

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  • Vaughan, R. M. Camera, Woman: A Play in Two Parts. Toronto: Coach House, 2000.

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    This is a fictionalization of Arzner’s final days as a Hollywood film director. It attempts to imagine the reasons why Arzner might have left Hollywood by suggesting that she wanted to film an actual romantic kiss between two women in her last film. The epilogue of the play presents a fictionalized version of the interview conducted by feminist film scholar Pam Cook with Arzner at the age of seventy-seven.

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LAST MODIFIED: 10/28/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0025

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