A League Of Her Own | A closer look at the films of Dorothy Arzner

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This week, Sarah Cook takes a deeper look at the films of Dorothy Arzner – which happen to the playing at the BFI soon!

BFI Southbank is the bastion of producing incredible season that celebrates our film history. Often, I’ve spoken about its incredible work in bringing filmmakers from the annuls of time and placing them back onto the big screen – especially during its big Film on Film festival (pretty please, bring it back this year, BFI.)

However, I’m absolutely thrilled that this February, the BFI is screening A League of Her Own – an entire season dedicated to Dorothy Arzner.

Now, if you have been following my column for a while, you’ll know that I’ve written extensively about Arzner and her work; how the only female film director in Pre-Code Hollywood navigated the industry while also imbuing her movies with themes of feminism and humanity. Across the decades in which she worked, Arzner produced films such as the darkly comic Merrily We Go To Hell (1931), the fierce Dance, Girl, Dance (1940,) the quippy The Wild Party (1929), in which Arzner invented the boom-mic, and the hysterical Working Girls (1931).

To celebrate the season, I’m going to be taking a look at some lesser-known films from Arzner’s repertoire, though I’d most definitely check out her entire catalogue. 

Look, I’m not going to add it to the list because I have gone over the film repeatedly, in many ways, and I don’t wish to bore you by frothing at the mouth to speak about it. But, if you’re looking for a brilliant romance to watch in February, then Honor Among Lovers (1931), featuring Fredric March and Claudette Colbert, is an absolute must.

Honourable Mention: Rosalind Russell stars in her breakout film in drama film Craig’s Wife (1936). The incredible Joan Crawford is a betrothed woman caught between men in Arzner’s enjoyable rom-com The Bride Wore Red (1937). There is also Anybody’s Woman (1930), about a man who marries a chorus girl in a drunken haze, but truthfully, it is not one of Arzner’s best works.

Blood & Sand (1922)

Before Dorothy Arzner was a big film director, she was a celebrated editor. Here she worked on Fred Niblo’s adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s novel of the same name (originally titled Sangre y arena in Spanish.)  This is the second cinematic depiction of Ibáñez work and stars Rudolph Valentino as Juan Gallardo, a young village boy who dreams of being a matador, but fame takes him away from his childhood sweetheart and into the clutches of a seductive widow.

Utilising stock footage of bullfights, and piecing them together with stunning shots of Valentino, Arzner garnered a hefty reputation with Paramount. The story would also be later adapted in 1944 in gorgeous technicolor by director Rouben Mamoulian (which BFI also played last year on Nitrate!) 

Playing Friday 2nd February & Saturday 10th February

Sarah And Son (1930)

The second of Arzner’s collaborations with actor Fredric March. Based on a novel by Tomothy Shea, it stars Ruth Chatterton as the titular character. Here she plays an immigrant with lofty ambitions to be an entertainer alongside her husband Jim. However, when they are not successful, an embittered Jim sells their son to the wealthy family the Ashmores, much to Sarah’s disgust. Sarah spends years trying to get her son back, with the help of attorney Howard Vanning.

Helping score an Academy Award nomination for Chatterton, Arzner’s work here about the predatory rich in this strong, if albeit, a bit overtly melodramatic piece. The film was written by the incredible Zoe Akins, who wrote many of Arzner’s work including Anybody’s Woman, Working Girls, and Christopher Strong.

Playing Sunday 4th February & Friday 9th February

Christopher Strong (1933)

If I were to tell you that there was a film out there where Katharine Hepburn dressed as a silk, shimmering mother, then I would expect to have you running out to see such a sight on the big screen.

But of course, you do need to know more. Christopher Strong is an adaptation of Gilbert Frankau’s novel which was released a year before (Hollywood works quickly.) The titular character, played by Colin Clive, is a faithful man until he meets aviator Lady Cynthia Darrington, who has never had a love affair until she meets him. The two conduct an illicit and heart-breaking relationship.

Hepburn is certainly a treat in this role as a woman torn by her love for a married man and, indeed, the script and shrewd direction makes you empathise with all characters here. That takes a lot of skill and it is a terrifically engrossing film. Rumour has it that Arzner and Hepburn had relations though it was never confirmed.

Playing Saturday 10th February

Nana (1934)

Emile Zola’s novel about the rise of a young Parisian from sex worker into theatre star is a brilliant showcase of how Arzner shines when tackling the issues faced by women.

Taking over the direction from George Fitzmaurice, Nana stars Anna Sten, Lionel Atwill, and Phillips Holmes, an actor who I have yet to see in a happy role. It revolves around the titular character and her “ascension” from soliciting to the stage. 

Sten is clearly pushed forward here as a future Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich and whilst, I don’t believe she ever had to chops to ascend to the heights those women did, I would argue that Nana is perhaps her best work. Only because Arzner manages to coax something a bit more daring from the actress, traipsing through her love affairs with solemnness and spark.

Nana works best when it dares to speak about sex work and the impact of men on a woman’s life.  

Screening Monday 12th February and Thursday 22nd February

First Comes Courage (1943)

Dorothy Arzner’s final film and, my word, what an absolute way to say goodbye to Hollywood. Arzner’s work already had gone through a whole host of genres including dramas, historical epics, and comedies. Yet some of her finest work is on this incredible film.

Starring the stunning Merle Oberon and the brilliant Brian Aherne, First Comes Courage revolves around a Norwegian resistant fighter who is married to a Nazi commandant. With the Allies champing at the bit to get their mitts on him, they send in an assassin who happens to be an old flame.

An extremely anti-war and anti-fascist movie that is so incredible engrossing with some absolute belting performances from our lead. And such an amazing female character to root for.

Though, Dorothy Arzner was sick during production and was unfortunately replaced by King Vidor, this would be the last film she ever worked on.

Screening Sunday 25th February and Thursday 29th February

A League of Her Own: The Cinema of Dorothy Arzner screens at BFI Southbank across February. 

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