Was Dorothy Arzner a trail-blazing pioneer or a trail-grazing pioneer? That's the question being posed this month by a film series at the UW Cinematheque. "Directed by Dorothy Arzner," which comes to us courtesy of the UCLA Film Archive, presents six features from the Paramount portion of Arzner's oeuvre (1929's The Wild Party to 1932's Merrily We Go to Hell). And I'll leave it to you to decide whether Arzner was merely the first woman to sustain a career as a director within the Hollywood studio system ' i.e., one of the boys ' or a feminist avant la lettre, a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Arzner herself disclaimed any feminist leanings, an admission that hasn't kept her from being embraced by the feminist-film-theory and gay/lesbian-studies crowds. In a journal article titled "Approaching the Work of Dorothy Arzner," Pam Cook suggested that Arzner's films, "through a displacement of identification, through discontinuity and a process of play, succeed in generating a set of contradictions so that a de-naturalization of patriarchal ideology is effected." Hey, I'm all for the de-naturalization of patriarchal ideology, but it's hard to tell how uniquely Arzner's films achieved it at a time ' the anything-goes pre-Code '30s ' when many Hollywood films were reconfiguring the traditional roles played by men and women.
Still, there's something about the way the women in Arzner's films move toward center stage while the men fade into the woodwork. In 1931's Honor Among Lovers (Sept. 26), Claudette Colbert is a secretary who runs the whole company, Fredric March the boss who realizes he can't live without her. In Merrily We Go to Hell (Oct. 4), Sylvia Sidney is a woman who gives her heavy-drinking, two-timing husband a taste of his own medicine. And in Working Girls (Oct. 3), a pair of sisters from the hinterlands tackle the men in Manhattan, preserving their honor when it's expedient to do so.
Each of these films has the rat-a-tat-tat rhythms of '30s Hollywood. Then there's The Wild Party, which opens the series on Friday, Sept. 12 (7:30 p.m., 4070 Vilas Hall). A campus comedy that barely makes the grade on a pass/fail basis, it stars Clara Bow as a coed who keeps biting off more freedom than she can chew, and the film manages to both chastise her and cheer her on. In her first talkie, Bow overacts like crazy, making it hard to grasp what her character's up to. But the scenes back at the dorm, where a bevy of beauties sits around doing just about everything but studying, should send a clear message to the UW's own coeds as they begin another grueling semester.