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Notable Women in Film History: Dorothy Arzner, First Female Member of the Directors Guild of America

Film audiences have become enthralled with the kick-ass female characters of Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, Gravity, and The Heat.  However, women who actually work in film have become appalled at their job prospects.  Only two of the top 100-grossing films of 2013 featured a female director (Carrie, Frozen), and the percentage of women working as executive producers/producers, directors, writers, editors, and cinematographers are now at lows not seen since 1998.  Many women are shifting to working in independent film and/or television.

Yet the drumbeat for us finally getting a female-led comic book movie remains far louder than wondering why that movie has virtually no chance of being directed by a woman.  A male-directed Wonder Woman movie would arguably present more immediate benefit for the representation of women than a female-directed [any male super hero] film.  However, this disconnect is also likely due to the fact that there simply aren’t a whole lot of female film directors around right now that most people could name. In fact, there haven’t been a whole lot of female film directors in the entire history of film.

So, for our own edification as well as to help raise historical awareness for some of the female pioneers of film we have begun periodically profiling notable woman in film history.  Last time, we told you about the first ever female director and first ever female to run her own film studio, Alice Guy Blache. Now, it’s time to discuss:

Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979)

dorothy-arzner

She invented the boom mike!

Background: 

Dorothy Arzner grew up in Los Angeles, where her father’s restaurant was frequented by Hollywood celebrities.  She planned on becoming a doctor, but after spending time overseas in the ambulance corps during WWI she decided to leave medicine to pursue a career in film.  As soon as she got her foot in the door at Paramount Pictures, things happened very quickly for her.  She started out as a stenographer before being promoted to a script writer and then promoted again to film editor, all within 6 months.  By virtue of being a woman promoted to the position of editor she was already unique, as editors at that time were predominantly male.  However, that wasn’t enough for Arzner, who, like many before and countless others after her, really just wanted to direct.  

Luckily, she was too good to be ignored.  She won accolades right out of the gate with her first editing gig, Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand, which features a then-infamous bullfighting scene.   Director James Cruze, in particular, took notice, bringing Arzner aboard as a writer and editor for several of his films, including The Covered Wagon (1922).  With Cruze as well as with other directors, Arzner would edit over 50 films for Paramount Pictures between 1922 and 1927.  Cruze labored behind the scenes to get Paramount to let Arzner direct her own film, but it was when she threatened to leave for rival studio Columbia that Paramount relented.  She made her directorial debut in 1927 with Fashions for Women, a financial success at the time which is now mostly just remembered because of its significance as Arzner’s first film.  She went on to direct films for the next 16 years. 

Significance:

Arzner began her work as an editor in the silent era, but her first film as a director coincided with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927.  Within two years almost all of film had converted to sound, and Arzner was the only female director to survive the transition.  In fact, she not only adapted with the times but innovated.  In 1929, Paramount entrusted Arzner to direct their first talkie, The Wild Party, starring former “IT Girl” and 1920s sex symbol Clara Bow.  To help ease Bow’s nerves by allowing her a full range of movements Arzner attached a microphone to a fishing pole and followed Bow around with it, allowing a more naturalistic movement without sacrificing the ability to record dialogue.  Of course, many decades later the boom mike would become that fuzzy thing you’d occasionally see drop into the top of the frame during very, very bad and very, very low-budget movies.  That’s not really Arzner’s fault, though, right?  

Dorothy_Arzner-Clara_Bow_in_The_Wild_Party

Arzner (left) and Clara Bow (right) on the set of The Wild Party

Arzner was the first woman to enter the newly formed Director’s Guild of America in 1936, but sadly she remained the only woman in the Guild during her entire career.  After she retired in 1943 there wasn’t a single other female director in Hollywood until 1949 when actress Ida Lupino began directing her own films.  

Professional setbacks are presumably the reason Arzner retired when she did, although we still don’t actually know the fully story there.  Either way, after retiring from Hollywood she directed Women’s Army Corps training films during WWII and Pepsi-Cola commercials for Joan Crawford in the ’50s. She taught filmmaking at UCLA Film School from 1959 to 1963, where she had a chance to encourage future giants of cinema like Francis Ford Coppola.  

In her Hollywood career, Arzner either directed or co-directed between 17 and 19 feature length films, which to this day means no other woman in film history has directed more feature length Hollywood films than her.    

Films:

Arzner’s was a star-maker, giving  Rosalind Russell, Ruth Chatterton, and Lucille Ball their breakout roles.  Her leading women were strong, assertive, free-spirited women of the type Hollywood sought to remove from its screens after the advent of the Production Code.  It’s not surprising, then, that Arzner was the one to give Katherine Hepburn her first starring role in 1936’s Christopher Strong, with Hepburn earning instant comparisons to Greta Garbo.

Trailer for Christopher Strong:

From the St. John’s International Film Festival:

It’s also worth noting that Arzner was openly gay, and was hounded with potentially accurate rumors that she engaged in lesbian relationships with some of her starlets.

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About Kelly Konda (1742 Articles)
Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

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