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.