Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: "Directed By Dorothy Arzner"

Judith Mayne's Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Indiana University Press) is not a biography of the woman who was called a "woman's director" and a "star-maker" during her 15 years behind the camera in Hollywood. It is instead, points out Mayne, a professor of French and Women's Studies at Ohio State University, "a study of Arzner's work and of the Dorothy Arzner image that includes some biographical elements."

She further states that "I am interested in what kinds of films Arzner made, in how those films and Arzner herself were written about, and in how Arzner was portrayed during her career."

Mayne traces Arzner's film career from her days as a script typist in 1919 to her directorial debut in 1927.

Mayne's interest in Arzner began when she saw several photographs in which she presented a butch image: "[Arzner] wore tailored, 'masculine' clothing; her short hair was slicked back; she wore no makeup; and she struck poses of confidence and authority."

It was Arzner's "butch persona" that caused newspaper writers of that time to become obsessed with her appearance. "Arzner," writes Mayne, "contradicted established notions of what a woman should look like."

Dorothy Arzner made 16 films before she left Hollywood for good in 1943. Unlike many Hollywood films, "Arzner's work did indeed focus primarily on women's lives, women's friendships, and women's communities. But," continues Mayne, "women are never identified in a simple or isolated way in Arzner's work." Her films are "indicative of her commitment not only to the exploration of the connections between women, but to those connections as they are shaped and complicated by social class."

Directed by Dorothy Arzner will not appeal to everyone. It is a work of scholarship with a lot of discussion of feminist film theory and analysis of Arzner's films. However, as an analytical guide to understanding and interpreting these films, it deserves a place in a cinemaphile's library. You just have to be tolerant of Mayne's repetitiousness, scholarly prose, and frequent use of the phrases "in other words" and "put another way."

The 62 black and white photographs of Arzner at work and at home are themselves worth the price of the book and attest to what drew Mayne to an examination of Arzner's life and career.
(Included are photographs of Arzner and her female companion of 40 years, dancer Marion Morgan.)

I hope this book and the renewed interest in Arzner encourages some filmmaker to do a biopic about her life--a life that was filled with drama, celebrity, romance, and upward mobility.

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