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Essential Arzner

Last Saturday at midnight I had the pleasure of presenting Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance as part of the series “Heroine Addicts,” Facets Multimedia’s latest edition of Night School. I was keen on showing and discussing this particular film because, in spite of the fact that Arzner has developed something of a cult following in feminist circles (she was one of the few female directors, and by far the most prolific, to work in Hollywood in the early sound era), I still don’t feel she has received her full due for being the great and original filmmaker that she was.

Below is the text of a handout I gave to the Night School attendees, a list of what I consider essential Dorothy Arzner films. At some point I will also try to convert my lecture notes into a proper essay on Dance, Girl, Dance.

The Essential Dorothy Arzner

The Wild Party (Paramount, 1929)

Notable as Clara Bow’s first talkie, a sexually suggestive pre-Code melodrama and the film in which the “boom mic” was first employed (Arzner rigged a microphone to a fishing pole). The plot has something to do with wild college girl Bow falling in love with her straight-laced professor (Fredric March) but Arzner’s real interest clearly lies in the scenes of scantily clad young women hanging out together in their all-girl dorm rooms. The cinematography is far more fluid than in most early talkies.

Christopher Strong (RKO, 1933)

Katherine Hepburn’s first starring role is that of a typically independent, strong-willed and free-spirited character, in this case a pioneering female aviator who embarks on a doomed affair with a married man. The highlights of this film are seeing Hepburn dressed up in an outrageous grasshopper costume(!) and a truly shocking climax that has to be seen to be believed.

Craig’s Wife (Columbia, 1936)

The film that made Rosalind Russell a star and it’s easy to see why; she plays the title character in a tour-de-force performance as a cold, manipulative woman who marries for money but inadvertently brings about her own ruin through her thirst for power and the desire to control everyone around her. If you only see one Arzner film aside from Dance, Girl, Dance, this haunting melodrama should be it.

The Bride Wore Red (MGM, 1937)

Joan Crawford has one of her best early roles in this exotic fantasy, a kind of fairy tale for adults set in Italy. Wealthy George Zucco tests his theory that the circumstances of one’s birth are all that distinguish the rich from the poor by disguising a working class nightclub singer (Crawford) as a countess and sending her to a high-class resort for two weeks. Once there, she finds herself romanced by aristocrat Robert Young and mailman Franchot Tone. The outcome seems preordained from the beginning but the journey there is no less fun because of it.

Dance, Girl, Dance (RKO, 1940)

Decades before Black Swan, Arzner’s masterpiece tells a story of rival dancers, pitting burlesque queen Lucille Ball as the older “vamp” character against innocent ingenue Maureen O’Hara as her ballerina “stooge” co-star. What will happen when these former friends both fall for suave leading man Louis Hayward? Feminist critics love this film for the way Arzner subverts the traditional “male gaze” of the director. Everyone else loves it for the juicy performances and irresistible climactic catfight. Meow!

Inspired by a similar blog post by “Classic Movie Man” Stephen Reginald (who presented Johnny Belinda at Facets a few weeks ago), here is a picture I took of the Facets Night School audience just before the Dance, Girl, Dance screening. As you can see, it was all very civilized!

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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