Woman as Alien in Dorothy Arzner’s ‘Christopher Strong’

In a single shot with a single dress, Dorothy Arzner is able to capture the tone of gender tensions of the 1930s.
Odeon Entertainment
By  · Published on March 16th, 2020

The Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s was an unsurprisingly male-dominated space, with men like Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, and countless others receiving credit for their illustrious place in film history. But, there was one woman making films during this time period whose work is woefully understudied and underappreciated: Dorothy Arzner.

The only female director whose work moved from the silent era into sound, she also has the largest oeuvre of any female filmmaker. She made films about women for women and addressed the many facets of being a woman, from societal standing to romantic relationships to what it means to work. Arzner was also a lesbian filmmaker, which can be seen in her critiques of heteronormative relationships and their consequences, particularly in her 1933 film Christopher Strong.

Christopher Strong is a look at the gender dynamics of the 1930s when women were beginning to become more independent and defiant of societally imposed gender roles. In this changing world, Katharine Hepburn’s aviatrix Lady Cynthia and Colin Clive’s married Sir Christopher Strong develop an illicit relationship. Lady Cynthia begins the film as a single woman who flies planes, goes to parties, wears pants, and doesn’t worry about finding a husband. However, as she enters this affair, her strength begins to wither away as she is controlled by a man who sees her as something to be possessed and coveted, rather than a real person.

This shot marks the beginning of their affair, as well as the beginning of the end for Lady Cynthia’s power as she is rendered into a genderless object that is being desired, chased, and eventually caught. Previous to this shot, Lady Cynthia is established as a more masculine figure and an equal to the men around her; she is independent and powerful, able to function on her own without the help of a man. However, this shot negates the previous representation of a powerful woman as she is transformed through a fantastically alien costume.

The dress is a spectacle, which is emphasized as she takes visual dominance of the frame in multiple ways. Not only does her sparkling dress draw the eye, but she is also literally standing above Christopher Strong. Her position on the top of the start enforces a temporary dominance as she looks down at him, revealing her alien-like body and commanding his attention. Christopher fades into the foreground and for a brief moment, Lady Cynthia shines.

This reveal of Lady Cynthia’s dress, as well as the dress itself, is pivotal to this scene. Previously, Lady Cynthia has been seen as more masculine: wearing pants, driving fast cars, and flying planes. However, now she seems to be that woman’s antithesis, a form that almost defies gender definition. She is not in the typical dress that accentuates her feminine body. Rather, she is in something that almost completely hides it; she looks nothing like herself. She is not the typical image of a sexual object. Rather, she is something more alien, antennae and all. However, she is still an object of Sir Christopher’s desire as he calls her “something exquisite.” He does not use a word to address her personhood but instead describes her as a thing. In this moment, with her womanhood and sexuality obscured, she is no longer a woman, but an object to be captured, like a moth. 

This is a turning point for the entire film, marking the beginning of Lady Cynthia and Sir Christopher’s affair. This is also the first iteration of the specific space of Lady Cynthia’s apartment, a place that becomes important twice more in Christopher Strong. It is a place that marks temporality in their affair: the beginning, the middle before she flies around the world, and the end when she sees him for the last time. While Lady Cynthia stands at the top of the stairs in this shot, displaying power over Sir Christopher, only to have that collapse into close up, she cannot maintain that power dynamic and ultimately gives in. The final iteration, while in the same physical space, is framed completely differently, with no dialogue on the stairs. It is just the two of them on the couch, talking about her pregnancy, and what they should do. That final moment displays that Lady Cynthia no longer has any power in this relationship. 

In a single shot, and by extension in this sequence, Arzner is able to capture the tone of gender tensions of the 1930s. Single women were objects to be caught and displayed, a feat of endurance and strength by the man who wins her. Christopher Strong is a tragic look at those tensions and how women are often destroyed by the whims of men. One dress that looks like something out of a science fiction movie encapsulates just how men of that time period regarded the female body: spectacular, alluring, and easy to trap. 

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)