Early Women Filmmakers: Dorothy Arzner’s The Bride Wore Red (1937)

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This post was written for the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers boxed set, available May 9! Be sure to check out the host blog for more great articles about women filmmakers, and the Blu/DVD set for a chance to discover their work.

Rudi Pal (Robert Young) is at a casino with his friend Count Armalia (George Zucco), discussing the differences between the rich and the poor. Armalia is convinced that the only difference between the two is luck. Rudi is not persuaded, but later, after Rudi has left, Armalia decides to prove his point by plucking club singer Anni (Joan Crawford) from obscurity.

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(Image via Movie Poster Shop)

The Count offers Anni money and a fancy new wardrobe, as well as a stay at a costly resort in the Alps for two weeks. She’ll take the name of Anne Vivaldi and, if anyone asks, say she’s an aristocrat’s daughter.

Of course, Rudi happens to be staying at the very same resort. Enthralled by her new life of wealth, Anni decides it shouldn’t be a two-week deal, and sets out to win Rudi’s heart to secure her future.

But things get complicated when Anni finds herself falling for Giulio (Franchot Tone), the local postal clerk. Will she follow her heart, or follow the money?

The Bride Wore Red was directed by Dorothy Arzner. It was scripted by Tess Slesinger and Bradbury Foote, from a play by Ferenc Molnar.

The story of The Bride Wore Red centers on a love triangle, but not a melodramatic or particularly swoon-worthy one. Instead, the focus is put almost wholly on Joan Crawford’s character of Anni, and how each relationship would impact her life. Giulio is clearly the better match, but both men seem equally interested in her. She’s left with a choice between the emotional connection and quiet country life offered by Giulio, or the much more secure and affluent life offered by Rudi.

This conflict between true love and the security of marrying a wealthy man has been commonly used in film. Under Arzner’s direction, Joan Crawford really makes you feel for the character. While we see the flaw in her decision-making, it is also easy to understand her motivations, and the emotions that drive her to make those decisions.

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Anni, before meeting Count Armalia, sings: “Who wants love? I’ll go my way without it. I know too much about it. Who wants love?” (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

The film’s reputation doesn’t exactly match my perception. Most people seem to associate it with the personal turmoil of Joan Crawford and soon-to-be-ex-husband Franchot Tone behind-the-scenes, or with the fact that it was released around the time Joan was dubbed “box office poision.”

I happen think Crawford is wonderful in her role. Her performance is the film’s heart, and she brings quite an intensity to the character. There’s a self-assuredness to her performance, a sort of blasé attitude toward the world, at least in the beginning. This changes as she becomes a fish out of water in the world of the wealthy, and her insecurities are revealed.

Anni is a woman desperate to make a better life for herself, and Crawford brings a strong sense of determination to the character, along with powerful moments of pain and sadness.

An enjoyably soapy story and fantastic moments of costuming by Adrian are also assets to the film. In one scene, disgraced after a secret of hers has been revealed, Anni marches out of the hotel in a striking black robe — a grim and subdued contrast to the fancier garb donned in her quest to win over Rudi (and to her beloved, jewel-encrusted red dress).

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The magnificent red dress looks impressively garish, even in black and white. (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

An article about the film on TCM’s website states that the relationship between director and leading lady was increasingly “chilly” as the production progressed. I have my doubts about this, or at least doubt that it was a major problem, considering the two reportedly remained friends. Arzner went on to direct commercials for Pepsi (a company for which Crawford’s husband served as chairman) in the mid-century.

I urge those who haven’t seen this film to look past that “box office poison” insult and any rumored behind-the-scenes drama to appreciate the work of one of Hollywood’s pioneering female directors. The Bride Wore Red is one of many films where Dorothy Arzner proves herself not just a capable director, but a very good one.

She took what could have been a very simple “Cinderella” tale and, despite the script’s weaknesses, added more depth to Anni, focusing on her internal struggle and decision-making. She also drew a wonderful friendship from the interactions between Anni and the minor character Maria (Mary Phillips), and a deliciously snarky supporting turn as a Contessa from Billie Burke. It’s a film of high production value, with several very good performances.

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Arzner and Crawford on set. (Image via Felix in Hollywood)

There’s a great quote from this film, uttered by Franchot Tone as Giulio, which could easily apply to his director and her career: “It would be unusual, but then, great women can do unusual things.” Dorothy Arzner was a great woman who did an unusual thing, making a name for herself as a director in a studio system which afforded women few opportunities behind the camera. The Bride Wore Red isn’t Arzner’s best film, but it’s worth watching.

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11 thoughts on “Early Women Filmmakers: Dorothy Arzner’s The Bride Wore Red (1937)

  1. Movies Silently says:

    Thank you so much for joining in! I’m with you about the rumored feud between Crawford and Arzner: why do we always assume that two talented women must always fight? Minor set tensions between professionals may not sound as juicy but it seems to be the case here. Glad the two remained friends.

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  2. Joe Thompson says:

    What a beautiful summary of Dorothy Arzner: “Dorothy Arzner was a great woman who did an unusual thing, making a name for herself as a director in a studio system which afforded women few opportunities behind the camera.” And what a great essay. I want to see the movie.

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    • Lindsey says:

      Glad to hear I’ve convinced you to see it! :) I hope you do get the chance soon — it’s an interesting watch, especially when you know a bit of its background. Thanks for reading!

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  3. Silver Screenings says:

    I didn’t realize this film had been directed by a woman, and Dorothy Arzner at that! (I thought I always paid close attention to screen credits, but I guess that just ain’t so.) Like you said, Joan Crawford is really good in this performance. The story isn’t exactly a brand-new premise, but it feels original here. I bet that was Dorothy’s touch.

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