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Dorothy Arzner DIRECTOR


Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director during Hollywood’s Golden Age, established herself as a top mainstream movie director in the 1920's, 1930's, and early 1940's. Through her three silent films and fourteen talkies, she managed to confront sexist stereotypes and often time depict women with equal weight in relationships, marriages, and the workplace. In her fifteen year career, Arzner not only delivered on talent and skill when it came to her filmmaking, but she was for a great while the sole female member of the Directors Guild of America, an honor that showed she lived up to her movies’ messages.

She was born January 3, 1897 in San Francisco, California. Her birth records were destroyed in a fire caused by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, so she later marked her birth year as 1900 to define herself as a purely 20th century woman. Arzner was raised in Los Angeles, where her parents ran a café that was frequented by many silent film stars and directors. She grew up around the cinema, but aspired to be a doctor. She spent two years at the University of Southern California studying pre-med, but left to serve as an ambulance driver in the military at the U.S.’s entrance into World War I in 1917. After the war she decided not to return to medicine, as she unrealistically “wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly”.

For a short time Arzner worked at a newspaper, but then her ambulance director introduced her to film director William C. DeMille (the brother of Cecil B. DeMille), one of the founders of Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount). She visited one of his sets, and was determined to get involved in the movie business. DeMille hired her on as a typist, but she was horrible at her job. Arzner, being the strong willed woman she was, convinced the studio to let her write work for them. They were very impressed and let her stay on as a film cutter. She was eventually promoted to a script girl, then editor. Her career took a turn for the best after she created the bull fight scenes for Rudolph Valentino’s 1922 drama “Blood and Sand”, which saved the studio a bunch of money. Her direction of the highly active scenes, as well as her editing of the picture, was greatly praised.

Arzner edited a few more films, “The Covered Wagon” (1923), “Ruggles of Red Gap” (1923), and “Merton of the Movies” (1924), before trying her hand at scriptwriting. She helped write six movies, including “Inez from Hollywood” (1924), “Breed of the Border” (1924), and “When Husbands Flirt” (1925), but stopped after her last editing piece, director James Cruze’s “Old Ironsides” (1926). Following the release of the latter, Arzner began her journey as the director of over fifteen pictures.

She got the job as director for her first feature, “Fashions for Women” (1927), because she threatened to quit and move to studio rival Columbia Studios should she not be given the opportunity to direct a movie. The 1927 drama was a commercial success and earned Arzner even more press than the leading actress. It was so much of a sensation that Paramount had her sign a long time contract with them that would last until 1932. After, she made three more silent pictures, “Ten Modern Commandments” (1927), “Get Your Man” (1927), and “Manhattan Cocktail” (1928). In 1929 Arzner directed the studio’s first talking feature, “The Wild Party”, starring one of the industry’s top stars, Clara Bow. The film focused on the relationships between friends at a women’s college, and proved popular. In it, Arzner actually developed a new technique with her sound department that involved attaching the microphone to a rod and hanging it above the actors while they spoke. This invention came to be known as the boom microphone and is still in use today.

During the thirties, she stood alone as the sole female director in Hollywood. She emerged with features that powerfully shattered womanly stereotypes of the time, and starred independent, strong-willed leading ladies. Movies like “Sarah and Son” (1930), “Anybody’s Woman” (1930), and “Working Girls” (1931) broke the barriers of the typical mainstream flick. Though Arzner made a number of successful pictures for Paramount, they mandated pay cuts to all of their employees during the onset of the Depression in 1932. At this time she left to become a freelance director.

Her shift to freelancing proved to be a smart decision, as in the following ten years she would put out films that would become her best known, and start the careers of many new stars. The director helped fire up Katharine Hepburn’s career in “Christopher Strong” (1933), Rosalind Russell’s in “Craig’s Wife” (1936), Joan Crawford’s in “The Bride Wore Red” (1937), and Lucille Ball’s in “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940). Arzner’s last effort, “First Comes Courage” (1943), was a war film starring Merle Oberon as a Norwegian spy during the Nazi occupation who must abandon the man she loves for her own independence. After an attack of pneumonia during shooting, Arzner retired from commercial filmmaking, although her reasons for leaving are still not entirely known. She then developed filmmaking courses at the Pasadena Playhouse, taught classes at UCLA, and made training videos for the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She passed away October 1, 1979 in La Quinta, California.

Despite her years of working in a male dominated industry, she managed to make an impact on her viewers. While her work and career were constantly being scrutinized, she remained positive and focused. Although it was known throughout the Hollywood community that she was a lesbian – she even dressed in men’s clothes – publicly that part of her life was not paid too much attention to. She openly lived with her partner, Marion Morgan, a choreographer and dancer, and many gay critics now see hidden gay nuances in her films. However, feminist critics will argue that her films were more focused on gender inequality, as opposed to heterosexuality being the problem in her pictures. Arzner herself said she was neither a lesbian or woman director, merely a “director”. The rest of the population seems to agree with her, for in 1975 the DGA honored her with a “Tribute to Dorothy Arzner”, and she currently has not one, but two, stars on the illustrious Hollywood Walk of Fame. What was her secret to staying on top in such a difficult industry? “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it out the window.”


1943       First Comes Courage

1940       Dance, Girl, Dance

1937       The Bride Wore Red

1937       The Last of Mrs. Cheyney 

1936       Craig's Wife

1934       Nana

1933       Christopher Strong

1932       Merrily We Go to Hell

1931       Working Girls

1931       Honor Among Lovers

1930       Galas de la Paramount 

1930       Anybody's Woman

1930       Paramount on Parade

1930       Sarah and Son

1930       Behind the Make-Up 

1929       The Wild Party

1928       Manhattan Cocktail

1927       Get Your Man

1927       Ten Modern Commandments

1927       Fashions for Women 

1926       Old Ironsides 

1926       Old Ironsides 

1925       When Husbands Flirt 

1925       The Red Kimona 

1924       Breed of the Border

1924       The No-Gun Man

1924       Inez from Hollywood

1924       Merton of the Movies

1923       Ruggles of Red Gap

1923       The Covered Wagon

1922       Blood and Sand 

1920       The Six Best Cellars

1919       Too Much Johnson

Matinee Classics - The Bride Wore Red starring Joan Crawford, Franchot Tone, Robert Young, Billie Burke, Reginald Owen, Lynne Carver, George Zucco, Mary Philips, Paul Porcasi, Dickie Moore, Frank Puglia, Adriana Caselotti and Ann Rutherford

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