Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood’s studio system during the 1920s, ’30s and early ’40s and still is the American mainstream movie director of the distaff persuasion with the largest oeuvre in Hollywood to this day. In her 16-year career as a director, Arzner made three silent movies in addition to 14 pictures in the Sound Era from 1928 to 1943.
She was born on January 3, 1897 (some sources put the year as 1900) in San Francisco, California to a German-American father and a Scots mother. Raised in Los Angeles, her parents ran a café featuring German cuisine that was frequented by silent film actors, including the superstars Charlie Chaplin and William S. Hart and the director Erich von Stroheim. Working as a waitress at her parents’ restaurant, no one could have foreseen at the time that Arzner would be one of the few woman to break the glass-ceiling of directing, and the only one to work in the Hollywood studio system during its Golden Age.
Dorothy Arzner’s path to the director’s chair was different that that of women directors in the future (indeed, different than that of most men, too). Directors now typically are graduates of film schools or are actors prior to directing. (The first film school-trained director to score in a Big Way, Francis Ford Coppola, studied screenwriting with Arzner at UCLA. His daughter Sofia Coppola became only the third women director to be nominated for an Academy Award.) Like most of the directors of her generation, Arzner gained wide training in most aspects of filmmaking by working her way up from the bottom. It was the best way to become a filmmaker, she believed.
After graduating from high school in 1915, she entered the University of Southern California, where she was in the pre-med program for two years. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Arzner was unable to realize her ambition of serving her country in a military capacity as there were no women’s units in the armed forces at the time. Instead, she served as an ambulance driver during the war.
After the Armistice, Azner got a job on a newspaper. The director of her ambulance company introduced her to film director William C. DeMille, the brother of director-producer Cecil B. DeMille, one of the co-founders of Famous-Players-Lasky (the studio eventually became known by the name of its distribution unit, Paramount Pictures). She decided to pursue a film career after visiting a movie set and being intrigued by the editing facilities.
Eventually, Dorothy Arzner decided that she would like to become a director. At the time — the post-World War One period — the strict delineation between directing and editing did not exist. Firewalls later were erected between directing and editing when the movie studios matured and used a “factory” industrial production paradigm, in which both directors and editors became separate “hired hands.”
In the early days, directors like Cecil B. DeMille oversaw all aspects of movie production. (Major directors like C.B., Frank Capra and George Stevens continued to control their pictures from scripting through previews and exhibition, but with the studio system, it was more common for even “A-List” Oscar-winning directors like Michael Curtiz or Victior Fleming to be just used as hired hands, shuffled from one picture to another, frequently even before a picture was finished shooting. Editing was overseen by the producer, who answered to the studio production manager.)
When women became squeezed out of the industry in the 1930s as the studio system crystallized, they still retained a professional presence in Hollywood as editors.
Women in the Movie Industry
Though Dorothy Arzner would prove to be the sole member of her sex to direct Hollywood pictures during the first generation of sound film, in the silent era, a woman aspiring to a career behind the camera was not a pipe-dream.
The first narrative, fictional movie in history likely was directed by a Frenchwoman.
Women were welcome in early Hollywood. Indeed, the director Lois Weber became the highest paid director in the world at Universal in 1916, before she struck out on her own by forming her own production company. Many women were employed in Hollywood during the silent era, most frequently as scenario writers. (Some research indicates that as many as three-quarters of the scenario writers during the silent era, when there was no requirement for a detailed screenplay as there was no dialog, were women.)
Indeed, there were women directors in the silent era, such as Frances Marion (more famous as an Oscar-winning screenwriter) and Lois Weber, but Arzner was fated to be the only female director to make a successful transition to the Sound Era.
It wasn’t until the 1930s and the verticalization of the industry, as it matured and consolidated, that women were almost completely squeezed out of the important production jobs in Hollywood, although many worked as on-the-set script/continuity supervisors, make-up artists and costumers.
From Stenographer to Screenwiter
The introduction to William DeMille paid off when he hired her for the sum of $20 a week to be a stenographer. Dorothy Arzner’s first job for DeMille was typing up scripts at Famous Players-Lasky. She was reportedly a poor typist.
Ambitious and possessed of a strong will, Arzner’s offer to write synopses of various literary properties was taken up. Impressing DeMille and other Paramount powers-that-be, Arzner was assigned to Paramount’s subsidiary Realart Films, where she worked cutting film. She was promoted to script-girl after one-year, which required her presence on the set to ensure the continuity of the script as shot by the director. She then was given a job cutting films.
Arzner excelled at cutting: As an editor (and she was the first woman in Hollywood professionally credited as such on-screen), she worked on 52 films, working her way up from cutting the Bebe Daniels comedies to A-pictures within a couple of years. She came into her own as a filmmaker editing the Rudolph Valentino picture Blood and Sand (1922), about a toreador. Her editing of the bullfighting scenes was highly praised, and she later claimed that she actually helmed the second-unit crew shooting some of the bullfight sequences.
(June Mathis, who wrote the scenarios and screenplays for over 100 motion pictures, wrote the screenplay. She was instrumental to the success of Valentino’s career, which essentially ended with his death and the coming of Sound. She as one of the women squeezed out by the studios.)
Director James Cruze was so impressed by her work on the Valentino picture, he brought her on to his team to edit The Covered Wagon (1923). Arzner eventually edited three other Cruze films, Ruggles of Red Gap (l923), Merton of the Movies (l924), and Old Ironsides (1926). Her work was of such quality that she received official screen credit as an editor, a first for any cutter or any gender.
While collaborating with Cruze, she also wrote scenarios, scripting her ideas both solo and in collaboration. She was credited as a screenwriter (as well as an editor) on Old Ironsides, one of the more spectacular films of the late silent era, being partially shot in Magnascope, one of the earliest widescreen processes, which used 65mm film stock. (The failure of the film, the economic demands of the conversion of sound, and the economic pinch of the Great Depression put off widescreen for another generation.)
Arzner would always credit Cruze as her mentor and role model. Old Ironsides proved to be the last film on which she was credited as an editor, as Arzner’s ambitions to be become a director had reached full flood.
The Catbird Seat
To indulge her, Paramount gave her a job as an assistant director, for which she was happy: Happy, until she realized it was not a stepping stone to the director’s chair. Dorothy Azner was determined to sit in that chair, the catbird seat on a movie set.
Arzner pressured Paramount to let her direct, threatening to leave the studio to work for Columbia Pictures on Poverty Row, which had offered her a job as a director. Unwilling to lose such a talented filmmaker, the Paramount brass relented, and she made her debut with Fashions for Women (1927). It was a hit.
In the process of directing Paramount’s first talkie, Manhattan Cocktail (1928), she made history by becoming the first woman to direct a sound picture. The success of her next sound picture, The Wild Party (1929), starring Paramount’s top star, Clara Bow, helped establish Frederic March as a movie star.
Arzner proved adept at handling actresses. As Budd Schulberg related in his autobiography Moving Pictures, Clara Bow — a favorite of his father, studio boss B.P. Schulberg, had a thick Brooklyn accent that the silence of the pre-talkie era hid nicely from the audience. She was terrified of the transition to sound, and developed a fear of the microphone.
Working with her sound crew, Arzner devised and used the first boom mike, attaching the microphone to a fish pole to follow Bow as she moved around the set. Arzner even used Bow’s less-than-dulcet speaking tones to underscore the vivaciousness of her character.
Though Dorothy Arzner made several successful films for Paramount, the studio teetered on bankruptcy due to the Depression, eventually going into receivership (before being saved by the advent of another iconic woman, Mae West). When Paramount mandated a pay-cut for all studio employees, Arzner decided to go free-lance.
R.K.O.-Radio Pictures hired her to direct its new star, headstrong young Katharine Hepburn, in her second starring film, Christopher Strong(1933), a movie about an aviatrix who dresses in “men’s clothing” pants, but becomes more feminine after having an affair with the title character, a married man who knocks her up. It was not a happy collaboration, as both women were strong and unyielding, but Arzner eventually prevailed. She was, after all, the boss on the set: The director.
The fiercely independent Hepburn complained to R.K.O., but they backed the director against their star. Eventually, they settled into a working relationship, mutually respecting each other but remaining cold and distant from one another. Ironically, Arzner would display her directorial flair in elucidating the kind of competitive rivalries between women she experienced with Hepburn.
Aside from Katharine Hepburn, Arzner did have less troubled and more productive collaborations with other actresses. She developed a close friendship with one of her female stars, Joan Crawford, whom she directed in two 1937 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vehicles, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and The Bride Wore Red.
Arzner later directed Pepsi commercials as a favor to Crawford’s husband, Pepsi Cola Company’s Chairman of the Board Alfred Steele.
The Directors Guild of America was established in 1933, and Arzner became the first woman. Indeed, she was the only female member of the DGA for many years, and the only female in the years she was active as a director.
Arzner’s films featured well-developed women characters, and she was known at the time of her work, quite naturally, as a director of “women’s pictures”. Not only did Arzner’s movies portray the lives of strong, interesting women,her pictures are noted for elucidating the ambiguities of life.
Since the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1960s, Arzner’s movies are seen as challenging the dominant, phallocentric mores of the times. Many gay critics discern a hidden gay subtext in her films, such as Christopher Strong. Whereas feminist critics see a critique of gender inequality in Christopher Strong, lesbian critics see a critique of heterosexuality itself as the source of a woman’s troubles. (The pregnant aviatrix played by Katharine Hepburn, after becoming more stereotypically feminine in dress and manners after he affair with her married lover, finally rejects conformity and understakes a suicidal last flight.)
Dorothy Arzner was a lesbian, who cultivated a masculine look in her clothes and appearance (some feel as camouflage to hide in the boy’s club that was Hollywood). Her longtime companion of Marion Morgan, the choreographer, editor and screenwriter who provided the story for the Mae West picture Klondike Annie, which was directed by he-man Raoul Walsh. (No matter how conservative, like the post-HUAC era Ronald Reagan, Hollywood professionals generally were tolerant towards gays in their industry.)
The very private Azner, the woman who broke the glass ceiling and had to survive and indeed thrived in the all-male world of studio filmmaking, refused to be categorized as a woman or gay director, insisting she was simply a “director.”
However, by the early ’90s, Arzner was not just claimed by feminists, she had become a significant figure in lesbian and gay academic studies. In her 1992 essay Dorothy Arzner’s Trousers, Janes Gaines wrote, “feminists have made Dorothy Arzner into a kind of patron saint….”
She wrote that while feminists in the preceding 15 years generally tip-toed around her sexuality, for lesbians, it was her sexuality that made her an important figure.
Speaking of on-set pictures of Arzner, Gaines wrote, “That the chic butch Arzner (wielding the power of a male director and enjoying the adoration of glamorous actresses) represents only a fantasy of lesbianism doesn’t matter. And to say that the image offers food for reverie is not to dismiss the political importance of the way Arzner’s image has stood for lesbian desire in exactly the spot where that desire has been repressed.”
In 1943, Dorothy Arzner joined other top Hollywood directors such as John Ford (who reputedly served as an assistant to Lois Weber, the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film), George Stevens and John Huston in going to work for the U.S. war effort during World War Two. Arzner made training films for the U.S. Army’s Women’s Army Corps (WACs). That same year, her health was compromised after she contracted pneumonia.
After the War, she did not to return to feature film directing, but made documentaries and commercials for the new television industry. She also became a filmmaking teacher, first at the Pasadena Playhouse during the 1950s and ’60s, and then at the University of California, Los Angeles during the 1960s and ’70s. She taught at UCLA until her death in 1979.
Why did she succeed where other women didn’t? She was, above all, a realist.
“When I went to work in a studio,” she said, “I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”
She was honored in her own lifetime. She became a symbol and role model for women filmmakers who desired entry into mainstream cinema. The feminist movement in the 1960s championed her. In 1972, the First International Festival of Women’s Films honored her by screening The Wild Party, and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at the Second Festival in 1976.
In 1975, the Directors Guild of America honored her with “A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburn was read: “Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career.”
Note: A version of this biography appeared originally on the Internet Movie Database
Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Dorothy Arzner’s trousers, by Jane Gaines