“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’.
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.
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.
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?
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’.
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.
The 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’.
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