Unfortunately, Dorothy Arzner was unable to complete direction on her final film, First Comes Courage. Though she received full directorial credit, Charles Vidor finished the film after she came down with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. It was the only film she directed that she was unable to finish.
First Comes Courage is set in Norway 1942. We open on Nicole Larsen (Merle Oberon), a Norwegian woman scorned by her countrymen for carrying on a love affair with German officer Major Paul Dichter (Carl Esmond.)
We immediately learn that Nicole is a spy, fighting to free Norway from German occupation. She feeds intelligence from her Nazi lover to the Allies that helps them bomb critical Nazi strongholds.
Dichter begins to suspect Nicole, and sensing his wavering commitment, she calls for reinforcements. Norway’s American allies decide to assassinate Dichter and make it look like he was a random casualty in the latest Allied raid. They will then evacuate Nicole to safety.
American Allan Lowell volunteers for the assignment, and we soon find out why—he and Nicole were lovers before she began romancing Dichter for information.
To determine for sure whether or not Nicole is a spy, Dichter takes two actions—he feeds her false intelligence and proposes marriage.
Knowing she will gain more power as a commander’s wife, she calls off the assassination and agrees to the marriage. But it’s too late, for when she feeds Dichter’s fake intelligence to the Allies and they bomb a worthless cannery, Dichter knows his bride-to-be is a traitor.
He goes through with the wedding anyway and confronts her on their wedding night. She is finally free to release the scorn and disgust she has for him, and calls him a coward and expresses no remorse for betraying him.
He plans to make her murder look like an accident to save face with his fellow officers (no good Nazi marries an Allied spy, after all) but Allan shoots him dead before he has the chance.
Allan believes he and Nicole will finally be together, but she insists on staying behind in Norway, knowing that as the widow of a German officer, she’ll have even more power and access to information that will help the Allies.
Allan begs her to quit—she’s done enough, and she’s in too much danger.
Allan insists they are never to be apart again, but Nicole is resolute, telling him:
“Oh but darling it isn’t that kind of world anymore. People don’t dance and laugh and ski, as we once used to.”
She understands that unless and until they win the war, none of them will have freedom to love, no matter what they might pretend.
After one final protest, she tells him, “I’ll quit when you quit.”
The film ends with Allan returning to the army’s boat as Nicole makes her way back to the dangerous mission that will almost certainly end in her death.
First Comes Courage is an inventive World War II thriller, a celebration of patriotism and bravery that was common in films of the era. Oberon plays Nicole with an appropriate intensity—we can see her loathing for the man she pretends to love, and her fear that discovery is imminent. We can also admire Nicole’s resolve to continue and wonder if we’d do the same in her shoes.
The film’s Achilles’ heel is that there is zero chemistry between Oberon and Brian Aherne. And so while I applaud Nicole’s courage in returning to her field of battle, I don’t quite buy that she was heartbroken over leaving Allan behind.
Unfortunately for Arzner, the film flopped in 1943, her second in a row after Dance, Girl, Dance.
Her ultimate split from Hollywood seemed a mutual breakup—she wanted to make films with strong, independent female characters but a code-enforced Hollywood at war had no interest in them.
Chalk it up to irreconcilable differences.
Dorothy Arzner would never direct another feature film, but she continued to have an active career in the film industry. She made Women’s Army Corps training films, produced plays, and even had a radio show. She started teaching cinema in 1952, eventually joining the faculty of UCLA in 1961.
At UCLA, she taught cinema and film to Francis Ford Coppola, who speaks warmly of Arzner on the Dance, Girl, Dance DVD extras.
She even hooked up again with her old friend Joan Crawford, directing Pepsi commercials after Crawford married Alfred Steele, her final husband and the CEO of Pepsi.
Dorothy Arzner’s films are worth watching today because they put strong women at the center of the story in a time when that was rare.
More than anything, I wonder what films we missed out on when Arzner’s career was cut short by the implementation of the production code.
She was a unique voice in Hollywood, directing the early works of such eventual stars as Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell.
We’re lucky that her films have been preserved and we can still enjoy them today.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
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