|Dorothy Arzner directing Merle Oberon |
in 'First Comes Courage' (1943)
An important figure in Hollywood history, Dorothy Arzner was a script typist, screenwriter, editor, and director from the late 1920s to the early 1940s—and, by most accounts, the only female director during the first generation of sound films. Arzner had a connection to the movies early on through her father’s Hollywood restaurant, which was popular with some of the industry’s biggest names, including Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett. Her medical studies at the University of Southern California were interrupted by WWI, during which she worked as an ambulance driver, and then abandoned. Arzner used her contacts to get a meeting with William de Mille, a top director at Famous Players-Lasky (which later became Paramount), leading to her first job as a stenographer.
Intelligent and ambitious, Arzner rose quickly at the studio, becoming a respected editor in just a few years. She came to the notice of director James Cruze through her creative editing in the bullfighting scenes of his 1922 movie Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino. (Arzner later claimed she had even directed the second unit for some of the bullfighting scenes.) Cruze was so impressed with her work that he used her as an editor and scenario scripter for four additional films, coming to trust Arzner enough to refer to her as his “right arm.” Arzner’s body of work was so strong that on Cruze’s Old Ironsides (1926) she became the first person, man or woman, to receive screen credit as an editor. (She was also credited as a screenwriter on the film.)
Her sights now set even higher, Arzner leveraged an offer to direct films at Columbia, a much smaller studio she had been writing scripts for, to direct at Paramount. Arzner’s first few pictures—including Fashions for Women (1927), The Wild Party (1929), and Sarah and Son (1930)—were hits, and several remain notable: Party introduced the coded lesbian themes that would appear in Arzner’s later work, Sarah broke box-office records at New York’s Paramount Theater, and Manhattan Cocktail (1928) was Paramount’s first talkie picture. Her financial success ensured that Paramount gave her whatever she wanted for her next movies, which included Honor Among Lovers (1931, one of Ginger Rogers’s first movies), and Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). Arzner left Paramount after making Hell, angry that a change of executives saw the movie shelved until Arzner pleaded for its release; Hell, a story of an alcoholic reporter during the Prohibition, went on to become a financial success.
As a freelance director, Arzner worked with a number of studios and big-name producers, including Harry Cohn, David O. Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, and several top stars of the day, including Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Arzner directed her last movie in 1943, finding opportunities in Hollywood for women behind the camera more difficult to come by after World War II. She moved into teaching at the Pasadena Playhouse and UCLA, where one of her students was Francis Ford Coppola. She also directed over 50 television commercials for PepsiCo, work that she found through Crawford, whose husband was PepsiCo’s chairman. The Directors Guild of America honored Arzner in 1975, nearly 40 years after she became its first female member. She died in 1979.
In addition to her films, Arzner’s legacy is having been a strong and successful female presence in Hollywood at a time when the industry was heavily dominated by men. Female film historians have championed Arzner as a female point of view opposing the male-centric film aesthetic that makes up much of film history. Additionally, scholars have worked to add Arzner and other women to the established canon of film directors, exploring how their work challenges and disrupts the hegemonic ideology of Hollywood cinema.