By 1943, Dorothy Arzner had the unique privilege as a woman director in Hollywood to choose her own projects. She chose a thriller based on the novel The Commandos
. Its story of a reviled woman (Merle Oberon) seducing a Nazi officer (Carl Esmond) as deep cover for the Norwegian Resistance offered not only lusty thrills (Submarines! Armies! A fistfight in a barn!) but also an opportunity to inject her trademark emphasis on women's relationships into an au courant spy drama, illustrating, as critic Molly Haskell put it, "a rapture of mutual understanding that transcends war." (Compare Oberon's unvirginal patriot torn between lovers -- but not love of country -- as a tart, savvy counterpoint to Ilsa's apolitical love triangle in Casablanca
) Arzner dedicated herself completely to the film, overseeing every shot without benefit of a second unit, but unfortunately contracted pneumonia and was forced to turn the project over to Charles Vidor (Gilda
) for completion. After a year's difficult recuperation, Arzner never returned to Hollywood. First Comes Courage
honors women's work, and serves as a fitting coda for the career of a female director whose work also deserves our recognition.
By Violet LeVoit
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