Excepting Ida Lupino, who was both an actress and director, Dame in the Game has focused its attention on actresses whose activism and achievements inspire. This month, we go behind the camera to examine the only female director to successfully transition from silent to sound film, Dorothy Arzner. Arzner not only made a mark as the most prominent female director working in the Hollywood studio system, but consistently defied expectations to stay true to herself.
Dorothy Arzner was born in California at the turn of the twentieth century. Her father owned a Hollywood restaurant where she frequently interacted with individuals from the movie business while growing up. Initially, she rejected the film business and enrolled at the University of Southern California as a premed student. She eventually dropped out and drove an ambulance during World War I. Before she ever knocked on Hollywood’s door, she had already pursued what her era might deem distinctly unfeminine professions.
Following World War One, Arzner took a meeting with William DeMille who ran the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which would become Paramount. DeMille suggested she observe at the studio before deciding what area of filmmaking she might like to pursue. Observing famed director Cecil B. DeMille, Arzner came to the conclusion that she wanted to direct. “I remember making the observation,” she said, “if one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”
New to the business, Arzner started at the bottom typing scripts, but within six months jumped into cutting film, which helped her transition to editing. She became an editor for Realart Studio, a subsidiary of Paramount. While there, she rose to the position of chief editor and edited a total of fifty-two films, including a staggering thirty-two movies in one year. During this time, she also worked as a screenwriter and assisted director James Cruze on several films, which included script-writing, assisting him on set, and editing.
Arzner was head editor on the 1922 Rudolph Valentino film Blood and Sand, on which she also shot some second unit footage, including bullfights. Much of her screenwriting was done on an independent basis with Harry Cohn and Columbia, and in 1927, Columbia offered her the chance to write and direct a film. When she informed Paramount of her departure, executive B.P. Schulberg tried to convince her to stay, offering the promise of directing in the future. Arzner held her ground, telling him, “Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an ‘A’ picture. I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than do a ‘B’ picture for Paramount. “ Schulberg called her bluff, handing her a play The Best Dressed Woman in Paris, with instructions to adapt it and be on set in two weeks. This would become Arzner’s directorial debut Fashions of Women (1927).
Following this film, Arzner signed a long-term contract with Paramount, where she would remain until 1932 and direct three silent films and seven talking pictures. Arzner held the distinction of directing Paramount’s first talking feature, 1929’s The Wild Party starring Clara Bow. Bow was nervous about transitioning to sound, which Arzner helped ease by inventing the boom mic to allow the actress a freedom of movement. Arzner’s invention revolutionized actor’s mobility in sound pictures.
Following her success at Paramount, she moved to RKO to direct feminist icon Katharine Hepburn in her second film Christopher Strong (1933), in which Hepburn portrays an independent aviatrix who falls for a married man. From there, she moved on to become an associate producer at Columbia, while continuing her directing. Her directing career continued until 1943, as she moved between studios, including RKO and MGM. In total, she directed seventeen films.
Though coded enough to pass muster in their time, Arzner’s films have been heralded by feminists for their untraditional content—they emphasize strong-willed, independent female protagonists who are at odds with or dissatisfied by contemporary stereotypes and expectations. Women wrote nearly all of Arzner’s films. Her pictures often focus on issues of female bonding and reflect tragedy and dissatisfaction in the lives of women pursuing a mate. She celebrates female friendships, community, and sisterhood.
Perhaps even more provocative for her era, she also openly challenged the male gaze and a patriarchal view of women. This is most vividly on display in the 1940 film Dance, Girl, Dance where Maureen O’Hara’s character Judy chastises a male audience at a burlesque show: “Go on. Laugh! Get your money’s worth. Nobody’s going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so’s you can look your fifty cents worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of up here—with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of? . . . So as you can go home when the show is over and strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I’m sure they see through you just like we do.”
Arzner was expressing many of her own beliefs about femininity and heterosexual coupling via the concerns of her films. Her homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood. She lived with dancer/choreographer Marion Morgan in a lengthy partnership at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in many states.
Though Arzner’s commercial filmmaking career ended in 1943, her accomplishments did not cease. She directed a series of training films for the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, which were so successful the government offered her an appointment as Major (she turned it down due to disinterest in a military career). She established a filmmaking course at Pasadena Playhouse, where she instructed students for many years. She also brought her teaching skills to a UCLA film course for four years in the 1960s. At the prompting of her friend Joan Crawford, who served on the soda company’s board of directors, she directed over 50 Pepsi-Cola commercials.
Arzner was the first woman admitted to the Director’s Guild of America, and they honored her with a tribute in 1975. Her star was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1986, making her one of very few female directors honored there.
Today, many of Arzner’s films, especially her work in the silent era, have been lost to time, but Dame in the Game honors her ground-breaking work and contributions to the medium that often defied her very participation in it.
A biography of Dorothy Arzner, “Directed by Dorothy Arzner“ by Judith Mayne exists but is difficult to locate. This article owes a debt to the article “What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women” by Donna R. Casella and an interview with Arzner in “The work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema“ published by BFI.