To celebrate Pride Month, we take a look at a 1920s film by lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner – The Wild Party.
Happy Pride Month, everyone! To kick off celebrations, I am looking at a pioneering film from a pioneering lesbian filmmaker – Dorothy Arzner. I’ve written previously here about her excellent work that helped shape cinema and tell incredible stories through the feminist lens. Incredible works such as Dance, Girl, Dance, Christopher Strong, and Merrily We Go To Hell look intimately at unconventional romances and hard-hitting topics. On top of this, Arzner, writer and director extraordinaire, was one of the only openly gay filmmakers of her time.
Though I’ve written about her before, and could many times, I wanted to focus this week on one of her best movies – The Wild Party (1929).
Often, I tell people that I first got into Pre-Code movies during lockdown. Not that I am trying to cover anything up. It’s largely the truth: my love of Victorian films led me to my love of Fredric March, which pushed me into my love of Pre-Code films in 2020. And I haven’t looked back.
However, back in 2019, during a visit to Los Angeles, I was introduced to Dorothy Arzner’s work with a double bill at the New Beverley Cinema. The Wild Party, followed by Working Girls (1931.) It was the first Pre-Code movie (outside of the Universal Monsters), it was my first Arzner film, and it was my first ever Fredric March film. Wild.
So, with that, hopefully, nice little interlude, let’s get talking about what makes The Wild Party such an entertaining ride.
It’s a film which sees silent film star Clara Bow take on her first talkie role. She stars as Stella, a vivacious student from a college who manages to upset a new young professor Gilmore before he has even started. After an upset on a train, Stella and Gil butt heads at the school more often than not and, obviously, begin to fall in love with one another.
As mentioned before, Bow was scared with the new sound and Arzner placed a microphone on a stick and, reportedly, created the first boom mic to follow Bow around.
Upon release, there were many people who derided Bow for her ‘metallic’ and ‘stiff’ accent, this being her first speaking part, and people not realising what she actually sounded like. However, she is a terrific here, sparkling with charisma as this impetuous party girl who wants as much fun as she can get.
Her first meeting with March’s Gil, as she accidentally wanders into his bed compartment on the train, is brilliant. Gil starts off a cheeky, compartment cad. He even leaves her a present saying, ‘to remind you of the dangers of spooning.’ However, when they meet in the lecture hall, he is aloof and cold tempered with Stella. As they clash throughout the film, their chemistry is so fantastic to watch.
The Wild Party would be two-time Academy award winner March’s first lead performance (and one of many with Arzner), and opposite Bow he’s electrifying to watch. It’s no wonder he was propelled to stardom following this film.
What Arzner does is present this tale of girls in the prime of their youth just having fun. You know? It feels very simplistic but there are so many different types of women presented here, who own their agency and smarts through the trials and tribulations of University, and it’s wonderfully fresh and brilliant. Arzner navigates womanhood and love with aplomb, plus there are genuinely enjoyable moments such as a fancy-dress party (equated to the male ‘stag’ party) where our heroines all wear skimpy sequined outfits. It also starts with a glorious opening sequence where we meet all our ladies of the college and get acquainted with their personalities.
Admittedly, there is some guff within the film and some sketchy uncomfortable sequences such as the girls being leered at by a whole troupe of drunken men. However, with great performances, especially from Bow and March, as well as some really fun moments, The Wild Party is a riotous must-watch. Do check it out.
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