Jun 28, 2024

Book Review--Dorothy Arzner: Interviews


I originally requested a copy of Dorothy Arzner: Interviews with the intention of interviewing its editor, film professor and author Martin F. Norden for the Watching Classic Movies podcast. To my dismay, when I received the book I realized he had passed in 2023. While I will not have the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Norden, I’m happy to say that this well-curated collection of interviews is a fine closing act to a busy and productive career.

I’ve long admired the thoughtful eye of Dorothy Arzner as a filmmaker and found her intriguing as the only major female director at the studios in her era. In fact, she was one of very few women who directed at all from the rise of the talkies through the studio age. This collection presents a cool-headed, intelligent, and empathetic professional who found her way in a brutal industry. She rose in the ranks with the help of great privilege bolstered by her profound talent in several aspects of filmmaking that studio heads recognized as being excellent for their bottom line.

The bulk of the book consists of mid-career interviews, which seem to for the most part to capture the truth about Arzner, as they contain many similarities, but enough variation to suggest that she wasn’t retelling the same fabrication through the years. She spoke freely of her efficient, but emotionally resonant approach to her work.

Arzner is less revealing when it comes to her personal life and her views on being a female director. While any person is justified in desiring some privacy, the former is especially understandable, as her decades-long relationship with screenwriter Marion Morgan would have been up for unpleasant scrutiny at the time. As for the latter, Arzner was more forthcoming about the challenges of being a female director when she was retired, as can be seen in the post-career interviews that make up a smaller portion of the book, but even in these conversations, there is a feeling she’s still withholding, whether out of the desire to focus on her work or simply not wanting to deal with the issue.

The appendix contains Arzner’s unfinished memoirs, which she wrote in 1955, but abandoned in the midst of her descriptions of the early twenties. While much like in her interviews, she often seems reluctant to discuss her most personal views and details, she paints a fascinating picture of the times in which she lived.

Overall, it is easy to see why gender could never have kept Arzner from the director’s chair. After the great assist of having industry connections, she was simply too much of a force as a talent to be ignored, and brilliant at understanding how to navigate a man’s world. It’s clear that she was well-liked on the set, partly because of a collaborative spirit in which she felt that cast and crew at all levels should feel free to offer ideas. For the most part though, it seems to have been her calm demeanor, combined with the kind of artistic and technical ability that come from a steady rise to the top through several jobs in the field from typist and scenario writer to editor.

On more than one occasion Arzner makes it clear that she felt the mellow manner on the set was necessary as a woman, and that she could not get away with the megaphone toting antics of her male peers. However, her way of working mirrors many modern female directors, such as Ava du Vernay, and that method has proven to be popular with cast and crew members alike as the industry gradually evolves.

Dorothy Arzner: Interviews is of great importance for what it documents, despite the occasional reticence of its subject. It reveals an underrated film artist and innovator worthy of praise in those ways alone and only more remarkable because of her unique position as a female director.


Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.


Rest in Peace Martin F. Norden

Jun 24, 2024

On YouTube: The "Sissy" Stereotype in Classic Hollywood and Grand Dame Guignol, AKA "Hagsploitation"


In a time when homosexuality was illegal, 1930s Classic Hollywood films commonly had so-called “sissy” characters. Clearly coded as gay, their effeminate demeanor was presented for laughs and ridicule. While these characters were meant to be mocked, they triumphed in their own way. They were bold in expressing their identity, were typically engaged in careers they were passionate about, and lived how they pleased, without caring what anyone thought of them.


Known as Hagsploitation, Psycho-Biddy, and the more elegant Grande Dame Guignol, there was a subgenre of movies primarily in the 60s and 70s in which middle-aged to elderly screen queens extended their careers in horror. While many found these roles demeaning to the actresses, these genre films would often effectively explore the anxiety, fear, frustration, and powerlessness a lot of these actresses, and women their age, felt in a society that either scorned or forgot them as they aged. They were also a great vehicle from them to cut loose with bold, unhinged, and often delightfully campy performances.