First Comes Courage (1943):  “I’ll Quit When You Quit”

Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne in First Comes Courage (1943)
Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne in First Comes Courage (1943)

First Comes Courage (1943) opening

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.

Merle Oberon and Carl Esmond in First Comes Courage 1943
Nicole (Oberon) and Major Dichter (Esmond)

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.

Merle Oberon and Carl Esmond in First Comes Courage 1943
Nicole (Oberon) and Major Dichter (Esmond)

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.

First Comes Courage (1943) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940):  Critics Then and Now are Wrong

Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) opening

At the time of its release, Dance, Girl, Dance lost money.  Dorothy Arzner’s penultimate film was a flop, dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences.

Yet today it is undoubtedly Arzner’s most well-known and respected film.  It was rediscovered in the 1970s when scholars praised its “female gaze” point of view and crowned Arzner a feminist icon.

The film is neither as bad as the critics of 1940 said, nor is it the tale of empowered womanhood that modern feminists want it to be.

Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Arzner took over the film when its original director, Roy del Ruth quit over creative differences with producer Erich Pommer.  Arzner could see that the script lacked direction, and worked with the writers to focus the story on the differences between two up and coming dancers.

Frenemies Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball) dance together under the tutelage of Madame Basilova.  Judy is a gifted ballerina who wants a serious and respected career.  Bubbles has less artistic talent, but she’s got a nose for what sells and eventually starts raking in the money playing “Tiger Lily” at a burlesque theater.

When Judy falls on hard times, Bubbles offers her a part in the show, playing the stooge—July does her ballet routine to a crowd that boos and demands the return of Bubbles.

Resentment simmers between the women, and boils over when they both fall in love with the same louse, Jimmy Harris, who is himself still in love with his ex-wife.

The film earns its feminist street cred when a fed up Judy stops in the middle of her act to lecture the heckling crowd:

“I know you want me to tear my clothes off so’s you can look your fifty cents worth.  Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wife won’t let you.  What do you suppose we think of you up here—with your silly remarks your mothers would be ashamed of?”

She goes on (and on) in the same vein before ending with:

“…so you can go home when the show’s over and strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute?  I’m sure they see through you just like we do.”

It’s a stinging indictment and makes for a great isolated YouTube clip, but it feels wildly out of character for Judy and out of place in the film.

And it seems doubtful that a room full of men in a 1940s burlesque club would give her a standing ovation as they do in the film.

Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

This lauded display of feminism is immediately followed by an epic on-stage cat fight between Bubbles and July (Bubbles is jealous of Judy’s ovation, and Judy is tired of playing second fiddle to Bubbles).  They slap, punch, kick, pull hair and roll around on the floor in front of a stunned crowd.

It’s funny, it’s truer to the characters, and it winds them both up in night court with black eyes and eventual apologies.

In the end, they both get want they want—Bubbles tricks a drunken Jimmy into marriage and makes a fortune off their quickie divorce, and Judy finds love and creative fulfillment when she meets kindly Steve Adams, who offers her a role in his ballet.

It’s a good, funny film that should be enjoyed as such. 

It’s not a polemic against male chauvinism, and the truth is the film would be better if Judy’s scolding speech had been left on the cutting room floor.

But if it had, we likely wouldn’t be watching Dance, Girl, Dance today.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Bride Wore Red (1937):  The Film That Made Joan Crawford Box Office Poison

Robert Young, Joan Crawford, and Franchot Tone in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

The Bride Wore Red was a low point in the careers of its director and star.

It was the only film Dorothy Arzner ever directed for MGM, and its failure kept her out of work for the next 3 years. 

As for its star, it was the second straight commercial flop for Joan Crawford after The Last of Mrs. Cheyney.  The next year the Independent Film Journal dubbed her “box office poison.”1

But The Bride Wore Red isn’t as bad as all that.

It begins when two wealthy gentleman, Count Armalia (George Zucco) and Rudi (Robert Young) argue about the role luck plays in a man’s fate.  The Count feel it’s just a turn of the cosmic roulette wheel that landed him as an aristocrat instead of a waiter.  Rudi vehemently disagrees, insisting that breeding and a je ne sai quoi separates the classes.

In a bid to cause mischief and knock his friend down a peg, the Count hires Anni, dive bar lounge singer, to impersonate an aristocrat and turn Rudi’s head.

Anni accepts with her own agenda—if she can get Rudi to throw over his fiancé and marry her instead, she’ll live in the lap of luxury instead of scrounging through her stew bowl searching for chunks of meat to keep her full.

Joan Crawford, and Robert Young in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Rudi buys her story lock, stock, and barrel and it isn’t long before he’s poised to propose.  But by then the plot is complicated by Anni falling in love with Giulio (Franchot Tone), the local postmaster who is content with his lot in life as a peasant.

It’s clear to the audience that Anni would be happier with Giulio, but she’s stubborn enough to purse Rudi until she’s nearly ruined everything.  Yet we can sympathize with her ruthlessness—she’s a woman who’s always scraped by, and the prospect of a life without hunger is at first more appealing than one with love.

The film shines in the scenes between Anni and the hotel maid, who by coincidence is an old friend.  Behind closed doors, Anni lets down her guard and we can see the strain of her pretense.

We’re rooting for her to choose Giulio, who is clearly the superior man over the materialistic snob Rudi.

Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

And in the end, of course, it all works out, even for Rudi, who is lucky enough that his jilted fiancé takes him back.

This was the seventh film that married couple Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone made together.  They had very different backgrounds—Crawford wasn’t that far removed from the shopgirls and prostitutes she played in the 1930s—she’d survived a childhood of grinding poverty to make herself a success despite a lack of sophistication and education.

Franchot Tone was born into a wealthy family.  He got his start in the theater, and at first enjoyed tutoring Crawford in great literature, theater, and opera.

Joan Crawford’s career withstood the smear of box office poison—MGM stood behind her, and she was back on top in 1939’s The Women.

Her commitment to success saved her career but doomed her marriage.

Though he was nominated for an Oscar for 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, Franchot Tone looked down on the movies, and wasn’t a great film actor.  Joan Crawford lobbied for him to receive many of the roles he did, especially in films with her at MGM.

Just like Russell Brand and Kay Perry, Franchot Tone resented and belittled his wife’s success and wanted them both to step out of the limelight.

But that was something Joan Crawford was never going to do—she lived her entire life for her fans and her career.

She could always get another husband.

The Bride Wore Red (1937) Verdict:  Give It a Shot

Notes

  1. Crawford was in good company on the box office poison list, which also included Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford.  2010.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Craig’s Wife (1936): Careful What You Wish For

Rosaline Russell in Craig's Wife (1936)

Craig's Wife (1936)

The enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 dealt a deadly blow to director Dorothy Arzner’s career.  The Code strictly enforced specifics around what could be shown in a film in terms of violence, drinking, and sex.

More damning for Arzner, the Code restricted the types of stories that could be told.

Arzner’s films didn’t glorify sex, drinking, or drug use, but they very much dealt with the plight and constraints of the modern woman.  No longer was she free to tell stories about unmarried women having affairs, or married women and men experimenting with open marriages.

Arzner made only four films after the code, and though they were not box office success at the time, today they are among her most celebrated films.  Even with the restrictions, she still found a way to make films with something to say, and she still worked with legendary actresses at the start of their careers.

Craig’s Wife was the first of her post-code efforts.  This was the second film adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prizing winning play, and the first talking version.  The third and (thus far) final version was made in 1950, with the leading role played by Joan Crawford.  (Which I reviewed here earlier this year.)

In this version, Harriet Craig is played by Rosalind Russell, three years before she caught fire as the gossipy Sylvia Fowler in George Cukor’s The Women.  Though much better known for playing boisterous characters such as Auntie Mame and Hildy in His Girl Friday, she is up to the task of playing an ice queen.

At 20 minutes shorter than the Joan Crawford version, Arzner’s film gets right to the point, snipping out several subplots to focus on the main event—Harriet Craig is a woman who married her husband to get a house.

As she explains to her wide-eyed niece, she never loved her husband, but saw marriage as a road to independence and wealth.  She rules her sparkling home with an iron fist—with exacting standards for the servants, and her husband too.

Poor Walter (John Boles) isn’t allowed to smoke or sit on the arms of chairs in his own home.

John Boles and Rosaline Russell Craig's Wife (1936)

As the film moves forward, Harriet pushes away everyone—servants, acquaintances, her niece, her husband.

She never had any friends to begin with.

At the film’s conclusion, she receives a telegram informing her that her sister has died, and Harriet realizes she finally has what she’s always wanted—she’s completely alone in the world, with her big fancy house all to herself.

The enormity of her grief and regret engulfs her and she dissolves into tears.

It’s a good film, and in many ways a clever one—Arzner and company found a way to tell a story about how confined women’s roles were in the 1930s without running afoul of the production code’s rules.

Though some of the details are changed, it’s got the same spine as the Crawford version, and is just as enjoyable.

Which one is better?  It’s a coin flip for me—watch them both and decide for yourself.


You can watch Craig’s Wife for free on You Tube here.

Craig's Wife (1936) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Russell, Rosalind.  Life Is a Banquet.  1977.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Christopher Strong (1933): The World Meets Katharine Hepburn

Colin Clive and Katharine Hepburn in a poster for "Christopher Strong (1933)

Christopher Strong (1933) opening

Quote:  "Dorothy was very well known and had directed a number of hit pictures.  She wore pants.  So did I.  We had a good time working together."  - Katharine Hepburn on Dorothy Arzner

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) was the tenth and final film Dorothy Arzner made for Paramount.  As part of a corporate reorganization, Paramount instituted pay cuts for many of its employees.

Instead of taking the cut, Arzner left Paramount and went freelance.

She was barely out the door when the phone started ringing.  David O. Selznick, then at RKO and having just finished King Kong (1933) had an idea.

He wanted to pair Hollywood’s only female director with his latest discovery, a rebellious and headstrong theater actress he’d convinced to come to Hollywood.

Two talented and fierce women—three including screenwriter Zoë Akins, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama—working on a tale of illicit love.

Dorothy Arzner was in.

So was Katharine Hepburn.

Christopher Strong tells the story of Cynthia Darrington, a young woman who’s never had a love affair except her lifelong one with airplanes.  She’s a female flyer, modeled after American Amelia Earhart and Brit Amy Johnson.

What’s most striking—and entertaining—about watching the film in 2022 is that Katharine Hepburn is so fully…Katharine Hepburn.

This was only Hepburn’s second film and her first starring role, yet everything that eventually became part of the Katharine Hepburn lore was there from the start.

As an aviatrix, she wears pants throughout most of the film.  She’s got that transatlantic Bryn Mawr College accent that no one’s had before or since.  She brought that aristocratic arrogance that intimidated and enthralled the world.

She’s eccentric in the way that only the most wealthy can be.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.

Cynthia (Hepburn) falls in love with her friend’s father, Congressman Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), a man admired for his longstanding fidelity to his wife Lady Strong (Billie Burke). 

They embark on a guilt-ridden affair, and the film is at its best when exploring the tension Cynthia feels between flying and love.  After promising that he will never ask her to give up flying, Christopher and Cynthia make love for the first time in a wonderful scene that shows only Hepburn’s arm as they make pillow talk.

Before she turns out the light, Christopher breaks his promise and asks her to stop flying—he worries so, you see—and she agrees.

Though she loves Chris, she’s bored by her life without flying.  She comes to understand the miseries of mistress-hood —she does all the waiting.  She’s the one left alone at a table for two when he can’t get away from his wife and family.

It’s a life of crumbs, and yet love forces her to take what she can get.

Everything changes when she becomes pregnant with his child.  Cynthia realizes this is both a wonderful and terrible thing—wonderful because he would leave his wife and marry her to raise the child.

Yet terrible because Lady Strong has been kind to Cynthia, despite her deep suspicions of her husband’s affair.

In fact, Lady Strong’s portrayal is quite positive—she is no shrewish wife.  Chris has no justification for cheating on her, and he—and Cynthia—know it.

Realizing that her baby will tear the Strong family apart, Cynthia goes up one last time in her plane.  Under the pretense of breaking the world’s altitude record she goes on a suicide mission with no intention of returning.

Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong

Christopher Strong could only have been made in 1933.

Any earlier and Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t have been in Hollywood.

Any later and the newly enforced production code would’ve rejected the plot.

And a contemporary remake about a pregnant woman who commits suicide rather than complicate the life of the married lover twice her age?

I don’t think so.

Christopher Strong (1933) Verdict - give it A Shot

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Hepburn, Katharine.  Me:  Stories of My Life.  1991.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): “Matrimony—single lives, twin beds, and triple bromides in the morning.”

Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Sylvia Sidney and Frederic March
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

There’s a surprising number of early talkies about “modern marriages” gone awry.  The husband cheats on his wife and the wife retaliates by sleeping with a man she doesn’t love to hurt her husband.  They’re reunited in the end, but not before temporarily making a mess of their lives.

The Divorcée is the best of them, winning Norma Shearer an Oscar and still delighting audiences ninety-two years later.

Director Dorothy Arzner’s contribution to this subgenre was Merrily We Go to Hell, a film with a title so scandalous in 1930 that many newspapers refused to print it.

This time she pairs Fredric March with Sylvia Sidney as a husband and wife whose marriage goes to hell because of his drinking and wandering eye.

Newspaper man Jerry Corbett (March) is drunk when he meets teetotaler Joan Prentice (Sidney) at a party—drunk and hung up on his ex.

After a charming encounter, Joan goes home half in love and Jerry goes home and talks to a portrait of his ex.  But Jerry ultimately decides that life married to a sweet girl with a rich father is an improvement over pining for the woman who left him flat.

Jerry is wonderful when he’s sober—the problem is he has trouble staying that way.  He repeatedly flakes out on Joan when he’s on a bender, even passing out and missing his own engagement party.

Joan—against the advice of her father, her friends, and good common sense—goes through with the marriage despite this humiliation.

But marriage gets him up on the wagon, and things go well until Jerry reaches a lifelong goal and sells one of the plays he’s written.  Joan is over the moon for him, but going to New York to see the play puts Jerry back into the partying and drinking crowd. 

And the lead actress in his play?

Jerry’s old flame Claire Hampstead, who wants to pick up right where things left off before she booted him out the last time.

Soon Jerry is partying, drinking, and going to Claire when she calls in the middle of the night.  When the party’s finally over, he stumbles home to good wife Joan.  In a scene that cuts like a knife, she undresses him, puts his drunken body to bed, and he calls her Claire instead of her own name.

Frederic March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Frederic March

Instead of leaving him, Joan decides that they will have an “open marriage”—he can sleep with Claire or anyone else he likes, and she will do the same.

Jerry’s game, and he seemingly gets the best of both worlds—wild mistress and pretending-to-be-happy wife. 

Both Jerry and Joan mask their misery with forced frivolity when they end up at the same party on the arms of others.

(Here we get a brief glimpse of Joan on the arm of twenty-eight year old Cary Grant during his first year in Hollywood.)

Cary Grant, Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Cary Grant, Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March

Merrily we go to hell,” Jerry toasts Claire.

Meanwhile, Joan (teetotaler no more) raises a glass at a table full of men and extolls the “holy state of matrimony—single lives, twin beds, and triple bromides in the morning.”

Sylvia Sidney in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

The situation can’t last, and when Joan finds herself pregnant with her husband’s child, she leaves him and heads home to her father.

It is only once he has lost her that Jerry realizes it was Joan he loved all along. 

The final arc of the film chronicles how he wins her back, but he treats her so horribly throughout the film, that I find myself wishing she had turned him away in the end.  Certainly, a 2022 remake would have her doing so—or would tone done Jerry’s transgressions.

Even so, Merrily We Go to Hell gives the viewer much to ponder—we’re not the first generation to decide that there might be a better alternative to monogamy, and yet it still seems to be the path to long-lasting romantic happiness, especially in the movies.

Merrily We Go to Hell was exactly the kind of film that enraged the religious and women’s groups that insisted Hollywood clean up its act.  More than violence, films depicting a woman of “loose morals” as anything other than a low down tramp who comes to a bad end were anathema to this group.

Two years later, the objectors won and the Production Code was enacted, banning films like Merrily We Go to Hell.

The mature, on-screen conversation about marriage was put on pause for several decades.

It’s a shame, but it’s also what makes these pre-code films so special, little time capsules from the past that remind us we’re not so different from those who came before us.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema.  1999.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Honor Among Lovers (1931):  Directed by Dorothy Arzner

Frederic March and Claudette Colbert in Honor Among Lovers (1930)
Fredric March and Claudette Colbert
Frederic March and Claudette Colbert in Honor Among Lovers (1930)

Let’s go looking for hidden gems.

I like to wax poetic about the films we all recognize as masterpieces:  Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, and Double Indemnity.

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.

Alice Guy-Blaché
Alice Guy-Blaché

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
Lois Weber

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.

Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner

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.

Frederic March and Claudette Colbert in Honor Among Lovers (1930)

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.

Honor Among Lovers (1930) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • 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.

Blowing Wild (1953): The Forgotten Finale of Stanwyck and Cooper

Anthony Quinn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper in "Blowing Wild" (1953)
Anthony Quinn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper

After making two successful films together in 1941—the uplifting Meet John Doe and the charming Ball of Fire, it’s surprising Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck didn’t work together again for twelve years.

It was perhaps inevitable that Blowing Wild, their third and final film together, would be a western, as both turn to the genre in the 1950s as they aged out of playing the dashing young hero and ingénue.

As in their previous films, Cooper plays the good guy—the one who insists on playing by the rules and staying on the straight and narrow, while Stanwyck tries to corrupt him.

In this iteration, Cooper plays Jeff Dawson, an American oil wildcatter in South America who’s so broke that bandits can’t find a dime on him or his partner Dutch (Ward Bond) when they try to rob them.  For spite, the bandits blow up their single oil well and their best chance at striking it rich.

In desperation, Dutch mugs a man in a dark alley for food money, but it turns out to be their old friend Ward “Paco” Conway (Anthony Quinn).  Paco has struck it rich in South America, and has a huge custom-built house, wads of cash, and a dozen oil wells pumping day and night. 

Paco’s job offer seems like the answer to their prayers but for one problem:  Paco’s wife is Jeff’s ex.

And she’s not just any ex—Marina (Stanwyck) is as predatory as a black widow spider and immediately sets her sights on getting Jeff back.

Jeff knows trouble when he sees it, and figures that taking a job hauling a load of dynamite over bumpy dirt roads while being chased by bandits is less dangerous than being around Marina again.

Barbara Stanwyck, and Gary Cooper in "Blowing Wild"
Stanwyck and Cooper

But Dutch is shot in the leg and hospitalized during the job, and the man who hired them double-crosses them and leaves them as broke as when they started.

Jeff has no choice but to take the job with Paco, who is thrilled to have his buddy working for him again and oblivious to the attraction between Jeff and Marina.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck both made some excellent westerns during their careers; sadly, Blowing Wild isn’t among them.  It’s not a terrible film—looking at Cooper’s lined face and cowboy walk are never a hardship, and it’s fun to watch Marina scheme and ever murder to get the man she wants—a man she wants mostly because he no longer wants her.

Lauren Bacall turned down the role because she was locked in a power struggle with Jack Warner at the time and rightly felt the role lacked subtlety.  Stanwyck probably agreed but relished the opportunity to ride a horse onscreen—Marina recklessly racing her husband’s car on horseback is an inspired scene that illuminates Marina’s character and allows Stanwyck to show off her riding skills.

Anthony Quinn and Barbara Stanwyck in "Blowing Wild"
Stanwyck and Quinn

The film was panned at the time—a year before Cooper and Stanwyck had played better versions of the same roles in High Noon and Clash By Night, and reviewers unfairly described Stanwyck’s character as a cut-rate version of her Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.

There’s something here for fans of Cooper, Stanwyck, and westerns.  But the casual film viewer who wants an introduction or greatest hits of any of the above should look elsewhere.

Blowing Wild (1953) Verdict:  Stanwyck/Cooper Buffs Only

Ball of Fire (1941):  The Last Great Screwball Comedy

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

After the success of Meet John Doe, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up later that same year to make Ball of Fire.

Ball of Fire had some superficial similarities to Doe—in both, Cooper plays a good-hearted naïve man taken for a ride by the more cynical and street smart Stanwyck.

In Doe, Stanwyck goes looking for a man to embody the words she wrote in an anonymous newspaper column.

In Ball of Fire, Cooper goes looking for a woman of the world to explain slang to him.

But if they are mirror images in terms of subject matter, they’re miles apart in tone.

Doe explored some of director Frank Capra’s favorite themes—political corruption, patriotism, and a sentimental side that advocates loving thy neighbor.

Doe gave you a few smiles, but Capra wanted the audience to think.

Ball of Fire was written solely for laughs by screenwriting duo Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed with exuberant irreverence by Howard Hawks.

The story is a playful retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, refashioning the dwarfs as a group of old bachelor professors who’ve been living together for years to write an encyclopedia.  The only one not ready for the retirement home is young and handsome linguistics Professor Bertram Potts, but he’s as cut off from the world as the rest.

And Snow White?

She’s the gangster’s moll Sugarpuss O’Shea, who agrees to help with the project so that she can hide out from the cops who want her to testify against her mobster boyfriend.

Gary Cooper was the titular John Doe, but Stanwyck was the Ball of Fire.

Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

As her biographer Axel Madsen wrote:

“The way slangy Stanwyck manhandles the English language fascinates linguistics professor Cooper.  He got the kudos in Meet John Doe, she ran away with Ball of Fire reviews.  Cooper’s absent-minded professor was a nice piece of light acting, but Barbara as Sugarpuss O’Shea was sensational.”

Sugarpuss O’Shea is one of Stanwyck’s signature parts—and she nearly didn’t get it.

As she told Paul Rosenfield, “They didn’t want me for the picture. They cast it with Ginger Rogers. The gossip then was that she wouldn’t do it because the part was, well, a hooker really. And Ginger’s morals and beliefs wouldn’t let her play it. Me, I didn’t give a damn.”

No one could’ve done more with the part than Stanwyck—not Ginger Rogers, or Carole Lombard, who also turned down what would have been one of her final roles.

The screen crackles when Stanwyck’s O’Shea is charming Potts and the other professors, all of whom are thrilled to have a woman (not counting their housekeeper Miss Bragg, which they don’t) in their midst.

O’Shea convinces them to let her stay in the house with them as she teaches Potts everything he needs to know for his encyclopedia article on slang.  Along the way she teaches the professors to dance and steals all their hearts.

When her gangster boyfriend (an early role for Dana Andrews) decides to marry O’Shea so she can’t testify against him, she has second thoughts.

She’s fallen in love with the professors’ naïve goodness, and doesn’t want to take them for a ride.  And when Potts proposes to her (with a much smaller ring), she realizes he’s the man she wants.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her role—though in hindsight it’s baffling that she wasn’t nominated instead for her work in The Lady Eve.

And now we’ve come directly to the problem with Ball of Fire.  It’s true ancestor is not Meet John Doe, but The Lady Eve, made earlier the same year with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

The Lady Eve is a perfect film with a script that sings, two equally charming leads, and not a moment of wasted time.

Ball of Fire uses much of the same conceit—Stanwyck plays a con artist who falls in love with her mark, another egghead who’s book smart but clueless about women.

Ball of Fire replicates the great erotic scene in The Lady Eve when the hero ends up holding the heroine’s bare foot.  And Stanwyck even calls Professor Potts “Pottsie,” in the same way she called Fonda’s character “Hopsie.”

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Unlike The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire goes on a bit too long in parts.  The antics of the professors grate a bit, and the film is like an airless balloon whenever Stanwyck is not onscreen.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Ball of Fire to compare it so much to The Lady Eve—but it’s never a good idea to remind those watching of another film—especially a superior one.

Audiences of 1941 didn’t mind, though.  Five days after Ball of Fire was released, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  The film was a huge box office success, as it’s silliness and sexiness was exactly what Americans were looking for to distract themselves from the unthinkable nightly reports on the wireless.

It’s the last great American screwball comedy (except, perhaps for 1942’s Palm Beach Story), as the genre vanished overnight when the Americans entered World War II and films veered away from zany screwballs toward patriotic propaganda.

Ball of Fire (1941) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.  1994.
  • Paul Rosenfield, “Saluting Stanwyck: A Life on Film”, “Los Angeles Times” (1987).

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Meet John Doe (1941): The Start of the Stanwyck and Cooper Magic

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Meet John Doe (1941)

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up for the first time in 1941 to make Meet John Doe.

Though new to one another, both had experience working with director Frank Capra.  Cooper and Capra had made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.  Stanwyck and Capra had made four previous films together, and he always proclaimed Stanwyck to be his favorite actress.

The film opens when reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is fired from her job when new publisher and aspiring politician D.B. Norton buys up her newspaper and cleans house.

She sits down to her typewriter and bangs out her final column in a red hot fury—she’s got a mother and two younger sisters to support, and she’s a damn good reporter cut from the roles only to save a few bucks.

Her final column causes an outpouring of support from the paper’s readers—she’s published a letter to the editor from a mysterious John Doe, an anonymous man who vows to jump off a building to his death on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills.  The paper is flooded with people wanting to help John Doe by giving him a job.

Her former editor drags her back into the newsroom and demands the identity of John Doe.

The only problem—there is no John Doe.  Ann made him up.

And the city’s rival newspaper is accusing them (correctly, it turns out) of fraud.

Enter Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby, a hobo and former bush league baseball pitcher the newspaper hires to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Barbara Stanwyck sizes up Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941)

Ann writes more letters in John Doe’s name, and soon the fake John Doe is giving speeches and inspiring the nation to “love thy neighbor.”

He’s also falling in love with Ann, though he worries that she sometimes forgets that he isn’t really the idealistic John Doe she made up in her head.

Meet John Doe was the final Frank Capra film released before he went overseas on a special assignment from President Franklin Roosevelt.  He shot a series of seven war documentaries called Why We Fight used to recruit soldiers and convince the public of the necessity of war.

And yet Meet John Doe has the same mix of cynicism, hope, and despair that Capra put into It’s A Wonderful Life, which he and Jimmy Stewart made in a fog of post-war disillusionment.

As John Doe’s movement grows, the vultures start circling—politicians see potential voters in the non-political John Doe clubs, and Ann herself goes from a woman struggling to keep her family fed in the wake of her father’s death to one wearing fur coats and diamond bracelets paid for by her publisher.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)

In the final scene, Willoughby is as forlorn and disgusted as the John Doe he has spent the film pretending to be.  Politicians have corrupted his movement and he believes Ann has betrayed him.  After being exposed as a fake, the members of the John Doe clubs have rejected him and gone back to lives filled with petty fights instead of loving their neighbors.

The only way he can prove that his movement is real and good is to take the Christ-like path of dying for his message.  He climbs to the top of the roof of the tallest building in the city and prepares to jump off, just as Ann wrote in her original fake letter.

But Ann is there, pleading for a chance to start again—both their romance, and their movement.

Will John stay and fight or will he jump?

You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out.

As Meet John Doe is available for free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the United States, you have no excuse not to watch it tonight.

Meet John Doe (1941) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.