Dorothy Arzner

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Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner.jpg
Arzner in 1934
Born Dorothy Emma Arzner
(1897-01-03)January 3, 1897
San Francisco, California, U.S.
Died October 1, 1979(1979-10-01) (aged 82)
La Quinta, California, U.S.
Occupation Film director
Years active 1922–1943
Partner(s) Alla Nazimova
Billie Burke
Marion Morgan (choreographer) (1927-1971)

Dorothy Emma Arzner[1] (January 3, 1897 – October 1, 1979) was an American film director whose career in feature films spanned from the silent era of the late 1920s into the early 1940s. Arzner was the only female director working in the 1930s in the United States.[2] She was one of the very few women who established a name for herself as a director in the American film industry during this time.[3]

Early life and career[edit]

Born in San Francisco, California, to Louis and Jenetter (née Young) Arzner, Dorothy grew up in Los Angeles, where her father, Louis Arzner, owned a restaurant frequented by many Hollywood celebrities. After finishing high school, she enrolled at the University of Southern California with hopes of becoming a doctor. She even went as far as spending two years as a pre-med student at the University of Southern California.[4] During World War I, she joined a local southern California ambulance unit with the hopes of going overseas, but never left the country.[5] By the time the war ended, she decided against returning to her medical studies and, after a visit to a movie studio, decided to pursue a career as a film director. "I remember making the observation, 'if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,'" she said, according to What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.[3]

Through connections with director William C. DeMille, Arzner got a job as a stenographer in 1919 at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which later became Paramount Pictures. She moved on to be a script writer, was promoted to film editor within six months and quickly mastered the job. Her first assignment as an editor was in 1922 for the renowned classic Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino. She was soon receiving accolades for the high quality of her work. Impressed by her technique, director James Cruze employed her as a writer and editor for several of his films, including Old Ironsides (1926).

Arzner achieved a great deal of clout through this, along with her work on over fifty other films at Paramount. She eventually threatened to move to rival Columbia Studios unless given a directorial position. Paramount conceded in 1927, putting her in charge of the film Fashions for Women, which became a financial success.[6]

At Paramount, Arzner directed Clara Bow's first talkie, The Wild Party (1929). To allow Bow to move freely on the set, Arzner had technicians rig a microphone onto a fishing rod, essentially creating the first boom mike.[6][7] She did not, however, take out a patent. One year later one was filed for a very similar sound-recording device by Edmund H Hansen, a sound engineer at the Fox Film Corporation.[8] Although not the first to patent the boom microphone, Arzner is still credited with its invention.[4]

The Wild Party was a success with critics and was the third top-grossing film of 1929. The film, set in a women's college, introduced some of the apparent lesbian undertones and themes often cited in Arzner's work. According to film scholar Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film "carefully articulates what happens when women stray from the confines of the safe all-girl environment" when they are "subject to the sexist advances of drunk, aggressive men."[9] Her films of the following three years were strong examples of Hollywood before the Production Code. These films featured aggressive, free-spirited and independent women. She left Paramount in 1932 to begin work as an independent director for several of the studios. The films she directed during this period are her best known, including her 1940 film Dance, Girl, Dance. Judith Mayne has credited the film as helping to break down the conventions of the Hollywood narrative while also noting that it fit a standard mold of storytelling. Mayne goes on to note that the main character, Judy O'Brien (Maureen O’Hara), is an aspiring dancer stuck in a role as a stooge in a burlesque show. Night after night, the crowd (of mostly men) watches her dance and ridicules her pure, virtuous aesthetic. By the end of the film, Judy confronts the audience and tells them how she sees them, which Mayne opines calls out the crowd's patriarchal gaze and highlighting the objectification of women.[10]

Arzner launched the careers of many actresses, including Katharine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), Rosalind Russell, Sylvia Sidney and Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance). In 1936, Arzner became the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.[11] She was also the first woman to direct a sound film.[12]

Personal life and death[edit]

Arzner with Marion Morgan in 1927 (photo by Arnold Genthe)

Arzner had been linked romantically with a number of actresses, including Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke,[13] but lived for the last 40 years of her life with her companion, choreographer Marion Morgan.[14] Arzner died, aged 82, in La Quinta, California.[15] Her ashes were scattered by the Chapel of the Desert over her home at 49-800 Avenida Obregon in La Quinta.[clarification needed][16]


For her achievements in the field of motion pictures, Arzner was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street.[17]

In 1972 the First International Festival of Women's Films honored her by screening "The Wild Party", and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at the Second Festival in 1976. In 1975 the Director's Guild of America honored her with "A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner." During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburn was read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?"[18]

In March 2018, Paramount dedicated its Dressing Room building to Arzner.[19][20]

In popular culture[edit]

R.M. Vaughan's 2000 play, Camera, Woman depicts the last day of Arzner's career. According to the play, Harry Cohn fired her over a kissing scene between Merle Oberon and fictitious actor Rose Lindstrom—the name of a character played by Isobel Elsom in Arzner's last film, First Comes Courage, in which Oberon starred—in a never-completed final film. The play also depicts Arzner and Oberon as lovers. The play is told in a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue in the form of a post-show interview that contains actual quotations from Arzner.[21]

S. Louisa Wei's 2014 feature documentary, Golden Gate Girls, compares the media representation of Arzner with that of Esther Eng, Hong Kong's first woman director who was a Chinese American. Judith Mayne, the author of Directed by Dorothy Arzner, is interviewed in the documentary, saying, "I love the fact that history of woman filmmakers now would include Dorothy Arzner and Esther Eng as the two of the real exceptions, who proved it was entirely possible to build a successful film career without necessarily being a part of mainstream identity."[citation needed]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Dorothy Emma Arzner." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995. Biography in Context. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.
  2. ^ "Dorothy Arzner Biography".
  3. ^ a b "Dorothy Arzner, Hidden Star Maker of Hollywood's Golden Age". Atlas Obscura. 2015-07-08. Retrieved 2016-03-31.
  4. ^ a b "Dorothy Arzner Biography".
  5. ^ Dorothy Arzner unfinished autobiography
  6. ^ a b Geller, Theresa L. "Dorothy Arzner". Great Directors. Senses of Cinema. Archived from the original on 2007-02-10. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  7. ^ "Dorothy Arzner, Hidden Star Maker of Hollywood's Golden Age". Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  8. ^ Seger, Linda S. (2003). When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film. p. 15. ISBN 0595268382.
  9. ^ Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, 1995, Greenwood Press, Westport (CT) & London, Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary, Retrieved December 15, 2014, see page(s): 19
  10. ^ Mayne, Judith (1981). "The Woman at the Keyhole: Women's Cinema and Feminist Criticism". New German Critique. JSTOR 487935.
  11. ^ "Dorothy Arzner". UCLA Film & Television Archive. Retrieved 2007-04-20.
  12. ^ "Dorothy Arzner Biography".
  13. ^ Mann, William J. (2001). Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969. New York: Viking. ISBN 9780670030170.
  14. ^ Mayne, Judith (1994). Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Indiana University Press. p. 42. ISBN 9780253208965.
  15. ^ Ware, Susan (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674014886. Retrieved 2015-04-02.
  16. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 1713-1714). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  17. ^ Dorothy Arzner on IMDb
  18. ^ DiMare, Philip C. (2011-01-01). Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 558. ISBN 9781598842968.
  19. ^ Chuba, Kirsten (March 1, 2018). "Francis Coppola Helps Paramount Dedicate Building to Pioneer Director Dorothy Arzner". Variety. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  20. ^ Valenzuela, Beatriz (March 3, 2018). "Dorothy Arzner — pioneering lesbian film director — honored at Paramount". Q Voice News. Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  21. ^ Vaughan, R. M. Camera, Woman. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000; ISBN 1-55245-055-4

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