The Wild Party was the first talkie for both star Clara Bow and director Dorothy Arzner1, and is noted in the technical history of the early sound period for its introduction of the boom microphone. It is Arzner’s expressive use of the freedom granted her direction by her invention that gives the film more than historical or technical significance.
Freed to move the microphone over and between her actors, Arzner creates an aural social space, and, despite the camera’s comparative immobility, can also follow mobile group conversations, as when the ‘Hard-Boiled Maidens’ gather around Stella (Bow) asking her to tell the story of the spoons in her luggage. The gradation between intelligibility and unintelligibility is relatively subtle; whereas crowded voices were often being used during this period purely for the novelty of their sound (frequently run, unsynchronised, over silent footage), the voices in The Wild Party are always distinct and embodied enough to carry narrative significance; as Sara Bryant notes, the sound of “women collectively chattering, singing, and laughing” creates “an unruly acoustic experience that, at moments in the film, prompts from male characters ineffective disciplinary responses… or mild fear”.2
As well as social space, Arzner also creates romantic interpersonal space, most strikingly in the naturalistic choreographies of homoerotic body language between Stella (Bow) and Helen (Shirley O’Hara). Just as Bow’s performance often seems plural in its transitional quality, a detailed physical performance accompanied by speech rather than an integrated speaking performance, so the scenes between Stella and Helen have two distinct, simultaneous meanings. As dialogue scenes, they are discussions of heterosexual activity; as images, they are depictions of a lesbian relationship.
Arzner extends every on-screen space with sound, and often uses the edges of the frame to couple the visual and aural spaces. Stella enters her first shot rear-first, dragging a large trunk to the accompaniment of her friends’ off-screen laughter. When Gil (Fredric March) enters the lecture theatre, the appearance of the students’ waving legs at the bottom right of the frame and the sound of their whispering on the soundtrack make him seem vulnerable. At the film’s end, Stella, expecting a ticket inspection, raises her right arm out of the bottom left of her close-up without looking. She looks up to see Gil. Arzner cuts to a medium shot of him with Stella’s hand and ticket in the bottom-right of the frame, before, getting over her surprise as they speak, Stella lowers it out of shot.
Although more often praised for her work with female actors, Arzner was, in Judith Mayne’s words, “no slouch insofar as male actors are concerned.”3 Fredric March, who gave four performances under Arzner’s direction in the first three years of his film career,4 arguably owed more of his initial success to Arzner than did any of the actors she is more commonly associated with as ‘star-maker’. Gil’s scientific training and idealism are traits he shares with the director, who had been a pre-medical student at the University of Southern California before working in Hollywood. As Carolyn A. Durham has observed, Arzner “avoids the trap of portraying masculinity as monolithic”.5 She perceives the often-poignant distance between the masculine role and the individuals who are expected to perform it; although the characters who face this struggle are generally peripheral, they are never regarded without sympathy.
In comparison with The Wild Party’s rich subtextual and non-narrative elements, it would be easy to regard its heterosexual romance plot as merely a generic pretext, but this would be to do an injustice to the sophistication of Arzner’s narrative strategies. Her characteristic merging and equalising of plot and sub-plot are at perhaps their most radical here, in a story that seems to keep beginning, the space of the college and its environs expanding in settings seen only once. The cause of Stella’s crisis is not the exposure of her romance that we have been led to expect, but the exposure of Helen’s romance with George by a gust of wind and a door Stella left open. Gil is shot off-screen by the roadhouse men as payback for having aided Stella, but the wound is minor, and the men abruptly disappear from the plot. Finally, the happy ending is the revelation that Stella is now ready to participate in anthropological field work. None of these narrative shifts is haphazard, or suggestive of an ironic indifference; all follow organically from the view of life that Arzner had already begun to develop when, at eighteen, she had written in her high school yearbook that “Life is full of beginnings; we start something new each and every day. Most beginnings are small and seem trivial, but in reality they are full of significance…. Each act and each thought is like a building block, all going towards the completion of the perfect structure…. Let us not be satisfied with ourselves; climb higher. Do not be earthbound!”6
While Stella’s courage is demonstrated less spectacularly than that of later Arzner heroines such as Lady Cynthia Darrington (Katharine Hepburn) in Christopher Strong, or Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) in Dance, Girl, Dance, it is nonetheless decisive in plot terms. When Stella leaves Winston College, Gil, inspired by her example, follows her. The future they are travelling towards, an expedition to Malaya, is vocational rather than domestic, the shared work of equals.
The Wild Party (1929 US 75 mins)
Prod. Co: Paramount Dir: Dorothy Arzner Scr: Warner Fabian (Samuel Hopkins Adams), E. Lloyd Sheldon Phot: Victor Milner Ed: Otto Lovering (uncredited)
Cast: Clara Bow, Fredric March, Marceline Day, Shirley O’Hara, Adrienne Doré, Joyce Compton, Jack Oakie, Jack Luden, Phillips Holmes
- Though not, as is often incorrectly stated, for Paramount – that was the previous year’s Interference (Roy Pomeroy and Lothar Mendes, 1928). See: Anthony Slide, ‘Early Women Filmmakers: The Real Numbers’, Film History, Vol. 24, No. 1, Film Histories (2012), pp. 114-121. ↩
- Sara Bryant, “Dorothy Arzner’s Talkies: Gender, Technologies of Voice, and the Modernist Sensorium”, MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 59, Number 2, Summer 2013, p. 357. ↩
- Judith Mayne, Directed by Dorothy Arzner (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 46. ↩
- In this film, Sarah and Son (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931) and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). They both worked on the revue film Paramount on Parade (various directors, 1930), but on different episodes. ↩
- Carolyn A. Durham (2001) “Missing masculinity or Cherchez L’Homme: Re‐reading Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 18:1, 63-70. ↩
- Mayne, pp. 19-22. ↩