Beyond the Classics is a recurring column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she uncovers Dorothy Arzner’s hard-to-find 1931 pre-Code film ‘Working Girls.’
For decades in the studio era of Hollywood, the most powerful men tried to convince women they weren’t fit to direct movies. Dorothy Arzner was the exception, as she directed some of the largest stars and delivered magnificent movies of all kinds. Arzner recently had a retrospective on The Criterion Channel, which unearthed one of her rarest features for a limited time: 1931’s Working Girls was once Arzner’s favorite film, but what her studio and time did to make it disappear shouldn’t keep you from seeking it out where you can.
Arzner began in Hollywood as a script typist for director William DeMille in 1919. She started from the ground up, seeing how stories were formed, and she quickly began getting her hand in editing, camera operating, and soon directing. Arzner had the know-how and drive to declare she was ready to direct a film, something that wasn’t impossible for women in the silent era. However, Arzner directed her debut feature, Fashions for Women, as the silent era was going out of style. Many of the female directors that dominated box offices with their silent movies, like Lois Weber and Mabel Normand, were ostracized by the integration of sound in Hollywood in 1928. But Arzner’s career did not end with silent film’s popularity. In fact, it just began.
In 1928, Arzner became the first woman to direct a sound film, with Manhattan Cocktail. She soon directed some of the biggest stars of the era, including Clara Bow, Fredric March, and Claudette Colbert. Her notoriety as a director grew despite being a freelancer during a time when contracts were the safety net most filmmakers needed to survive. Although, she favored Paramount, where she made Working Girls in 1931.
Based on a hit play by two female writers, Vera Caspary and Winifred Lenihan, the film was adapted by Zoe Akins, a female screenwriter and playwright whom Arzner frequently worked with throughout her career. Working Girls was also edited by a woman, Jane Loring, whom Arzner also liked working with.
Working Girls has a solid story from a female perspective, something that rarely happened during Hollywood’s pre-Code era. From 1929 to 1934, many films were made about women’s struggles during the Great Depression and the modern attitude towards women’s sexuality, but they were always through the male gaze. But this rare collaboration between several women in Hollywood found the perfect pre-Code story to tackle: two young women trying to make it in New York City.
As the film begins, Mae and June Thorpe (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood) are two Midwestern sisters fresh off the bus. They check-in to a crowded boarding house for working girls where the rules are strictly against sleeping around and “unladylike” behavior. The sisters soon find out that what the manager doesn’t know won’t hurt her and many of the girls are on the hunt for a man, either to marry or just to milk for his money. The Thorpe sisters pursue this quest as well but stop to find jobs first.
Mae snatches a job as a secretary for rich Dr. Von Schraeder (Paul Lukas) and June walks into, literally, a job at the telegraph office of a hotel. She meets Pat Kelly (Stuart Erwin), a musician keen on buying her whatever she wants. Mae meets who she considers “a real man of the world,” a Harvard man named Boyd (Charles “Buddy” Wheeler). Her devotion to Boyd motivates her to turn down a sudden proposal from her boss and sleep at Boyd’s apartment, a big no-no at the boarding house — and for single girls everywhere in 1931. She not only finds out she’s pregnant soon after but that Boyd skipped town to get engaged to a rich socialite. The two sisters are left to fend for themselves, and June conspires to get Mae the husband she needs in order to survive.
Working Girls holds a lot of the free-flying sexuality and wise-cracking quips that pre-Codes are known for, but it holds something different, too. The Thorpe sisters have depth and vulnerability from the very beginning of the film. They’re not simply gold diggers or career-women, but an amalgamation of everything that women were told to be in the 1930s. They needed to be fun, like June, and ready to have a good time with any man, even while working. But they also needed to be focused on finding a husband and settling down eventually, like Mae. Find a man who is older, but not too old, and rich, but not too rich. Women needed to be independent, but only to a certain degree. The contradictions and impossibilities expected of women are embodied in the two sisters.
Mae represents the more delicate side of how women were expected to be. She’s a little too hopeful and trusting in the people she meets, but she’s well-educated. Her voice sounds like a precursor to Judy Holliday’s in movies like Born Yesterday — a high-pitched tone that fooled men into thinking she was stupid when in reality she had more smarts than men could dream of having. Mae is aware of the dividing lines between classes, between Harvard men like Boyd and working girls like her.
There are moments when Mae responds to situations in a genuine way but ends up serving laughs unintentionally. After her boss proposes to her at work, offering to take care of her for the rest of his life, she answers a call from her boyfriend, Boyd. She greets Boyd with her babyish voice and they exchange pet names, completely ignoring the fact that she’s rubbing the relationship in Dr. Von Schraeder’s face. He asks her to take the call outside, clearly hurt, but Mae never seems to notice — or, at the very least, not care about his ego.
Elder sister June has the street-smarts that you’d think can only come with age, but she’s grown weary of society quicker than Mae has. June never finished high school, like her sister, but she knows she’s capable of doing whatever she desires. She resents the uppity women in the department stores who refuse to hire her because of her cheap clothes and lack of experience. But she doesn’t let it get her down. She doesn’t have the time to consider the kinds of people who don’t see her worth when she knows there are plenty of people who will.
June may seem like she’s completely aloof and ungrounded, but she longs to be accepted and cared for, too. She’s protective of her younger sister, and her risk-taking attitude is something she uses for the good of the people she loves. June has a soft side, too, as we see when she falls in love with Dr. Von Schraeder in the process of trying to renew his proposal to Mae. June may be a little rough around the edges, but when she’s not circling want ads in lipstick, she’s dreaming of the kind of happiness she can only get from opening up to other people.
Arzner’s genius comes from including moments that her male counterparts would consider insignificant. A montage in which June upgrades her clothes shows the audience her response to the department store clerk’s dig at her lack of style. While Arzner does include the sexy shots of June’s legs as she rolls her stockings up her calves, she also includes her unboxing hats and blouses out of their expensive wrappings. These shots feel run of the mill, but they show some of the many details women needed in order to project style and professionalism. June is willing to put on the costume, not because she’s obsessed with style and clothes, but because she knows that’s what she has to look like to get ahead in this world.
That’s just one of the aspects Arzner undercuts in Working Girls. As in many of her movies, here marriage isn’t the kind of fairytale it is in other Hollywood films. It’s an economic proposition, a compromise, and more of a struggle than women are led to believe. Marriage is only a dire need for the girls when Mae finds out she’s pregnant and will be a societal reject if she becomes a single mother. The Thorpe sisters do want love, but they recognize there’s a game to be played to becoming financially stable and that marriage just so happens to be the safest way to it.
Arzner was not only one of the only women in filmmaking at this time, but she was perhaps the only gay woman to direct movies during the 1930s and 1940s as well. Her perspective seeps into that of some of her characters, too. Arzner was known to be a lonely woman, but she had her share of relationships. A wonderful beat at the beginning of the film finds June and Mae getting acquainted with the other girls in their boarding house. June gives a flirty wink to another girl in the parlor room, who returns the sentiment. Her charm doesn’t just work on men, and June clearly finds enjoyment in women in the same way. It doesn’t leave that scene, so it seems harmless when not considering Arzner’s own sexuality, but it’s he kind of gesture that was usually used as a gag by straight male writers and directors.
In the documentary Longing for Women: Dorothy Arzner included in the Criterion edition of Merrily We Go to Hell, German filmmaker Katja Raganelli travels to Arzner’s final home in the Californian desert in an attempt to better understand the legendary director. She details Arzner’s career, her life-long relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan, and Arzner’s sudden death in a car accident. According to Raganelli, Arzner declared that Working Girls was her favorite of her pictures, but Paramount did not share her love for the movie. Arzner created a fun yet poignant film without the help of any notable stars, but her brash criticism of marriage and clear expression of pre-marital sex caused a rift between her and censors even during the free for all era of pre-Code Hollywood. Once Arzner completed Working Girls, Paramount executives advised her to forget she had ever made the movie and in 1931 gave it a limited and short-lived release. Her most heartfelt project was swept under the rug for decades to come.
In 1958, Universal Studios acquired all of Paramount Pictures’ films made between 1929-1948. This business deal further buried Working Girls into the void of Hollywood rarities, since Universal never saw the value in a small picture from 1931 directed by a woman. For years, the only way to see Working Girls was if you were lucky enough to catch a screening of an archival print like UCLA’s screening in 2015, or if you were willing to bootleg a horrible-looking version online somewhere. The movie was never released on home video, so owning a copy is virtually impossible. This makes keeping Arzner’s most prized project in the public eye extremely difficult. Fortunately, The Criterion Channel included Working Girls in their program of several Arzner movies in 2020, but this period of availability was way too brief.
Working Girls deserves the cult following that other pre-Code classics have acquired in the decades since their release, but that can only happen if respect for Dorothy Arzner as a filmmaker and an artist continues to become more commonplace in film studies. Arzner’s name is gaining more recognition, and making her favorite film widely available would be the best way to honor her taste and the talent of all the women involved with 1931’s Working Girls.