Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director during the "Golden Age" ofHollywood's studio system--from the 1920s to the early 1940s and thewoman director with the largest oeuvre in Hollywood to this day--wasborn January 3, 1897 (some sources put the year as 1900), in SanFrancisco, California, to a German-American father and a Scottishmother. Raised in Los Angeles, her parents ran a café which featuredGerman cuisine and which was frequented by silent film stars including:'Charles Chaplin' and 'William S. Hart' , and director'Erich von Stroheim' . She worked as a waitress at the restaurant,and no one could have foreseen at the time that Arzner would be one ofthe few women to break the glass ceiling of directing and would be theonly woman to work during the early sound era.
In her 15-year career as a director (1928-43), Arzner made three silentmovies and 14 "talkies". Her path to the director's chair was differentthan that of women directors in the future (indeed, different than mostmale directors too). Directors nowadays are typically graduates of filmschools or were working actors prior to directing. Like most of thedirectors of her generation, Arzner gained wide training in mostaspects of filmmaking by working her way up from the bottom. It was thebest way to become a filmmaker, she later said.
After graduating from high school in 1915, she entered the University ofSouthern California, where she was in the pre-med program for twoyears. When the US entered World War I in 1917, Arzner was unable torealize her ambition of serving her country in a military capacity, asthere were no women's units in the armed forces at the time, so sheserved as an ambulance driver during the war. After the cessation of hostilities, Azner got a job on a newspaper. Thedirector of her ambulance unit introduced her to film director'William C. de Mille' (the brother of 'Cecil B.
DeMille' , oneof the co-founders of Famous Players-Lasky, which eventually becameknown by the title of its distribution unit--Paramount Pictures). Shedecided to pursue a film career after visiting a movie set and beingintrigued by the editing facilities. Arzner decided that she would liketo become a director (there was no strict delineation between directorsand editors in the immediate postwar period as the movie studiosmatured into a "factory" industrial production paradigm). Though she was the sole member of her gender to direct Hollywoodpictures during the first generation of sound film, in the silent era awoman behind the camera was not unknown. The first movie in history wasdirected by a Frenchwoman, and many women were employed in Hollywoodduring the silent era, most frequently as scenario writers (someresearch indicates that as many as three-quarters of the scenariowriters during the silent era--when there was no requirement for ascreenplay as such as there was no dialogue--were women).
Indeed, therewere women directors in the silent era, such as 'Frances Marion' (though she was more famous as a screenwriter) and 'Lois Weber' ,but Arzner was fated to be the only female director to have made asuccessful transition to "talkies". It wasn't until the 1930s and theverticalization of the industry, as it matured and consolidated, thatwomen were squeezed out of production jobs in Hollywood. The introduction to William deMille paid off when he hired her for thesum of $20 a week to be a stenographer. Her first job for DeMille wastyping up scripts at Famous Players-Lasky. She was reportedly a poortypist.
Ambitious and possessed of a strong will, Arzner offered towrite synopses of various literary properties, and eventually was hiredas a writer. Impressing DeMille and other Paramount powers-that-be,Arzner was assigned to Paramount's subsidiary Realart Films, as a filmcutter. She was promoted to script girl after one year, which requiredher presence on the set to ensure the continuity of the script as shotby the director. She then was given a job editing films. She excelledat cutting: as an editor (she was the first Hollywood editorprofessionally credited as such on-screen), she labored on 52 films,working her way up from cutting 'Bebe Daniels' comedies toassignments on "A" pictures within a couple of years.
She came into herown as a filmmaker editing the 'Rudolph Valentino (I)' headliner Blood and Sand (1922) , about a toreador. Her editing of thebullfighting scenes was highly praised, and she later said that sheactually helmed the second-unit crew shooting some of the bullfightsequences. Director 'James Cruze' was so impressed by her work onthe Valentino picture that he brought her on to his team to edit The Covered Wagon (1923) . Arzner eventually edited three otherCruze films: Ruggles of Red Gap (1923) , Merton of the Movies (1924) and Old Ironsides (1926) . Herwork was of such quality that she received official screen credit as aneditor, a first for a cutter of either gender.
While collaborating with Cruze she also wrote scenarios, scripting herideas both solo and in collaboration. She was credited as ascreenwriter (as well as an editor) on "Old Ironsides", one of the morespectacular films of the late silent era, being partially shot inMagnascope, one of the earliest widescreen processes. She would alwayscredit Cruze as her mentor and role model. "Old Ironsides" proved to bethe last film on which she was credited as an editor, as her ambitionsto become a director would finally come to fruition. To indulge her,Paramount gave her a job as an assistant director, for which she washappy--until she realized it was not a stepping stone to the director'schair, and she was determined to sit in that chair.
Arzner pressured Paramount to let her direct, threatening to leave thestudio to work for Columbia Pictures on Poverty Row, which had offeredher 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 ofdirecting 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 (I)' , helped establish'Fredric March' as a movie star.
Arzner proved adept at handling actresses. As 'Budd Schulberg' related in his autobiography "Moving Pictures", Clara Bow--a favoriteof his father, studio boss 'B. P. Schulberg' --had a thick Brooklynaccent that the silence of the pre-talkie era hid nicely from theaudience. She was terrified of the transition to sound, and developed afear of the microphone.
Working with her sound crew, Arzner devised andused the first boom mike, attaching the microphone to a fish pole tofollow Bow as she moved around the set. Arzner even used Bow'sless-than-dulcet speaking tones to underscore the vivaciousness of hercharacter. Though Arzner made several successful films for Paramount, the studioteetered on the edge of bankruptcy due to the Depression, eventuallygoing into receivership (before being saved by the advent of anothericonic woman, 'Mae West (I)' ). When the studio mandated a pay cutfor all employees, Arzner decided to go freelance. RKO Radio Pictureshired her to direct its new star, headstrong young'Katharine Hepburn' , in her second starring film, Christopher Strong (1933) .
It was not a happy collaboration, asboth women were strong and unyielding, but Arzner eventually prevailed. She was, after all, the boss on the set: The director. The fiercelyindependent Hepburn complained to RKO, but the studio backed itsdirector against its star. Eventually the two settled into a workingrelationship, respecting each other but remaining cold and distant fromone another. Ironically, Arzner would display her directorial flair inelucidating the kind of competitive rivalries between women sheexperienced with Hepburn.
The Directors Guild of America was established in 1933, and Arznerbecame the first woman member. Indeed, she was the only female memberof the DGA for many years. Arzner's films featured well-developed female characters, and she wasknown at the time of her work, quite naturally, as a director of"women's pictures". Not only did her movies portray the lives ofstrong, interesting women, but her pictures are noted for showcasingthe ambiguities of life. Since the rise of feminist scholarship in the1960s, Arzner's movies have been seen as challenging the dominant,phallocentric mores of the times.
Arzner was a lesbian, who cultivated a masculine look in her clothes andappearance (some feel as camouflage to hide the boy's club that wasHollywood). Many gay critics discern a hidden gay subtext in her films,such as "Christopher Strong". Whereas feminist critics see a critiqueof gender inequality in "Christopher Strong", lesbian critics see acritique of heterosexuality itself as the source of a woman's troubles. The very private Azner, the woman who broke the glass ceiling and hadto survive, and indeed thrived, in the all-male world of studiofilmmaking, refused to be categorized as a woman or gay director,insisting she was simply a "director. " She was right.
Arzner did have less troubled and more productive collaborations withother actresses after her experience with Hepburn. She developed aclose friendship with one of her female stars,'Joan Crawford (I)' , whom she directed in two 1937 MGM vehicles, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) and The Bride Wore Red (1937) . Arzner later directed Pepsicommercials as a favor to Crawford's husband, Pepsi-Cola Company'sChairman of the Board 'Alfred Steele (II)' . In 1943 Arzner joined other top Hollywood directors such as'John Ford (I)' and 'George Stevens (I)' in going to work forthe war effort during World War Two.
She made training films for the USArmy's Women's Army Corps (WACs). That same year her health wascompromised after she contracted pneumonia. After the war she did notreturn to feature film directing, but made documentaries andcommercials for the new television industry. She also became afilmmaking teacher, first at the Pasadena Playhouse during the 1950sand 1960s and then at the University of California-Los Angeles campusduring the 1960s and 1970s. At UCLA she taught directing andscreenwriting, and one of her students was 'Francis Ford Coppola' ,the first film school grad to achieve major success as a director.
Shetaught at UCLA until her death in 1979. She was honored in her own lifetime, becoming a symbol and role modelfor women filmmakers who desired entry into mainstream cinema. Thefeminist movement in the 1960s championed her. In 1972 the FirstInternational Festival of Women's Films honored her by screening "TheWild Party", and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at theSecond Festival in 1976. In 1975 the DGA honored her with "A Tribute toDorothy Arzner.
" During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburnwas read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, whenyou had no right to have a career at all?".