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  • What Women Want:The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women
  • Donna R. Casella (bio)

In 1919, a then-unknown Dorothy Arzner was strolling through the various departments at Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) looking for that one aspect of the film industry that would pique her interest. She happened upon the set of Cecil B. DeMille. She studied his directing for a while, later noting what she learned: "I remember making the observation, 'if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do. In fact, he was the Whole Works.'"1 Arzner did get a job at Famous Players that year, but not as a director. She spent seven years typing scripts, holding scripts, and editing films at Famous Players and other studios before her first directorial job.2 Arzner got her break in 1927 when B. P. Schulberg heard she planned to leave to direct at Columbia. He offered her a "future" job directing. She turned him down, adding "Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an 'A' picture. I'd rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than do a 'B' picture for Paramount."3 He handed her a copy of the play The Best Dressed Woman in Paris and told her to write the script and be on the set in two weeks.4 The result was Fashions for Women (1927), a social comedy about a cigarette girl, Lulu, who falls in love with a count while finding success as a fashion model; Lulu eventually gets her man.5

Fashions for Women was the first in a long line of Arzner films that satisfied the studio demand for the ever-popular women's picture: comedies, dramas, and melodramas focusing on love, courtship, and marriage. Hollywood's only woman director to make the transition from silent to sound,6 Arzner directed sixteen such feature films between 1927 and 1943.7 This female-centered genre, like its literary ancestor—popular women's fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—was a complex one that both [End Page 235] affirmed societal roles for women while exploring women's struggles to meet those roles. Jeanine Basinger, in her study of women's pictures from 1930 to 1960, articulates the paradox at the heart of the women's picture: "Everything it endorses, it undermines. . . . These are films that tell the truth, but only because they are about the unhappiness of women. They'll tell all the lies in the world to make that one point clear."8 Basinger and others have argued that Arzner's films, and the genre as a whole, present the problems women face in meeting these assumed roles; some assert that Arzner challenges the patriarchy that maintains these presumptions, even suggesting that Arzner finds an alternative in the bonds formed between women. This study argues that Arzner goes further: she pushes the limits of the women's picture by sharply criticizing the social pressures at the heart of the genre that damage both heterosexual liaisons and those between women. Furthermore, it is my contention that Arzner's criticisms went unchallenged because her films flourished inside a very complex ideological climate. For one, she made women's pictures at a time when gender norms, the narrative center of such films, were under scrutiny. Despite the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women political rights, the three decades that followed—the period covering Arzner's filmmaking—witnessed a strain in, not a loosening of, those gender roles.9 Arzner's films reflected that strain. In addition, Arzner and her films participated in the genre's larger event—the marketing and reception of filmmaker and film. Publicity material before distribution and media coverage after hailed Arzner as an expert on the affairs of women. According to studio and media, Arzner made women's pictures that affirmed love, marriage, and motherhood as the primary goals in a woman's life. Her public image and that of her cinematic women, then, diverted attention away from her films' inherent criticisms.

Arzner challenged the...