In her first talkie, Dorothy Arzner’s exuberant, proto-sapphic college romp The Wild Party (1929), Clara Bow bounces on screen with her very first line: “Just a working girl.” Women’s work—whether as aviatrix, burlesque queen, steely housewife, or secretary—drives Arzner’s films, which themselves were showcases for the star-making labors of Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball, in addition to Bow. Arzner herself, as the only female director in the Hollywood studio system during the late ’20s and ’30s, was certainly not averse to toil. Iconic for her dapper butch look and slicked-back hair, she started as a typist at Paramount, graduated to script girl (working on such projects as erstwhile lover Alla Nazimova’s Stronger Than Death ) and then editor on films such as Blood and Sand (1922), finally making her directorial debut in 1927 with Fashions for Women (not included in the series). Helming her last film in 1943, the World War II espionage drama First Comes Courage, Arzner made a total of 18 movies before retiring.
Viewing Arzner’s work in MOMA’s near complete retro, one quickly detects her sly intervention in films that appear at first as little more than conventional comedies and melodramas. Marriage and its discontents—and the hazards and dissatisfactions of courtship in general—figure prominently in Arzner’s tales of determined women. Men are often superfluous, presented as no-good drunks or coddled, spineless members of the upper class. Aspiring singer Ruth Chatterton’s husband (Fuller Mellish Jr.) in Sarah and Son (1930) spends his boozy days hectoring his wife and nagging her for attention, and then sells their only child to a rich couple. A few notches up on the socio-economic scale, Fredric March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) incorrigibly lushes and two-times, prompting his once adoring wife (Sylvia Sidney) to do some stepping-out of her own. As record-breaking pilot Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong (1933), Hepburn swaggers magnificently in jodhpurs—and, in a spectacular moment, in a lamé moth costume. Her sartorial splendor is merely one aspect of her stalwart nature, which contrasts greatly with the hand-wringing of the titular member of Parliament (Colin Clive) with whom she’s having an adulterous affair. Crawford’s gritty café singer masquerading as a member of the leisure class in The Bride Wore Red (1937) never finds an equal in her two milquetoasty suitors, wealthy playboy Robert Young and humble postman Franchot Tone. Played to frosty perfection by Rosalind Russell, even cinema’s most vilified homemaker, Harriet Craig, seduces in Craig’s Wife (1936; remade in 1950 as Harriet Craig with Crawford); the viewer secretly cheers her ruthless manipulation of her pushover spouse (John Boles).
Yet for all the pleasures of watching Arzner’s lone female protagonists, her richest films are those that explore the camaraderie—and fissures—of women in groups. Working Girls (1931) traces the aspirations of small-town sisters Jane and May Thorpe (Judith Wood and Dorothy Hall), who take up residence in a boardinghouse for women in New York. These pink-collar laborers share an easy, often flirty relationship with each other, spontaneously cranking up the phonograph and dancing cheek to cheek. Sisterhood is even more powerful among the jazz babies at single-sex Winston College in The Wild Party, which also features plenty of dancing daughters—and shades of lavender. Bow, at her dishiest as popularity queen Stella, may be in love with anthropology professor Fredric March, but her heart really belongs to her equally smitten, bookish roommate, Helen (Shirley O’Hara). Even when distaff ties are less than harmonious, as in the rivalry between salty Hoboken hoofer Bubbles (Ball) and virtuous balletomane Judy (Maureen O’Hara) in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Arzner never loses sight of the important sacrifices—and necessary compromises—women make in pursuit of artistic careers. But no matter their profession, Arzner’s working girls always occupy center stage.