Arzner, Dorothy: Most Accomplished Woman Filmmaker in Studio Era

In 1927, Dorothy Arzner persuaded Paramount Pictures to test her abilities as a director of Fashions for Women.  This was not an easy task. While working at Paramount, she also wrote scripts for Columbia.  When she gave Columbia an ultimatum, that she would like to direct or else stop writing, they offered her a job.

With this bargaining power, she decided to quit Paramount.  When she stopped to say goodbye to producers Walter Wanger and B.P. Schulberg, they finally realized that she was serious and, wishing her to stay at the studio, they let her direct Fashions for Women.

This assignment was followed by two other silent movies, Ten Modern Commandments and Get Your Man, both made in 1927.

Arzner was under a contract to Paramount, where most of her early movies were made.

She chose to freelance after Merrily We Go to Hell, because of Paramount’s lack of confidence in her abilities; there was even some talk of shelving the film.

Arzner hence directed for other studios: RKO (Christopher Strong and Dance Girl Dance, two of her better features), MGM (The Bride Wore Red, one of her worst), Columbia (Craig’s Wife, and her last, First Comes Courage), and for independent producer Samuel Goldwyn (Nana).

“When men do put women in pictures,” Arzner once said, “they make them sappy, weeping all over the place.” She found this trend not only a distortion of reality, but also “disgusting.”

As a result, all of Arzner’s films feature strong female characters, willful and ambitious women who try to break traditional stereotypes and conservative gender roles. “When you consider that motion pictures audiences are predominantly feminine,” she said, “why shouldn’t women in every phase of production be capable of producing entertainment for them.”

The Wild Party (1929) was a Clara Bow vehicle and Paramount’s very first talking movie. Set in an all-girls’ school, it had a routine, all-too familiar scenario, but was fun to watch because of its leading lady. Clara Bows plays Stella, a headstrong college girl, who forms a society called the “hardboiled maidens,” regarded with considerable distrust by the college authorities. The club’s activities include arranging all-night parties and raiding nearby men’s colleges and speak-easies. Bow, at her most sexual, gave the impression that going to college was a lark. Her flirtatious relationship with her older professor (played by Fredric March) was the kind of stuff teenagers dream of.

In Arzner’s Sarah and Son, the sure fire theme of maternal love was very well handled. Ruth Chatterton won an Oscar nomination as the suffering mother, an immigrant German girl whose son is torn away from her by her worthless husband (Fuller Mellish), who gives it to a wealthy family. She devotes her life to an effort to regain him, during which time she becomes a celebrated opera singer. Fredric March co-starred as the friendly lawyer who handles the case. Sarah and Son “broke all box-office records at the Paramount Theatre in New York, and Ruth Chatterton became known as “the First Lady of the Screen.”

In Christopher Strong, Katharine Hepburn received her first starring role as Cynthia Darrington, a wealthy aviatrix who gives up flying for the love of sir Christopher Strong, a married man. Arzner felt a need to reassure her audience that this ‘new woman’ was still recognizably a ‘real woman’ for all the bold courageously ambitious self-sufficiency that would suggest otherwise.”

In Craig’s Wife, Arzner’s personal favorite film, she explored the debilitating effects of the nuclear family on women, focusing on a woman who will do anything to preserve her home and maintain her family. A devastating critique of bourgeois, patriarchal culture, the movie features Rosalind Russell in a heartbreaking, tour de force performance. Her first important role, Russell plays a woman so desperate for material security she is willing to give up anything else. Arzner felt that this picture definitely needed a woman’s touch. “This picture is typically a woman’s picture,” she explained, “its entire premise is feminine psychology. It takes a woman to interpret it properly.” Though a familiar theme, it received a special treatment from Arzner.

Arzner was assigned film projects that the studios regarded as minor or “feminine,” thus deemed appropriate for a woman to direct. “No one was handing me wonderful stories to make,” she later said, “I was usually having actors’ first starring roles, and naturally they were only concerned with their own lives.”

Nonetheless, Arzner understood from the start the important role of stars in Hollywood in general and in her work in particular. Her film output is marked by the appearance of powerful actresses, who were either established, or went on to become major stars.

Graced with a good eye for acting talent, Arzner launched and/or catapulted the careers of many actresses. With the exception of Clara Bow, the “It” girl who was a major box-office star in the silent era, and Joan Crawford, an established star by the time she made The Bride Wore Red (1937), most of the women in Arzner’s movies were not established when she worked with them.

She cast Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong; Claudette Colbert in 1931, before she became a star; Rosalind Russell, prior to her becoming a distinguished character actress; Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in 1940.

In her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), Arzner deviated again from narrative conventions by telling the story of a Second World War spy (Merle Oberon) for the Norweigian underground. She faces disgrace, but decides to meet the challenge head-on, with courage and dignity. The movie contains a role reversal: the villain’s (Carl Esmond) love for the heroine is more important than his political allegiance. By contrast, her mission takes precdence over her love for Brian Aherne. But, true to genre, at the end the villain is portrayed as coward.

Strong-minded, she demanded to make all the decisions concerning her work, including final cut. At the same time, she was completely professional, believing that every project, even the smallest one, should get the director’s full attention and commitment.

Despite disagreements with studio heads, she always assumed responsibility for her work. “If a picture is bad,” she said in 1936, “the director should be blamed and no one else.” “If he accepts a bad script, it’s up to him to work with the writer to make it a good one.”

But as her own films demonstrated, some scripts were based on such weak ideas that even her persistent work with their screenwriter could not have improved them.

With Nana, Arzner reached the height of her goals. “I’m where I want to be,” she said in 1935, “and I have no further special ambition.” But she confessed, “In getting where I am, I suffered a good deal. It was not much fun then.”

Eight years later, she quit filmmaking.  Different interpretations were given to Arzner’s relatively early retirement, at the age of 43. Some said she was weary of the rigid studio system and the secondary projects assigned to her.

Others, however, claimed that Arzner retired by choice. “I had had enough,” she explained her premature retirement, “Twenty years of directing is, I think, about enough.” Her independent stance and strong will, in addition to the fact that she didn’t have to work for living, proved helpful in a career full of struggles.

Upon retirement, Arzner did not sit idle. She taught the first filmmaking course at the “Playhouse” with one camera and one microphone. Later, she was on the faculty of the prestigious UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Film School. Francis Ford Coppola, one of the best directors of the new American cinema, was among her students.

She later made some television commercials for Pepsi Cola, but didn’t enjoy it very much.

In the 1970s, she lived for a while in Palm Springs.

Arzner died on October 1, 1979, in La Quinta, California.