Dorothy Arzner | Working Girls
little frog in a big frog’s world
by Douglas Messerli
Zoë Akins (screenplay, based on a stage play “Blind Mice” by Vera Caspary and Winifred Lenihan), Dorothy Arzner (director) Working Girls / 1931
I was drawn to director Dorothy Arzner’s important 1931 film Working Girls by a small clip of the first scene posted on “Queer Cinema Archive” on Instagram. That first scene, of the young women living at a house for homeless girls, Rolfe House, in New York the very night the film’s two leads, sisters Mae (20 years of age) (Dorothy Hall) and June Thorpe (19) (Dorothy Wood) move in, seemed sufficiently lesbian in content that I simply had to see the full film, not listed on any of my LGBTQ compilations, and apparently not available on DVD.
Certainly, I knew of Arzner’s lesbian sexual identity and felt that perhaps the film had simply been overlooked. It had been. But when I sought out and viewed the entire film, I too overlooked it—at least in terms of it being an LGBTQ movie. The film begins with the girls checking in where they are read the rules, basically that it was founded for homeless girls by man of the utmost integrity. Although no specific restrictions other than being back by midnight or signing out for the night are provided, it is clear from the manager’s constant closing of windows and blinds that she immensely disapproves of the next-door neighbors who play loud music and seem to party all night.
It is a heterosexual party, revealed as one of the girls lifts up the closed blind when the manager has left the room, that stimulates the girls gathered in the large “living room”-like space and brings them into action. As the girls hear the neighbor’s music, one of them whirls into a spin. Mae, sitting on a couch with June, spots the elevator girl and winks at her. Immediately she puts on a large smile and joins them. The two sisters go over the window to enjoy the music with the others, their new girlfriend joining them and speaking one of the longest lines she does in the film, dreaming aloud that one day she’ll get a new dress and shoes and go dancing herself. The other girls have begun dancing and unable to contain themselves with the joy of the music, the sisters pair off and join the other female dancers, participating in activities which, along with opening the window, are reportedly not good for their moral characters.
That’s the full scene, followed by the rest of the movie in which the girls find jobs, Mae, with June’s help, as a “stenographer” for the scientist Joseph von Schraeder (Paul Lukas). Von Schraeder, immediately taken with Mae’s looks suggests she get new shoes and within a week provides her with a bonus so that she can buy them.
Meanwhile, June, rejected as a fashion model, is hired as a hotel telegraph operator. The first day on her job June meets a saxophone player, Pat Kelly (Stuart Erwin) and, invited out for dinner, manipulates him into buy her an orchid, perfume, and candies. Despite being younger, it is clear that June is by far the more experienced and cynical of the two, while Mae is a far more innocent dreamer who attempts to be a good girl above all.
That role becomes even more difficult for her when she meets wealthy, Harvard-educated playboy Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers, the lovely lead of William A. Wellman’s Wings) and almost immediately falls in love with the handsome man; but that love costs her a great deal, first of all her job with von Schraeder who had hoped to marry her. Even though Mae loves Boyd, she is terrified to make it too apparent since she realizes that he is successful man, while she has little to offer; or as she puts it, she is a little frog in a big frog’s world.
Mae continues to date Pat throughout most of the rest of the movie, but without any intentions of falling in love with him; she knows when she’s got a good solid sport to provide her with the good times she wants.
The rest of the film is devoted to how these two manage their work, values, and futures in terms of finding a man suitable for marriage—one of the only ways that young women of the Depression era, particularly like these two without education, could be assured of financial survival. Mae eventually sacrifices her good girl values with a night stayover at Boyd Wheeler’s apartment, and is forced to pay the consequences of love again when she discovers that she is pregnant and that Boyd is planning on marrying a socialite.
June arranges for Mae to be hired back by von Schraeder, and in the process finds herself feeling quite comfortable with the gentle elderly man. But when June reminds him on his desire to marry her, he finds himself cornered into marrying the wrong sister, but at least in doing so providing her with a home for her new baby. Mae is honest with him about her situation.
When Boyd breaks up with the socialite, realizing he loves Mae after all, things grow more complex, and once again the younger, harder sister decides that despite von Schraeder, her sister deserves the better looking and wealthier man whom she most loves, even if means a shot-gun wedding. Putting Pat’s borrowed gun to his stomach, she is startled when Boyd is only too happy to marry Mae, leaving von Schrader free. All ends well for everyone except for the poor sax player Pat, who now is perhaps deservedly left in the lurch. What can he offer a woman for a lifetime of love?
In the context of the whole, the first scene I described now seems quite innocent. None of these girls are lesbians, but merely women without men who for the moment embraced one another in the opportunity of enjoying a dance. The context is everything.
But, in fact, that first scene itself—which does still appear to be very sexually loaded—does not appear in context, coming as it does before one knows anything about these ladies. In short, Arzner purposely allows the viewer to see that scene without knowing anything about these women except what he witnesses; it is only in hindsight that what one may think he or she is observing may be taken out of context.
Looking at it another way, moreover, in the perspective of just how difficult it has been for these two sisters to negotiate the heterosexual world in which they, even if they happened to be lesbian, are forced to live in, it represents a far more relaxed and accessible possibility than the one in which finally these girls are “imprisoned” by the institution of marriage. Both have found financial reward, and Mae, at least, has found a handsome husband. Yet he has a history of abandoning women, and at least at the end of film, has not yet even come to terms with the fact that he will soon be a father as well. We have no way of knowing what his reaction to the fact that he has impregnated his wife before marriage will be? Will his family disown him? Will he still have entry into the social set to which he is accustomed after marrying an uneducated working woman?
June has found a gentle, caring, and intelligent man with whom to spend her life. But we have no way of knowing whether she is truly in love with him or simply reads him as a significant force who will provide her with the love and financial means necessary. Will we want to join her on her nightly excursions to the dancing clubs which she has enjoyed with a member of the band? Will she learn how to curl up in bed with one of the multitudinous books of van Schrader’s library? Since she hasn’t even finished high school, it is doubtful that she will share his continued intellectual pursuits.
In short there is something wrong about this story. The sudden joys of that first scene, the easy flirtation, the immediate rapport and facile engagement between sisters both of relation and gender are nowhere to found in the rest of Arzner’s cinema masterwork.
Writing in 2017 on this film in Senses of Cinema, critic Gwendolyn Audrey Foster provides a perspective in the first two paragraphs of her essay that pivot everything back upon that first scene:
“Working Girls is a brutally honest film, coming as it does at the height of the Depression, depicting precisely what it was like to be a young woman – far from home in a big city – trying to get ahead in a hostile world. Working from a screenplay by Zoë Akins…with razor sharp editing by Jane Loring, Arzner creates a fresh, compact, and decidedly female centered tale, which remains shockingly relevant even today.
Working Girls is a feminist film that employs a queer camp sensibility also found in Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936). Both films are sharp in their critique of the institution of marriage as one of the only potential avenues for female social mobility in Depression-era America. …Arzner reveals heterosexual marriage as ‘an instrument to hold both women and men hostage to appearances and enforced roles, and perhaps most significantly, hostages to excessive consumption.’ Arzner exposes the crass fiscal relationship between class and heterosexual marriage, often employing jaw-dropping ironic feminist humor from a distinctly female point of view.”
Foster goes on to argue that the director implies, particularly through that important first scene, that “same sex alliances offer the potential for more honest and fun relationships built on genuine friendship and sisterhood, rather than economic dependency.” Rather than standing as ideals for these two girls and the others with whom they share rooms at Rolfe Hall, heterosexual marriage is more a requirement for escaping the dull workaday world into financial and social mobility than having much to do with romantic ideals.
Arzner does not at all attempt to make a case that heterosexual women might wish to become lesbian or should prefer the company of their own sex, but simply reveals through a simple comparison just how difficult it is to find a suitable husband for the institution of heterosexual marriage at a time when women had little opportunities to have their voices heard or to experience the broader world without men at their side. At least the Thorpe girls from Indiana have found men who might help to give them insights in how to intellectually expand their imaginations. And one suspects that as these women grow in knowledge, they will find the men they married even less fascinating than they had at the beginning of their relationships. It may ultimately be the women who leave their husbands for other men or even for the women friends they left behind.
Equally fascinating is how the male world dealt with Arzner’s provocative cinematic statement.
According to interviews and commentary, Working Girls was for many years Arzner’s favorite movie of the several wonderful films she made. But according to critic Emily Kubincanek, once Arzner had completed the work, “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.” When University Studios acquired Paramount Pictures’ films in 1958, it meant that the film was even further buried since “Universal never saw the value in a small picture from 1931 directed by a woman.” It was not until an archival print was screened in 2015 by the University of California, Los Angeles, that a few people got a real look at this sophisticated almost lost film. In 2020, moreover, the Criterion Channel included this film among their Arzner features. But the film is still not on home DVD, and for most viewers still have no way viewing it. Luckily, I remembered that a good print is still available on-line on the RareFilms site via the Russian network OK.ru.