Dorothy Arzner

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Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner.jpg
Born (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

Dorothy Arzner (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. She was one of the very few women who established a name for herself as a director in the film industry during this time. Her body of work remains to this day the largest by a woman director within the studio system.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Born in San Francisco, California, Arzner grew up in Los Angeles, where her father 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. During World War I, she left school to work overseas in the ambulance corps. 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.

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.[2]

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.[2][3] 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.[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."[5] 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, launching 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 newly formed Directors Guild of America.[6]

For reasons never fully disclosed, Arzner stopped directing feature-length films in 1943. She continued to work in the following years, directing television commercials and Army training films. She produced plays and, in the 1960s and 1970s, worked as a professor at the UCLA Film School, teaching screenwriting and directing until her death in 1979. One of her graduate students at UCLA was Francis Ford Coppola, who cited Arzner's encouragement as pivotal to his film career.[7]

Personal life and death[edit]

Arzner had been linked romantically with a number of actresses, but lived for the last 40 years of her life with her companion, choreographer Marion Morgan.[8] Arzner died, aged 82, in La Quinta, California.[9]


For her achievements in the field of motion pictures, Arzner was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street.[10]

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?"[11]

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.[12]

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. ^ "Arzner, Dorothy (1897–1979)." Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages. Gale. 2007. Retrieved January 9, 2013 from HighBeam Research
  2. ^ a b Geller, Theresa L. "Dorothy Arzner". Great Directors. Senses of Cinema. Archived from the original on 2007-02-10. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  3. ^ "Dorothy Arzner, Hidden Star Maker of Hollywood's Golden Age". Retrieved July 17, 2015. 
  4. ^ Seger, Linda S. (2003). When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film. p. 15. ISBN 0595268382. 
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ "Dorothy Arzner". UCLA Film & Television Archive. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  7. ^ "An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola". Retrieved October 18, 2010. 
  8. ^ Mayne, Judith (1994). Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Indiana University Press. p. 42. ISBN 9780253208965. 
  9. ^ Ware, Susan (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674014886. Retrieved 2015-04-02. 
  10. ^ Dorothy Arzner at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ DiMare, Philip C. (2011-01-01). Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 558. ISBN 9781598842968. 
  12. ^ Vaughan, R. M. Camera, Woman. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000; ISBN 1-55245-055-4

External links[edit]