Double Indemnity costume notes: Edith Head creates an atypical femme fatale

Double Indemnity

Although fairly indecisive, if forced to choose my all-time favourite movie it’s likely that Double Indemnity would be a strong contender. Billy Wilder’s noir introduced me to the classic film genre and it’s still a thrill to watch – every time I do, I discover something new. Although I’ve written about it in the past I wanted to cover it again for the Favourite Movie Blogathon, but in the spirit of this blog’s original focus, solely considering the costume.

“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

There are a lot of things to love about Double Indemnity, but Edith Head’s costumes don’t always top the list. That’s not because they’re second-rate – Head wasn’t capable of anything sub-par – but because they’re too good. Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck) seemingly has an entire wardrobe fully of character-defining outfits, outfits that convey the image of the woman that she wants to be – not the one that the audience suspects she is all along. Designing costumes for a character that’s playing a character is complex, but it’s a role Head took on with aplomb.

It probably helped that Head and Stanwyck were good friends. Their working relationship began when the designer successfully turned the ‘plain Jane’ actress into a sex symbol for The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941). Head employed a few costume tricks to improve Stanwyck’s naturally trim figure (namely widening the waistbands at the front and narrowing them at the back) and the public saw the actress in a whole new light. The Lady Eve bought the designer the acclaim that had eluded her since she took over from Paramount’s legendary head designer Travis Banton in 1938. In Edith Head’s Hollywood, Stanwyck recalls that: ‘From then on I had Edith Head’s name written into every contract, no matter what studio I was working for’. But it wasn’t just industry acclaim: the public approved of the Spanish motifs Head used, and a wave of Latin American fashions swept across Europe.

Robinson, Edward G - Double Indemnity

Aside from knowing how to dress Stanwyck, Head’s Indemnity costumes work because they say so much about the character. Apparently, the flamboyant and brassy blonde wig was Wilder’s idea. He wanted to make Dietrichson look as sleazy as possible. But Head understood that full-on sleaze wouldn’t get Dietrichson what she wanted – the route out of an unhappy marriage came by ensnaring new prey. Men can’t be seduced or infatuated by looks alone – the femme fatale needs to come with elements of mystery and intrigue too. Head balanced the blondeness, exaggerated make-up and heavy jewellery with classic, ladylike garments that attempt to conceal Dietrichson’s deceit. This contrast is at the heart of the character – she’s a woman who never quite says what she means or means what she says. Everything is an act – but look carefully enough and you can see the discrepancies.

Money is Dietrichson’s main motivator, but she needs to look the part to be the part. The only thing she does enjoy about marriage is spending her husband’s money. Essentially she traps him in a web that he has paid for… although it doesn’t result in the happy ending she desired. Whilst her clothes are seductive, they do not obviously denote a ‘badness’. Phyllis needs to get away with it – low-cut dresses, excessive furs, evening gowns all attract too much attention. Her fatality isn’t only skin deep – it goes straight to the core, and to get away with it, she needs to detract attention. It would’ve been easy for Wilder, Head and Stanwyck to create an off-the-shelf femme fatale, but Double Indemnity is a smarter film than that. Part of the attraction is that it always keeps the watcher guessing; it’s possible to read into the characters and storyline in multiple ways. But lets take a look at how costume plays a role in developing – and maintaining – intrigue…

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_03

Look one: the come-hither bath-towel First impressions are everything – this is a lady of leisure who can sunbathe during the day. Sexually aware and alluring, she’s happy to reveal (parts of) her body to strangers. Some might think she’s always on the lookout for prey. By placing her at the top of the stairs, Wilder introduces a physical distance between Dietrichson and the audience, and one that’s never really surmounted, as it’s impossible to know her true intentions.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look two: this old thing? An anklet, and Stanwyck’s shapely legs, are the focus as she descends the staircase. The simple trinket is loaded with meaning, and speaks volumes about Dietrichson’s exoticism and cavalier sensuality. Neff can’t get it out of his head. But the alluring anklet (and the heavy cuff and oversize cocktail ring) are at odds with the ruffle-front shirtdress Dietrichson has changed into. Feminine, fragile and romantic… surely no one devious could wear something so innocent? The audience begins to suspect otherwise. In film noir, white is never all it seems – see Lana Turner’s all-white ensembles in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Also note the way she examines her nails – she asks her probing questions too casually for them to be meaningless.


Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look three: deceptively feminine florals When Neff returns to the house, Dietrichson is clad in a floral print day dress. It’s a bit more lavish than you might expect for an afternoon indoors, but Phyllis is no housewife – she’s a woman with a plan, as her talk of murder reveals. Again, the contrast between appearance and agenda, and the importance of creating an image that’s at odds with the real intentions.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look four: sweater girl A classic belted coat over a simple sweater and pencil skirt. This is ‘respectable’ and ‘innocent’ Phyllis, the needy woman who can’t escape her husband without a man’s help. Neff doesn’t realise that he should approach with caution – Dietrichson might be wearing classic separates, but they’ve been chosen carefully. Form-fitting and subtly sexy, sweater girls (as popularised by Lara Turner in They Won’t Forget, 1937) usually have one thing on their mind, and it’s not small talk. The sexiness doesn’t come from the garment, rather what it promises.

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look five: LBD Dietrichson accessorises her ladylike v-neck LBD with an obvious brooch. As her husband signs the insurance policy under her watchful and concerned eye, it glitters in the evening light. Remember: Phyllis likes jewels but she likes the money you can buy them with more, and she’ll stop and nothing to get it.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look six: supermarket sweep Dowdy, masculine, smart. Not the aesthetic qualities usually associated with a female villainess – which is probably why this tweed waistcoat and white shirt combo work so well. It’s so out of character – an everyday look for an everyday (murder planning) encounter. Ironically, the more Dietrichson tries to fit in, the more she stands out. It’s not just the blonde hair and the perfectly rolled fringes – there’s something about the pristine lipstick that screams ‘disguise!’.

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look seven: ‘ring-ring’, ‘ring-ring’ A quick scene in a phone booth. Note the central positioning of the ring – another opportunity for Head and Wilder to remind the audience exactly why Phyllis is going through with this. Hint: it’s not because she’s genuinely unhappy. Double Indemnity_Edith Head Double Indemnity_Edith Head_15 Look eight: weeping widow On the surface, Dietrichson is the perfect widow. She looks the part (pillar box hat with face-covering veil, a sober grey skirt suit, black gloves and clutch bag), says the right lines and cries on cue – the crocodile tears are convincing because she knows they have to be, there’s now too much at stake. But she’s too good. She can’t quite fool Neff’s colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), he continues to question the case and the pay-out (Also, note the anklet, visible in the seated still).

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Look nine: suited and booted Another smart suit (similar to the widow scene), another example of Phyllis not playing to expected femme fatale type. But in spite of all her attempts to be – or look – masculine, she’s not in control. Keyes is on the verge of discovering the insurance scam, and the world is rocking beneath her feet. It’s this reliance on traditional attire that conveys Dietrichson’s desire to treat the entire scheme as a business venture with clear goals and outcomes for both players. The heavy wool twill used here (and in the supermarket tweed) conveys an androgyny that’s at odds with the conventional representation of femininity and the expected image of a ‘bad’ girl.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_17

Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck Fred McMurray Edith Head

Look ten: shady lady Another ‘incognito’ supermarket meet-up. This time Phyllis comes in a white silk blouse that’s decidedly more feminine than the last – this one has delicate pin-tucks running across the front – and loose fit, tailored trousers with a high, belted waist. A great masculine/feminine combination that represents the contrasts within her character. She’s also wearing sunglasses – unable to fully read her expression it’s impossible to discern her true meaning and motive. She’s concerned that the plan will fail, but is the concern motivated by love or self-advancement? It’s these ambiguities that make Phyllis a more complex character to read. This look is distinctively less showy than many of the previous costumes – perhaps this is her at her most vulnerable.

Double Indemnity_Edith Head

Double Indemnity_Edith Head_11

Look eleven: rotten to the heart Probably the most glamorous look Phyllis wears during the entire film. An all-white silk jumpsuit that flatters her figure and recalls the ruffle front dress from look two (incidentally, the action takes place in the same room). One difference? This time, it’s fatal. The understated and elegant jumpsuit emphasises Phyllis languid style, but it’s a studied cool, the costume is a prop to attain something she doesn’t feel. The trousers are subtly masculine but the overall look is feminine – she’s no match for Neff. For the first time perhaps, her garments seem to match her sentiments (maybe she does care for him after all?) but his dismissal of her puts doubt into the audience’s mind. Just who is Phyllis Dietrichson? Even her costumes don’t tell the full story.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

Alice Guy-Blaché: female film pioneer


When I decided to review more female-directed films, a lot of film fans – both on and offline – recommended looking to silent films where there was lots of behind-camera female talent to be found. This abundance isn’t surprising – before filmmaking became an industry, an established and ‘legitimate’ middle-class profession, large numbers of women were involved in directing/writing/financing and more. Because roles weren’t yet defined, many women worked across multiple disciplines (according to Stuart Blackton’s memoirs, actress Florence Turner did the accounting at the Vitagraph Company studio in Brooklyn, New York). Surely, those early days of film must’ve had a start-up mentality, where everything was possible – technology could be created, rules didn’t exist to be broken. Many women worked alone – or with men – to develop techniques that would come to define filmmaking and cinema. Today, many of these early individuals are overlooked – although over the past few years attempts have been made to redress the balance (think crowdfunded documentaries, dedicated festivals and online resources).

Alice Guy-Blache and the cast of Fra Diavolo (Solax, 1912) a three-reel feature film, the first released by Blache’s Solax Studio

Alice Guy-Blache and the cast of Fra Diavolo (Solax, 1912) a three-reel feature film, the first released by Blache’s Solax Studio

One woman who’s been under the spotlight over the past few years is Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female director who was involved in over 1,000 films and made her very first in 1896, aged 23. A documentary entitled Be Natural is in the pipeline (although no release date has been confirmed) and in 2013, several ‘lost’ Guy-Blaché films were recovered when the Charlie Tarbox collection came into the possession of collector Jeff Aikman. But Guy-Blaché’s influence extends far beyond sheer volume. She started her career in Paris as a secretary for Léon Gaumont, a French entrepreneur who made short films for the picture arcade business. She quickly graduated to filmmaking, including synchronised sound films for the Gaumont Chronophone. Following her marriage to Herbert Blaché in early1907, Guy-Blaché resigned from her position as head of Gaumont’s film production unit and sailed to America with her new husband. Of course, for a woman like Alice, marriage didn’t signify the end of her career. In 1910, she launched her own film company named Solax. Most of those early films were made in a little-used Gaumont studio lot based in New York. Solax was not only profitable, but also helped launch many silent era stars, including Darwin KarrVinnie Burns and Blanche Cornwall.

solax company


The jury’s out on whether Guy-Blaché was a workaholic or just dedicated to her company, but between 1910 and 1913, Solax released a staggering volume of films (see the full list here). Of course, Guy-Blaché didn’t direct every single one, but she supervised all the production and had three – ahem, male – directors working under her supervision (Wilbert Melville, Edward Warren and Edgar Lewis). The genres spanned from social-commentary melodramas to action films and comedies, the characters were complex and contemporary. Indeed many of these early shorts are extremely watchable today – A House Divided and Matrimony’s Speed Limit are particularly interesting, and relevant comments on marriage. Others take a stance on gender (although these seem near-impossible to find in the UK so this is based on research only!) and in the (lost) film In the Year 2000 (1912), the male and gender roles are completely reversed. Viewed through the lens of ‘progress’ many of these films seem quaint, with a strong DIY flavour. But the truth is that then film could be much more experimental – it wasn’t necessarily being made for money, and it was likely aimed at a much smaller audience who might not necessarily have been more open-minded, but certainly had a smaller framework of context.

Although many early Guy-Blaché films are difficult to uncover there are lots available online. This fragment of la Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), her earliest film and probably the first narrative film ever made, pre-dating the first Méliès film by a couple of months – is perhaps not ethically sound (are those babies being handled correctly?!) but is simply magical – a piece of history forever preserved.

Of the several I have found online, Canned Harmony is far and away my favourite Guy-Blaché film (Falling Leaves is a close second, I recommend you read Silver Screenings’ thoughts on that). Both use the domestic world as a backdrop for comedy with stereotyped gender roles subverted to make a humorous point. In Canned Harmony in particular, the acting is simple – in keeping with Guy-Blaché’s regular rhetoric: ‘Be Natural’. There’s no slapstick or excess, the charm is in the simplicity. The plot is easy but with the right element of suspense: a sweetheart dresses as virtuoso violin player to impress his lover’s father. The father falls for the ruse and agrees to the marriage, only for the plan to be put in jeopardy at the wedding when the father hands Billy a violin to play. Watch it yourself to see what happens – this is a short short at just 12 minutes long.

Two points of interest that arise from this short? This is a silent film about a musician. Billy (Billy Quirk)is able to convince the father he has musical talent by using a hidden record player, and the audience gets the idea through visuals alone. In many ways, this narrative technique foreshadows the rise of talkies and the important role sound would eventually play in the moving picture. Suggesting sound in silence was a particular interest of Guy-Blaché – remember she had been responsible for more than150 synchronised sound shorts for Gaumont. The lively energy of those earlier attempts were a hallmark that is threaded throughout much of the director’s work – and Canned Harmony is no different.

canned harmony

The element of ‘dressing up’ and playing a character within a character (and particularly the opposite gender) isn’t explored as much as in other Guy-Blaché films (notably Cupid and the Comet and What Happened to Officer Henderson) but the idea remains. Some critics have suggested that the director’s cross-dressing fascination came from the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris’ Quartier Pigalle. At this notorious theatre (which was open until the 1960s) naturalistic comedy horror shows were the order of the day, and shows success rates were calculated according to how many members of the audience fainted during the performance – which often involved severed limbs and huge quantities of fake blood. But it wasn’t all gore. Cross dressing was popular too, itself borrowed from the English pantomime tradition. Although I couldn’t find any reports of Guy-Blaché attending Grand Guignol, perhaps she drew inspiration from its ‘anything goes’ mentality – and there’s certainly something macabre about the previously discussed La Fee aux Choux.

Of course, that’s all hypothesis. Guy-Blaché’s interest in cross dressing might simply have been a tactic played for laughs – as there are so few close ups in early films that the reveal could come later, and be part of a surprising conclusion. Indeed, the practice changed around 1916-17, as ideas about ambiguity were replaced by conscious gender plays, used obviously and for deliberate laughs – think about some of Fatty Arbuckle’s dress-up stunts. Utilised long before on-screen roles became fixed and gender-coded, these dress up games lend a wonderful (and indeed refreshing) feel to many films from the era and shouldn’t necessarily be taken to indicate that Guy-Blaché was a particularly shocking or experimental filmmaker – seemingly everyone was at it.

Within this context it’s impossible to imagine that Guy-Blaché’s name was forgotten for so long. It’s not necessarily because of her gender, probably more because, although successful, she remained a small, essentially independent, filmmaker who got swept away by ‘big business’ film production. During her time making films, she was celebrated, profiled and interviewed – her omission seems to begin with film history itself. Terry Ramsaye, a journalist writing for Photoplay Magazine wrote a series of essays (that would eventually become a two-volume book published entitled A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture [Through 1925], published 1926) exploring the rise of motion pictures. Most of the players were US-based, and the signature and preface came from none other than Thomas Alva Edison. Whilst not asserting that film came from the US, it certainly made a strong case for it, and the contributions of many early European pioneers – including Guy-Blaché and the Gaumont company – were overlooked. Fortunately, history can be re-written.

Watch: Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché / Read: Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan

This post is part of my monthly Female Filmmaker series AND The Shorts blogathon, hosted by the wonderfully knowledgable Movies Silently. Check out all the posts here.


The laws of Fatal Attraction: the sanctity of family vs. the female villain

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close Sometimes, a phrase can so perfectly encapsulate a character or situation it enters into popular conscious. Such is the case with the term ‘bunny-boiler’. Used to describe Glenn Close’s femme fatale Alex in Fatal Attraction (directed by Adrian Lyne and released in 1987), it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and remains a short hand for a particular kind of jealousy, or obsessive or vengeful behaviour. A dubious honour, but an esteemed mark of cultural relevance – and of course it helps that the original film is far superior to the formulaic imitators it initiated. Fatal Attraction Glenn Close As is the case with many femme fatales, Alex Forrester’s reputation precedes her. Her increasingly desperate attempts to exact revenge on her married lover Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) remain a ‘lesson’ to men who fail to face up to their responsibilities, and feeds the cliché that women are either sexual predators or contented home-bodies. Yet the film could’ve had a very different legacy. The ending – in which Alex is shot dead by Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer) – was only implemented after test audiences made it clear they expected a ‘happy’ conclusion. According to the film’s scriptwriter James Deardon: “The single biggest cheer the film got in previews was when Dan’s wife said the line, ‘This is Beth Gallagher. If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you.’” The conclusion was amended accordingly, although not without protestations from Close, who thought it undermined her character.

In the original ending (available on the DVD release) Dan is arrested after Alex is found apparently murdered. The suspected murder weapon – a kitchen knife – has his fingerprints on it. Dan protests his innocence, claiming he’s been framed but the police cart him off to jail anyway. But then, Beth finds a tape Alex made in which she admits she’ll kill herself if she can’t be with Dan… cut to a final flashback in which Alex slits her own throat whilst as aria from Madame Butterfly plays in the background. Much more complex and considerably darker, and one in which Alex is the victim and Dan defies the ‘hero’ role – after all, he’s not exactly blameless. For the studio and audiences, it was easier to paint Alex as the villain, rather than the ‘wronged woman’, a construct that sat uneasily with the idealised vision of family. Fatal Attraction Glenn Close And whilst it’s true that the ending is too neat, neither director, writer or actress can complain too much – the film was a commercial success, and the highest grossing movie in its year of release. The success can partly be attributed to the furore the film attracted, which included a Time and People cover, and hours of debate: was it a parable about Aids? A commentary on a permissive society? An attack on feminism and career women? When the film was released it incited a feminist backlash, which criticised Lyne’s negative portrayal of career women, the idea that women still had to choose between men and a career, that single women really were better off dead.

Yet Fatal Attraction isn’t completely anti-feminist. Alex’s demands that Dan face up to consequences of his actions aren’t unreasonable – they are rational and understandable expectations. It’s his inability to manage them that escalate the problem and set in motion a desperate chain of events in which Alex becomes increasingly psychotic. But it’s difficult to really feel any sympathy for her character because the film is told through the eyes of Dan. Everything that’s threatened belongs in his world, nothing is considered through the eyes of a single female. The message? That women who seek liberty or equality pay with empty beds and incomplete lives: the sanctity of family triumphs over everything. Passion is – and will be – punished. Fatal Attraction Glenn Close Watching the film almost 28 years later, questions about attitudes to sex and women still arise, forcing considerations about what has – and hasn’t – changed. Generally, there’s a greater sympathy for Alex. It’s much more difficult to buy Douglas’ ‘everyman’ performance and give credibility to his innocence. Dan knew what he was doing – and endangering – when he slept with Alex. He might not have known the extent of her mental illness but there was a line that he crossed and everyone, especially movie characters, knows that all actions come with consequences. Especially those that involve sex.

Fatal Attraction Glenn Close

Of course, one of the film’s major flaws is that the audience never really gets close to understanding what drives Alex’s actions. Her early suicide attempts are an undeniable act of manipulation, but one that’s never fully explored other than through the problems that they cause Dan. Perhaps audiences in the 1980s were satisfied with the ‘woman scorned’ angle, but now that seems like an oversimplification. This is a woman with deep-seated physiological problems that don’t excuse her behaviour but go a long way to explaining it. In a more liberal era, it’s harder to buy the left-on-the-shelf fear as motivation. There has to be something else – from past relationships, childhood or any other Freudian cliché you care to float – that can explain her evil, because ‘career girl goes mad in the face of domestic bliss’ just doesn’t seem ample justification. The fact that the audience never gets an insight deep into Alex’s psyche increased the stigma around mental illness – in more recent interviews Close has come close to apologising for the portrayal, claiming that actors have a ‘moral responsibility’ to explain the complexities, rather than simplifying the issue: “Most people with mental illness are not violent… it is immoral to keep that perpetuated”. Fatal Attraction Glenn Close In contrast to Dan, Alex doesn’t seem to have any friends (another lesson to independent women?) who can counsel her actions or offer advice. The scene where she sits on her bedroom floor listening to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly whilst repeatedly switching a table lamp on and off is heartbreaking. Her apparent confidence – both in her career and in her sexual encounters – exists only on the surface, a mask that she wears to complete a performance that doesn’t really capture who she is. Madness doesn’t capture the nuances – Alex is a study of desperation and loneliness. At the most superficial level, the moral of Fatal Attraction (for women) is that casual sex should never be construed as anything more and that (for men) it’s wise pick your one-night-stand partners carefully. Fatal Attraction Glenn Close Despite the dramatic final scenes, there’s one line of dialogue that sums up both the film and its legacy. ‘This is what you reduced me to’, screams Alex. She might be referring to her increasingly irrational actions, but the sentiment has broader meaning within the context of Fatal Attraction where women are either/or, but never and. Consider: Beth is a wife, a homemaker – but never sexy. In fact, she’s wholesome even when she’s applying lipstick (most of the family home scenes are infused with a warm yellow light). Alex is sexy and independent, a career girl who exists in an industrial city setting that’s reached via a cage lift. There’s nothing warm about her stark white walls and bed linen. Trapped in a femme fatale construct she can’t escape from, her outburst is a challenge to Dan but also to audience and cultural prejudices that have placed her in a box. Yes, the film takes characterisation to the extreme, but it also creates an archetypal template for a certain kind of femininity and puts the stamp on what it means to exist within those confines. Fatal Attraction Glenn Close Fatal Attraction Glenn Close Ultimately, Fatal Attraction is a psychological thriller that short-changed its most interesting character in pursuit of box office success. Close was right to protest against the reshot ending – it might have pleased the masses but it redirected attention to secondary issues. This shouldn’t be a hysterical film about a man’s experience with a ‘bad’ woman and the merits of subservient wives, rather rumination on relationships and responsibility, the line between rationality and madness and the emotional facets of marriage. This is a film that has relevance for both men and women, it’s disappointing that it chose cookie-cut out characters and easy explanations.

This post is part of The Great Villian blogathon hosted by the dastardly Silver Screenings, Speakeasy and Shadows & Satin. Check out all the villainous entries here… you won’t be disappointed!

Christopher Strong: Dorothy Arzner takes on Hollywood convention

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932

This post is part of the just-about monthly Female Filmmaker series. Read about the original motivation here.

“Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?” – Katharine Hepburn’s telegram, cabled during a DGA tribute to Dorothy Arzner in 1975

Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong occupies a particular place in feminist film criticism. Upon its release in 1933 the movie was a commercial flop but today it attracts an almost cult following – in part due to its significance in Katharine Hepburn’s career but also because of a wider evaluation and understanding of Arzner’s role in Hollywood. Arzner was the only female director to make the transition from silent to talkies, and between 1927 and 1943 she directed 17 feature films – a prolific output that provided the basis for many feminist film critics (including Pam Cook, Claire Johnston and Molly Haskell) who sought female role models in the ‘classic Hollywood era’.

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932

It’s an oversimplification to suggest that all of Arzner’s films can be considered ‘feminist’ simply because she was a woman working in a man’s world. Female directors don’t necessarily make films that are significantly different from their male counterparts just because they happen to be a woman. The more pertinent discussion is how do female-directed films fit into and disrupt the homogenised ‘male’ view that Hollywood packaged and sold in the 1930s and 1940s? Overall, many of Arzner’s films put women centre stage and – in doing so – many of her characters challenged established codes to ‘undo the stereotype of women characters as scheming witches and light-hearted husband chasers’. Many also exist outside the realm of the male, these women have personal ambition and achievements that exist outside the society conventions: marriage, family and more.

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932

Take Christopher Strong. In spite of what the title suggests, this is a film about Lady Cynthia Darrington (Katharine Hepburn), a famous aviatrix who prizes her independence and the fact that she has no need for romantic attachments. That all changes when she meets Christopher Strong (Colin Clive) at a ‘treasure hunt’ party; he’s the notoriously faithful treasure, she’s the independent opposite. That meeting sets in motion a new friendship that blossoms into a love affair and completely alters Strong’s view on his wayward daughter (Monica – played by Helen Chandler) and her relationship with a married man. But although Strong professes that it’s Cynthia’s independent qualities he fell in love with, it’s not long before he’s asking her to give up flying and – quite literally – clipping her wings.

katharine hepburn 1933 - by ernest bachrach

And that’s where the problems begin. Arzner and screenwriter Zoe Akins raise the question about women and having it all (that’s a career and a relationship) but then don’t fully answer the question – or answer it unsatisfactorily. The film’s namesake – although undoubtedly torn between wife and mistress – takes a backseat in terms of soul-searching. Strong asks (or perhaps expects) Cynthia to give up her passion – indeed her career – for the sake of their relationship and she (surprisingly) acquiesces. Darrington’s tragic end is a cautionary tale; freedom and family don’t mix and woe betide anyone that tries to combine them. But perhaps the ending was a classic ‘Hollywood’ response – as a woman in a man’s world, Arzner had already broken many boundaries, was allowing the woman to emerge victorious over a man – in any way – a step too far?

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932

Despite the film’s flaws, the role is a perfect fit for Hepburn. Only her second film – the first was the 1932 release A Bill of Divorcement – it’s certainly not her finest acting, but the role was important because it contained so much ‘Hepburn’ and cemented the public’s perception of what the actress represented. Darrington’s confident stride into the party in one of the early scenes? It’s impossible to separate the bold, independent character from the bold, independent actress who once declared: “I’m a personality as well as an actress…. “Show me an actress who isn’t a personality, and you’ll show me a woman who isn’t a star.” Both Christopher Strong and A Bill of Divorcement set the tone for Hepburn’s early career – some viewers praising her originality, others ‘irritated by her mannerisms and ‘artificial’ speech patterns’.

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932_10

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932

But a strong female lead doesn’t make a film feminist. The effect, in this instance, is almost the complete opposite, with any progressive notions that Hepburn’s ‘single working woman’ character represents offset by the emphasis on the sanctity of marriage, the importance of monogamy and the duty of family. ‘Nice’ people do the right thing – those who live outside society codes (Darrington) are punished for their actions. As Strong’s wife (Billie Burke) observes in one of the film’s earliest scenes, ‘Sometimes I think you and I are the only nice people still left in the world’. Convention is desirable – even Strong’s at first wayward daughter ‘settles down’ and begins preaching about the comforts of married life. Unable to see beyond society prejudices and recognise how much her viewpoint has shifted, her newfound disapproval of her father’s affair is the catalyst for Darrington’s demise.

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932The ability to give more than one voice to female characters, the refusal to assign a singular face to womanhood is one of Arzner’s strongest points, and it’s utilised to great effect during a wonderful scene when Elaine gives a coded ‘gratitude’ speech that reveals she knows about her husband’s affair with Darrington. Each female lead – Darrington, Elaine Strong and Monica Strong – can be emphasised with and understood. As a viewer, you appreciate why Monica’s opinion changes once she’s pregnant, why she moves to support her mother’s position and strengthen the bond that is family, that Elaine’s gratitude comes from her role as a wife and a mother and isn’t a tolerance for adultery. It’s just disappointing that the conclusion reverts to type – Darrington ‘chooses’ Elaine’s (or the idea of family) happiness over her own, it’s those that pander to convention and expectation that are ‘winners’. But there are several moments of redemption: Darrington might not be able to hold onto her relationship, but she’s a hero to many young women, including one who asks for her autograph – ‘You were our hero at school… you gave us courage for everything’.

Katharine Hepburn Christopher Strong 1932

Film critic Pauline Kael describes Christopher Strong as ‘one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view’. Yet Darrington’s sexual power undermines her independence. In what was surely a scandalous scene for the time (but remember, this is Pre-code) the camera lingers on Darrington’s wrist, which dangles out of a post-coital bed. She’s admiring the bracelet that adorns it – a gift from Strong. Whilst the gift signifies Darrington’s ability to be swayed by material possessions, it’s also a shackle that represents the restrictions the relationship will impose: indeed, Strong implores her not to fly in the next day’s contest. Darrington appreciates what the bracelet means (‘I love my beautiful bracelet. And I’ve never cared a button for jewels before. Now I’m shackled’), yet she’s unable to overcome its symbolism. Indeed, the bracelet represents the exact moment when the power balance shifts in Strong’s favour.

Ultimately, Christopher Strong is let down by surprisingly safe ending that short changes all the issues it raises. It’s disappointing to think that – even in the Pre-Code era – women weren’t allowed to conduct a successful relationship and career. But Arzner’s comments on the breadth and complexity of female emotion are something to be celebrated – and are indeed a lesson for many contemporary filmmakers. And lets not overlook how important the role was in cementing Hepburn’s star persona and laying the foundations for everything the actress stood for – which would have much further reaching implications for Hollywood.

Further reading: Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, ed. Patricia Erens / From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell / Women Filmmakers and their Films by Foster, Unterburger and Jacobs / Dorothy Arzner at the Women Film Pioneers Project