By Kate Boyle
“My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn’t get my way, but no one ever let me walk out.”
There are many great female directors who have broken barriers in the industry and paved the way for future generations. One of those women (who is often forgotten outside of academia) was Dorothy Arzner. She is the most prolific female director to date, was the first woman to direct a film with sound, and was the first female member of the Directors Guild of America. She had a career in Hollywood spanning three decades as a writer, editor, and director; and she did all of this during a time where society and its expectations for women were against her. I love Arzner’s quote about her philosophy and wanted to start with it because it gives you an idea of what a strong, confident, and powerful woman she was.
Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco, California in 1897 but grew up in Los Angeles. After graduating high school, Azner went to college with plans to become a doctor, even joining an ambulance corps during World War I. After getting practical experience in the medical field, she decided medicine wasn’t for her and headed towards Hollywood in search of work. After the war, film studios needed people and would hire without experience if you had the right work ethic and personality.
In 1919 she went to the office of William DeMille, a director with the Famous Players-Lasky (who would eventually become Paramount) and asked for a job. At DeMille’s suggestion, she shadowed different people, tried different jobs, and ended up in the script department. She liked writing because it allowed her to learn how films were made from the ground up.
After six months she was moved up to editor, working on over 50 films (credited and uncredited). Her big break came in 1922 when she was asked to work on “Blood and Sand” (1922) starring Rudolph Valentino. She would go uncredited for her contributions directing and editing, but it did allow her to gain experience and get the attention of the big wigs at Paramount. Director James Cruze was the first to notice her talent and personally requested her to assist him with his films.
Arzner’s partnership with Cruze (she was known as “his right arm”) earned her notability and power within the studio and justified Arzner asking for her first solo film, “Fashions for Women” (1927). It was a silent film starring Esther Ralston and was a commercial success. Over the next two years, she would direct three more silent films for Paramount, “Ten Modern Commandments” (1927), “Get Your Man” (1927), and “Manhattan Cocktail” (1928). After the success of her first four films, Arzner was granted the honor of directing Paramount’s first talkie, “The Wild Party” (1929).
“The Wild Party” was a huge critical and commercial success. Arzner successfully encouraged silent film star Clara Bow and the studio to not hide Bow’s Brooklyn accent, she directed future star Fredric March in his first leading role and invented the boom mic so her stars felt less cramped around the bulky new sound equipment.
Arzner made eleven more films with Paramount before leaving in 1932 to work freelance. It’s during this time she made some of her best-known films; “Christopher Strong” (1933) starring Katharine Hepburn, “Craig’s Wife” with Rosalind Russell, “The Bride Wore Red” (1937) starring Joan Crawford, and “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940) featuring Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara. Arzner help launch the careers of several future stars and worked with many who had already achieved fame in the industry.
Arzner was best known for making movies about women and telling their stories from a different perspective. The female characters in her films aren’t damsels in distress and the male characters are usually supporting roles. For example, “Dance, Girl, Dance” is about two women going after their dreams as entertainers; one as a ballerina (Maureen O’Hara), the other as a burlesque dancer (Lucille Ball). Arzner expertly tells the story of two very different women and how they go after their goals. The male characters are only there to get a stern lecture from O’Hara for objectifying women.
Another example is “Craig’s Wife” where Rosalind Russell plays Harriet, a woman who married for money and independence and believes romance complicates a marriage. Harriet loves material things more than her husband and has high standards for keeping house and must have things her way. It’s a prime example of a running theme In Arzner’s films; that traditional marriage is repressive and unstable. “Christopher Strong” and “The Bride Wore Red” are other examples of films that tell a unique female story.
Arzner retired from Hollywood in 1943 after completing her final film “First Comes Courage”. It’s unknown why she decided to retire at that time. Some speculate it was failing health, other rumors say it was due to increasing homophobia, sexism, and the implementation of the Hayes Code. The Hayes Code was a “moral standard” originally written and submitted to the studios by religious leaders to discourage displaying “undesirable behavior” in films.
It evolved over the years, but it was basically a racist (no mixed-race couples allowed), homophobic (no gays), sexist (women belong in the kitchen) guidebook to make sure “susceptible minds” didn’t get any wild ideas from movies. Though it is not known for sure, these new regulations were likely one of the reasons Arzner retired before her 50th birthday.
It’s amazing that Arzner was able to tell these kinds of stories and direct the movies she did in the 1930s and 1940s. She was the only female director actively working during this era. She was openly gay, even hiring Marion Morgan, her partner for forty years, as a choreographer on occasion. She didn’t follow social norms in the way she dressed, she wore tailored suits, kept her hair short, and did not wear make-up. She had a strong personality and was a perfectionist; refusing to finish films unless she could do them exactly as she wanted. She also started at the bottom of the industry and worked her way up, learning every aspect of filmmaking along the way.
Dorothy Arzner died in 1979. The only accolades she received were a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Paramount named a building after her. Though she had a great career and paved the way for future female filmmakers, Arzner isn’t a household name. She got a small comeback in the 1970s when the feminist movement rediscovered her films. They are still studied today in film and women’s studies classes for her depictions of gender roles and female sexuality. If you’re interested in learning more about her, several of her films can be rented on Amazon Prime and I highly recommend reading Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne.