Let’s go looking for hidden gems.
But the real thrill in watching and writing about old films is finding delight in a film you’ve never (or only vaguely) heard of. There can only be so many films in the classics cannon, and a lot of great stuff gets left on the cutting room floor, waiting to be rediscovered. In the course of this project, I’ve discovered In Name Only (Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in a melodrama instead of a screwball comedy), The Affairs of Susan (Joan Fontaine as a woman who reinvents herself to match the personality of her lovers), East Side West Side (Barbara Stanwyck at her silent-suffering best), and Sunrise (perhaps some will take issue with my calling a 4-time Oscar winner a hidden gem, but surely a silent film qualifies in 2022).
But rather than casting about on YouTube (a treasure trove of forgotten early films) at random, we’re going to spend the next few weeks exploring the films of Dorothy Arzner, the only female director of the 1930’s.
Many women worked behind the camera on films in the silent era—as directors, editors, and scriptwriters. Hollywood studios were eager to hire women to add respectability to their young and wild business populated with unsavory characters.
The formidable Alice Guy-Blaché was the first woman to direct. She started her career in her birth country France before moving to the United States. In 1910, she founded Solax Studios in New York with her husband, which became the largest film studio in America before Hollywood came along. For many years, she was the only woman director, and it is believed that she directed and produced over 700 films in her 25 year career.
Lois Weber was probably the first—and certainly the most influential—female Hollywood director. The Pittsburgh-born woman directed films for Carl Laemmle in the early days of Universal Studios where she was well-respected and known for making quality films within budget. She influenced many future directors, and John Ford began his career as a prop boy for Weber.
A few other female directors followed, but like so many actors and actresses, none survived the transition to sound.
Except Dorothy Arzner.
Arzner’s career in Hollywood began in 1919 when she took a job as a typist at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures in 1930. She fell into the job after a foray into medical school that convinced her she didn’t want to be a doctor.
She worked her way up and eventually distinguished herself as a film cutter and editor, before getting her first chance to direct in 1927.
She directed 17 films from 1927-1943. The titles are unfamiliar to those who aren’t film buffs, at least one is only available in archival prints, and the lot garnered a single Oscar nomination for Ruth Chatterton’s acting in Sarah and Son (1930).
But Arzner was the lone woman in a man’s world, starting her career in the pre-code era, before strict rules dictated the themes and stories that could be covered in Hollywood films. She directed Frederic March, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn at the beginnings of their auspicious careers.
A perfect place to go digging for buried treasure.
Let’s start with Honor Among Lovers (1931), the second onscreen pairing of Claudette Colbert and Fredric March.
Typical of the pre-code films, Honor Among Lovers begins with a scandalous proposition. Business magnate Jerry Stafford (March) has a wonderful working relationship with his secretary Julia Traynor (Colbert). She’s efficient, accurate, and anticipates his every need.
Any fool can see they’re in love with one another.
Jerry asks her to accompany him on a month’s long cruise.
“As your secretary?” she asks.
Not as his secretary.
But also not as his wife, as Jerry insists he’s destined for bachelorhood.
Julia is so tempted to accept his offer that she rushes into the marriage she’s long been delaying with her boyfriend, the seemingly steady and dependable Phillip Craig (Monroe Owsley.)
With the ink still wet on her marriage certificate, Jerry reconsiders bachelorhood and proposes. When he discovers she’s married another, he fires her in a fit of pique.
There’s a lovely chemistry between March and Colbert. Their affection is playful and the audience—and Julia—immediately see that she made a mistake in marrying Phillip. Jerry and Julia are the kind of couple who wouldn’t just live on passion—they’d have a damn good time together.
But Jerry hesitated and now he’s lost her forever.
Except of course he hasn’t.
The twist of Honor Among Lovers is that Jerry and Phillip reverse their initial roles by the film’s finale. Initially Jerry is the cad—he wants Julia as a lover, but refuses to put a ring on it, while Phillip has been pushing for marriage for months.
But when Phillip makes a major mistake at work (mistake is kind—he steals his client’s money to invest in a venture that goes belly up), he crumbles and lands his marriage in crisis.
When the chips are down, Phillip turns on Julia and is only interested in saving himself. In a fit of rage and desperation, he shoots Jerry (one of his clients) and pins the blame on Julia.
Jerry, the supposed cad, reacts honorably and helps Phillip because he loves Julia so much, expecting no reward but watching her happiness from afar.
The satisfying ending lands the murderous Phillip in prison and Jerry and Julia finally sailing off of their long-anticipated cruise…still unmarried, as far as we can tell.
Honor Among Lovers doesn’t quite reach the level of hidden gem, but it’s a must for film buffs who enjoy the pre-code era. Come watch Fredric March before he won his first of two Oscars, Claudette before It Happened One Night, and a small role for Ginger Rogers before she started dancing with Fred.
- Slide, Anthony. The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors. 1996.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
- Dick, Bernard F. Claudette Colbert: She Walked In Beauty. 2008.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.