Arzner, Dorothy: Tribute to Feminist Director

Dorothy Arzner occupies a unique place in the history of the American cinema: She is the only woman to have directed movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the studio system.

Indeed, the entire contribution of women to filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s could be described in terms of the career of one woman: Arzner. There were women directors in the silent era, such as Lois Weber and Frances Marion, but Arzner was Hollywood’s only female director to have moved successfully from the silent to the sound era.

Furthermore, unlike previous (and later) women directors, Arzner’s sustained career and film oeuvre are quite impressive: three silent and fourteen sound pictures. Arzner was also the first female member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), established in l933.

Championed and revered by the women’s movement in the 1960s, Arzner has served as an influential role model. In the l970s, she received the long overdue recognition she no doubt deserved. The First International Film Festival of Women, in 1972, opened with the screening of The Wild Party, starring Clara Bow. And the Second Festival, in 1976, presented for the first time a full retrospective of her output.

A year earlier, Arzner was honored by the Directors Guild in an evening titled “A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” One of the emotional highlights of this event was a telegram from Katharine Hepburn, who had starred in Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933). “Isn’t it wonderful,” Hepburn wrote, “that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all.”

As a pioneering director, Arzner has functioned as influential role model for women wishing to break into filmmaking. Arzner’s achievements continued to stand out long after she retired. Following her retirement in 1943, no woman directed in Hollywood for about a decade, until Ida Lupino, the British actress, decided to try her luck. Arzner was more than just an American director; she was an international figure.

The vast underrepresentation of female filmmakers has not been unique to the American scene. Up to the l960s, one could count on one hand the number of women practitioners in the international film community. In France, for example, female filmmakers began to leave their mark in the l960s, with the work of Agnes Varda and Marguerite Duras. In Italy too, only two women, Lina Werthmuller and Liliana Cavani, have been able to work steadily.

Arzner’s directorial career lasted seventeen years, during which she made seventeen movies. Of her fourteen sound movies, at least four are still noteworthy: Merrily We Go to Hell (1932); Christopher Strong (1933); Nana (1934), based on Emil Zola’s novel; and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), her most overtly feminist film. Her last feature, First Comes Courage, a war melodrama, was made in 1943. In addition to narrative movies, Arzner produced WAC training films for the Army during the Second World War.

An enigma in Hollywood, there was no gossip to relay about Arzner. Her colleagues described her as a woman who pursued, and was committed to, her trade just like a “bank executive.” In some respects, she still is an enigma; there have been no books about her work or personal life.

Arzner’s Life

Arzner was born in San Francisco, on January 3, 1900, to an American father and Scottish mother. Her father, Louis Arzner, ran the Hoffman cafe in Hollywood, known for its high-quality German cooking. This cafe also served as a favorite meeting place for such film celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, William S. Hart, and Erich von Stroheim. An impressionable girl, Dorothy soon developed fascination with the film industry and its charismatic figures. She first made contact with these figures while waiting on tables at her father’s cafe. Arzner thus switched from one of the most traditionally female endeavors (a waitress) to a most typically male occupation (filmmaking).

Arzner’s earlier life is replete with peculiarities, all underlining her idiosyncratic personality. During the First World War, she was greatly disappointed when barred from service in France because of her age. Adventurous and determined to do something different, she volunteered to drive an ambulance. Indeed, it was her corps directors who introduced her to film director William DeMille. In her teens, she fantasized about pursuing a medical career, and even enrolled as a pre-medical student at the University of Southern California. “At that time,” she later recalled, “I was inspired with the idea of serving humanity as a physician. I wasn’t calm about it, I was excited.” After the War, she worked for a while in a newspaper.

While in school, she went on a sightseeing tour of a Hollywood studio and became “enamored” with the cutting room. She knew nothing of film construction, but it was then and there she decided to become a director. The meeting with William DeMille (brother of Cecil B. DeMille) was instrumental: He hired her as a stenographer in the script department of Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures), at $20 a week.

Ambitious and strong-willed, Arzner kept asking for more work; they allowed her to synopsize published stories. After one year, she became a script girl, sitting on the set and checking the script for directors as they shot it. She was then quickly promoted to a film cutter, assigned to Realart, a subsidiary of Paramount. “I learned more about pictures in the cutting room,” she later recalled, “than anywhere else.” This experience served her well–her movies were well-edited.

Within a few years, she distinguished herself. In 1922, her editing of the bullfighting scenes in Rudolph Valentino’s silent film Blood and Sand was considered to be very imaginative. She later claimed to have actually filmed some of the bullfight sequences, for which she received no credit. Director James Cruze was so impressed with her work that he asked her to edit his Western, The Covered Wagon (l923). Arzner went on to edit three other films for Cruze: Ruggles of Red Gap (l923), Merton of the Movies (l924), and Old Ironsides (l926). Arzner is the only editor, male or female, of the entire silent era, to be officially recognized as an editor.

At the same time, she pursued her writing ambitions by scripting a number of her ideas, alone or in collaboration. Cruze’s Old Ironsides was based on her screenplay. She was grateful to Cruze, always giving him a credit as her mentor and role model.

Arzner finally landed a job as an assistant director. At first, she was exalted, but she soon learned that the job meant no more than serving as “a flunky” for the director, seeing, for example, that the stars arrive on the set on time, and scampering for their lunches. However, her ultimate goal was to become a director.

Asked to explain her motivation to become a director, she said: “The great part of the motion-picture audience is feminine. Box-office appeal is thought of largely in terms of the women lined up at the ticket window. If there are no women directors there ought to be.” Arzner knew that “If one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director.” She also understood that there would be many obstacles and many sacrifices would be called for. Nonetheless, she was so single-mindedly committed to a film career that she was willing to put up with many problems.

“Sometimes I think that pride is the greatest obstacle to success,” she told an interviewer in 1933, “A silly false pride that keeps people from being willing to learn, from starting at the bottom, no matter how far down it may be, and learning every step of the way up.” “When I went to work in a studio,” she recalled, “I took my pride, made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

Arzner differed from future women directors, most of whom have been graduates of film schools or actresses prior to becoming filmmakers. Arzner believed in a multifaceted training, knowing every aspect of filmmaking. She started at the bottom and gradually worked her way up. Arzner believed that “the hard way is the right way to do anything.” Recalling her path, in l936, she said: “I’m glad I took the road I did. I know all I need to know to direct. There is no question that can come up that I will ever have to bluff on. I hate bluffing and all bluffers. I expect I am going to have a good many more hard knocks, but I don’t do any worrying about tomorrow.”

*This essay was written as a tribute to Dorothy Arzner at Wellesley College, to commemorate her 90th birthday.