ICONIC FOR HER DAPPER BUTCH LOOK and pomaded short tresses, Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in the Hollywood studio system during the late 1920s and ’30s, was drawn to stories centering around women’s work: pink-collar toilers in Working Girls (1931), a steely homemaker in Craig’s Wife (1936), burlesque hoofers in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Christopher Strong (1933) spotlights a more rarefied career choice—aviatrix—and showcases the star-making labor of Katharine Hepburn, appearing in only her second film. As record-breaking pilot Lady Cynthia Darrington, Hepburn swaggers magnificently in jodhpurs and a beret (and, in one spectacular moment, a lamé moth costume, replete with antennae), speeds down English back roads in her sports car, and enjoys an easy, just-one-of-the-lads rapport with her plane crew.
In short, this robust, reckless high flyer would seem an odd match for the milquetoast titular member of Parliament (Colin Clive) with whom she’s having an adulterous affair. The aristos meet cute as the exhibits of a treasure hunt (the same game that would bring William Powell and Carole Lombard together in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey in 1936). Sir Christopher is presented as “an attractive man who can swear he’s been married for over five years, has always been faithful to his wife, and is not ashamed to admit it”; Lady Cynthia as “an attractive girl of over twenty who can swear she’s never had a love affair.” The virtuous MP, who had been whisked away from poring over taxation codes at 3 AM in his study by his twenty-year-old daughter, herself stepping out with a fruity wedded blueblood, boasts to the party crowd of the connubial harmony he has shared for decades with his wife, Lady Elaine (Billie Burke).
But the legislative official quickly goes weak for this habituée of the aerodome. Cynthia and Christopher share their first kiss at Cannes; as he frets, she declares, “Of course it’s all wrong. But I like it.” During their periods of separation and reunion, Cynthia remains bold, active, determined; as she makes a solo flight around the world, her upstanding lover anxiously tunes into the wireless and scans headlines for news of her progress. Yet even this timid politician has some fire in him, as slyly intimated during a scene consisting of nothing more than Cynthia’s hand by a nightstand alarm clock and the offscreen postcoital pillow talk of the actors. Addressing adultery, sex, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Christopher Strong, which was written by Zoë Akins and released the year before the enforcement of the bowdlerizing Hays Code, handles these topics with less hysteria than most recent multiplex fare—at least until the final scene.
“Marriage and children make almost any woman old-fashioned and intolerant,” Lady Elaine chirps to Cynthia toward the film’s end (a worldview that makes her a mommy blogger avant la lettre). Matrimony and its discontents—and the hazards and dissatisfactions of courtship in general—figure prominently in Arzner’s oeuvre, as does sororal camaraderie (exemplified in 1929’s The Wild Party). Men are often superfluous, depicted, depending on where they fall on the socioeconomic scale, as hectoring, no-good drunks or spineless, coddled patricians. The female protagonists in Arzner’s films live by the motto of Christopher Strong’s unforgettable airwoman: Courage conquers death.
Christopher Strong screens February 15 at Film Forum in New York as part of the series “1933: Hollywood’s Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year.”