The days were once defined to censorship. Celluloid was intended to capture easy virtues; cinema was meant to celebrate mediocrity. Hollywood was a tangle of high production values and strict ethics — all of which were charted in the infamous Hays Code, a collection of taboos and societal concerns. It was an age of studio control… and feminine oppression.
In 1929 female directors were rare within the United States. While the early formats of silent films had offered a wealth of women (such as Alice Guy-Blaché, who created the first fully narrative piece: La Fée aux Choux), the introduction of sound — and its subsequent rules — created a quick decline. Hollywood was demanding much from its production teams, and the back-lots were pervaded by sexism.
There was still hope to find among the casting chairs, however: Dorothy Arzner.
Arzner — who began her career in 1927 — developed her unique style during the Silent Era, boasting independent characters and bold cinematography. Her films received wide praise, with Blood and Sand and The Wild Party considered to be among the best of the decade. The introduction of the Hays Code, however, caused many to assume that Arzner would lose her career.
Instead she discovered ways to conform to the conditions of Hollywood, while subsequently injecting her projects with a feministic sensibility. Her characters were reflections of herself: consumed by struggles and the need for personal validation. Efforts like Christopher Strong and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney showcased brave women and unique photography. They were financial and critical successes.
And they, like Arzner herself, helped to usher in the progress that was to come.