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Film Geeks SD Pay Tribute To Women Directors Dorothy Arzner And Ida Lupino

Merrily We Go To Hell’ and ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ screen at MOPA as part of Famous Firsts

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Sylvia Sydney tries to be a "modern" wife in the 1932 pre-code martial drama "Merrily We Go to Hell."


Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic


Women Direct

"Wonder Woman" (2017, Patty Jenkins), still in theaters and now streaming

"Detroit" (2017, Kathryn Bigelow), still in theaters

"Merrily We Go To Hell" (1932, Dorothy Arzner), screening 7:30 p.m., Sept. 1, at MOPA

"The Hitch-Hiker" (1953, Ida Lupino), screening 9 p.m., Sept. 1, at MOPA

Les Femmes Underground International Film Festival, Sept. 2 at Digital Gym Cinema

It’s not often that you have two successful studio pictures directed by women playing in theaters at the same time. Kathryn Bigelow’s "Detroit" has won critical acclaim and Patty Jenkins’ "Wonder Woman" has dominated the summer box office. To complement these two recent examples of female-helmed films, Film Geeks SD will be showcasing a double feature on Friday from pioneering women directors Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino.

Women directors today

Women such as Bigelow and Jenkins do reflect the progress the industry has made in that they are directing major studio films.

Bigelow is the only woman to have won a best directing Oscar, for "The Hurt Locker," and she is able to initiate her own projects and get them back and distributed by major studios as she did with "Detroit."

And with "Wonder Woman," Jenkins became the first female director to helm a major superhero film. So that’s progress.

But according to the most recent study from Center For The Study Of Women In Television And Film here at San Diego State University, women comprised just 7 percent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases last year, and that’s a decline of 2 percentage points from 2015.

The two women also reflect different filmmaking styles and approaches. Bigelow has always been interested in genre films and action films, and films that don’t look obviously like they have been directed by a woman. She’s not interested in making "chick flick" or rom-coms or even exclusively female driven films, although she has had some strong female characters, as in "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Weight of Water." She has also directed very testosterone driven films like "Point Break" and "The Hurt Locker."

Bigelow thrives on stories where she can be in the heat of the action as opposed to wrestling with complicated emotions. I admire her for not conforming to stereotypes about the kinds of films women should direct.

Jenkins has only two features under her belt ("Monster," "Wonder Woman") and both are focused on female characters that drive their stories. She is much more vocal about advocating for female empowerment on and off screen.

The trail blazers

These women have gotten where they are based on their talent but they also owe a debt of gratitude to some of the women who paved the way for them when there were no women directors to be found at the major studios in Hollywood.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: UCLA Film & Television Archive

Director Dorothy Arzner examining some film.

As part of the Film Geeks SD, I am thrilled to present films by Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino as part of the Famous Firsts series at the Museum of Photographic Arts. The firsts they represent are: Dorothy Arzner was the first woman admitted to the Directors Guild of America (Lupino was the second) and Lupino's "The Hitch-Hiker" represents the first film noir directed by a woman in the United States.

For Arzner we are showing her pre-code look at a “modern” marriage teasingly called "Merrily We Go To Hell." In the film Frederic March plays a philandering husband and Sylvia Sydney's response is not moral reproach but rather to do some philandering of her own.

She tells him, "If being a modern husband gives you privileges than being a modern wife gives me privileges, too."

Arzner is an interesting personality in her own right. She drove an ambulance in World War I and she defied the gender norms of the studio system and did not hide the fact that she was a lesbian. She was also incredibly smart in assessing the film industry and how to succeed in it. She started as a script typist then moved up to being an editor and proved how valuable she was by coming up with clever ideas in post production — like using stock footage to save money — and quickly moved up to scriptwriting and directing.

Arzner was at her peak in the 1920s and 30s. Lupino directed her first film in 1949 but she came to directing in a different way than Arzner.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: RKO Radio Pictures

Ida Lupino on location directing "The Hitch-Hiker."

Lupino was an actress first and although she worked for studios as a contract player she often rebelled and refused to play parts. As a result she was often put on suspension. That’s when she started to watch directors on the set and learn about editing and directing. But, unlike Arzner who navigated through the studio system, Lupino formed her own company and made her films outside the mainstream industry.

Lupino was the first woman to direct a film noir and we are showing her tense claustrophobic "The Hitch-Hiker." This scene sets up the premise of two men who pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be an escaped convict.

"The Hitch-Hiker" and "Merrily We Go To Hell" screen at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 1 at the Museum of Photographic Arts. There will be food trucks in the park that night so you can enjoy dinner and a movie.

And if you are in the mode of supporting female directors old and new, there is Les Femmes Underground International Film Festival running this Saturday, Sept. 2 at Digital Gym Cinema.

More on Les Femmes Underground International Film Festival here.


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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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