Monday, November 25, 2013

Dorothy Arzner: Looking Back

Dorothy Arzner was one of the few women to establish themselves as a director in the 1920s and 30s. She began her career in Hollywood as a typist, and within three years had progressed to screenwriter. It was her skill as an editor that earned her spot as a director. In Blood and Sand (1922), she saved Paramount Pictures thousands of dollars by seamlessly integrating stock footage with the original material. James Cruze, a director at Paramount, was impressed by this, and the two worked together on a number of films. Despite the quantity and quality of her work, becoming a director was not easy for Arzner. It was the product of an ultimatum; either Arzner was be director, or she would go to work for Paramount’s rival, Columbia.

Paramount agreed, and Arzner's first film, Fashions for Women (1927) was a success. In the following years, she was at the forefront of film technology. She directed Paramount’s first ‘talkie’ (a non-silent film), The Wild Party in 1929. In doing so, she created the first boom mike by rigging a microphone to a fishing rod. Aside from her contributions to sound technology, she introduced lesbian themes and portrayed a side of the lives of women that could not be shown in the days of the Hayes Code. (Geller)

Arzner directed a total of seventeen films between the years 1927 and 1943. One of the best remembered is Dance, Girl, Dance, which premiered in 1940. Aside from launching the career of Lucille Ball, this film is remembered for its deliberate, and poignant, refutation of what would be called ‘the male gaze.’ The main character of the film, Judy O’Brien, is heckled loudly while she performs. At first, she is flustered, and then, she is furious. She lashes out at the crowd, shaming them for their manners and describing how they look to her. “What’s it for?” she asks. “So's you can go home after the show’s over and strut before your wives and sweethearts, and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you just like we do.”

 As in the film, this scene has largely been met with applause from critics, who largely see this scene as a classic example of women turning the gaze of the apparatus back upon the man. However, some things about this scene undermine this view. While Judith Mayne recognizes that “the effect is stunning,” she also recognizes that the audience is “predominantly male” – Judy is speaking to and looking at women as well. Mayne goes on to comment on Arzner’s role in this effect. Another important aspect of this film lies in the relationship between Judy and her dance teacher, Madame Basilova. A "queer interpretation" of this film views their relationship as akin to that of Arzner and her partner, choreographer Marion Morgan (Geller). Perhaps in the looks the two characters exchange we catch a glimpse of a lesbian gaze. 

As the director, the author, of the film, it seems that these particular contributions to feminist film should be attributed to Arzner. Mayne, drawing on the work of Roland Barthes, argues that the centrality of the author is a myth, and its perpetuation “virtually ignores the major ways in which women have been involved in the cinema: as actresses, as screenplay writers, as editors and as cutters” (39). The debate over the importance, or even existence, of the author is in this instance, and in my opinion, largely moot.  Arzner’s contribution to cinema as an early female director and author cannot, and should not, be minimized. The scene discussed above, as well as the relationship between Judy and her dance teacher, come from Arzner’s personal experience, and deliberately contradict the patriarchal constraints of Hollywood. Arzner’s films simply could not have been made by anyone else.

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

Mayne, Judith. "The Woman at the Keyhole: Women's Cinema and Feminist Criticism." New German Critique 23 (1981): 27-43. Print.

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