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Filmmakers Who Matter: Dorothy Arzner

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When examining the history of cinema, one finds a number of pioneers in the field worth looking at. While their bodies of work might not always be construed as “well-known” or “popular,” the contributions of these pioneers cannot be denied in the world of filmmaking as a whole.

One such pioneer is Dorothy Arzner, one of very few women who made a name for herself in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. Despite extreme sexism, Arzner was able to establish what remains to this day the largest single body of work by a female director working in the studio system. She was also the first woman to join the Director’s Guild. Dorothy Arzner’s career is unquestionably worth examination by anyone interested in the history of film.


Dorothy Arzner was born on January 3, 1897, in San Francisco, California. She grew up in Los Angeles, where her father owned a restaurant that was frequented by many Hollywood luminaries. Many silent film stars and directors would pass in and out of the café regularly, so Arzner was doubtlessly enamoured with the lifestyle from the outset. She enrolled in the University of South California after high school and had designs on becoming a doctor.

During World War I, Arzner left school to work overseas in the ambulance corps. At the end of the war, she visited a movie studio and eventually decided against pursuing her medical career. Arzner wanted to become a film director.

Getting In On The Ground Floor

Arzner, possibly through the café, had connections to William DeMille, a major director at the parent company of Paramount, Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Arzner started out working for DeMille as a typist, but quickly became a screenwriter and, following that, an editor. Women held these positions with great frequency at that time, but Arzner stood out from the rest. Her work on the 1922 Rudolph Valentino film Blood and Sand won her many critical accolades. Arzner had saved the studio thousands of dollars by making the decision to intercut stock footage with original material during the film’s pivotal bullfighting scene, winning her the attention of director James Cruze.

Cruze hired Arzner as a writer and editor on several of his films. Throughout this time, Arzner was gaining attention and leverage, having worked on over fifty films at Paramount. Confident in her abilities and in her job security, she threatened to move to rival studio Columbia Pictures unless she was given a directorial job. In 1927, Paramount put her in charge of the silent film Fashions for Women and it was a commercial success.

Sound Pioneering

Arzner directed a few films after that, gaining ground as a reputable director. When the time came for Paramount to get into the talking pictures business and move beyond silent films, they looked to Arzner to direct the project. She helmed the 1929 film The Wild Party, a film that would prove important in the history of sound technology. Arzner had technicians rig a microphone on to a fishing rod, creating the first unofficial boom mike in the process. This allowed her lead actress, Clara Bow, to move freely around the set.

Innovation and Idealism

The Wild Party was a commercial success and would introduce some slight lesbian content thematically. Her subsequent films would also hint at this aspect of her personal life, serving as prime examples of what Hollywood was like before the Hayes Code. Arzner faced significant hurdles on just about every film she directed, as she refused to compromise herself or her lesbianism. She became renowned for dressing in men’s suits and ties (long before Diane Keaton did it in Annie Hall) and many starlets would joke about Arzner “falling in love” with them.

Despite these hurdles, Arzner’s work was in high demand and she was making the studio a good deal of money. Her films featured aggressive, free-spirited women experiencing real issues. 1930’s Anybody’s Woman tackled the issue of consequences after a wild night of a chorus girl. 1931’s Working Girls looked at life for New York women during the Depression.

Going Independent

Arzner made a total of eleven feature films for Paramount before striking off to work as an independent director for several of the studios. She began working on films that would help launch the careers of many popular actresses, including Katherine Hepburn in 1933’s Christopher Strong and Lucille Ball in 1940’s Dance, Girl, Dance.

As with her other films, Arzner’s work featured strong female leads and great characters. In 1936, Arzner became the first woman to join the newly formed Director’s Guild of America.

The End of the Trail

Arzner stopped directing features in 1943. To date, nobody knows the exact reason why, although much speculation surrounds the issue. She continued to work over the next three decades, however, making films for the Women’s Army Corps and a few Pepsi commercials at the request of rumoured lover Joan Crawford. By the 1960s, Arzner became a professor at UCLA's film school, where she taught screenwriting and directing until her death on October 1, 1979.

Why Dorothy Arzner Matters

Dorothy Arzner was one of film’s true pioneers, establishing the role of women in the directorial sense during a time in which there were many obstacles. She overcame the issues of gender and sexual orientation with her talent, directing with skill and professionalism. Arzner’s body of work deserves to stand alongside the male-dominated films of the Golden Age of Hollywood, proving that there is indeed a feminist voice in film and proving that voice is distinctive and deserves attention.

It is still a rarity for films to be directed by females. Many modern female directors are still being limited, one way or another, and most have very few films in their filmography. Arzner remains one of the most prolific female directors of all time, joining others like Alice Guy-Blaché of France (a filmmaker before the word existed) and Lois Weber as true leaders in the field.

Arzner’s success came at a tough time in Hollywood. In the 1920s, large banks had control over Hollywood production companies and often dictated creative aspects of filmmaking to studio heads. As a result, production supervisors were muzzled and had to standardize production, leaving very little room for creative differences. With the introduction of sound and talking pictures, banks assumed even more control. In this climate, Arzner was the only female director able to thrive and succeed.

Arzner’s films are worth looking at for their sheer impact, as she tries to work conventional angles but still sneaks in elements of feminism and lesbian overtones. A number of her films take on issues like the possibility of women’s communities and critiques of female sexuality for performance. With modern eyes, it’s interesting to have a look at these films and see some of the compelling threads of feminism, sexuality, and empowerment working under the radar.

Arzner took risks, but she took calculated risks and was able to maintain her credibility during a time in which taboos were being tacked to the wall with the Hayes Code. Her attitudes towards filmmaking, her professional approach, and her gutsy filmography will always be worth examination. With today’s female directors often lacking in impact, especially in North America, a look back at Dorothy Arzner would prove to be a good lesson for women and men interested in cinema.

Suggested Filmography

  • Get Your Man – 1927
  • The Wild Party – 1929
  • Working Girls – 1931
  • Merrily We Go To Hell – 1932
  • Christopher Strong – 1933
  • Nana – 1934
  • Craig’s Wife – 1936
  • The Bride Wore Red – 1937
  • Dance, Girl, Dance – 1940
  • First Comes Courage – 1943


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