Dorothy Arzner. A Woman Working when Women REALLY didn’t work the top industry jobs.

August 31, 2014 § 1 Comment



“When I was a graduate student, I had a wonderful teacher I admired – a woman director, in fact, the only Hollywood director. Her name was Dorothy Arzner. She was very encouraging to me at a time when I needed encouragement. So I remember her very favorably.”[i] Francis Ford Coppola.

Dorothy Arzner, teaching at UCLA in the early 1960’s in her own late sixties, knew the barely twenty-year-old Francis Ford Coppola. She had been in the industry since its early days. She had kept her job when studios shed female employees like lint in the thirties. She had, presumably, seen it all. She must have sensed that ability in her young student which defines him as an artist now. He is “Coppola,” one of the most influential figures in modern American cinema.

And he, with his vast experience in the industry today, remembers her favorably. Who was Dorothy Arzner and why is she worth remembering in the context of the history of cinema?

She was a woman. David Thomson, a British writer and film critic, tersely states, in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, that Arzner “was a professional director of American movies who worked regularly for over a decade, and was a woman.”[ii] He essentially credits her success, the little he acknowledges her, to that.  And she had a long-term female companion and thus is considered a lesbian. These two things- femaleness and lesbianism- immediately lead to feminist and queer critical reviews of her work in the film business, an industry where the former still lags behind as an attribute and the latter was once grounds for dismissal. Studying her work in only these two contexts or dismissing its import minimizes Arzner before the truly interesting research begins.

Dorothy was born in San Francisco in 1897 and grew up in Los Angeles around actors and film industry pioneers who frequented her father’s restaurant, a popular spot near a theatre.   She entered the University of Southern California to study medicine but dropped out, served as an ambulance driver in World War I, then returned home to take a job as a script typist for William C. deMille, Cecille’s brother, at the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, later Paramount. She quickly moved up to cutter and editor for a subsidiary of Paramount, Realart Studio, where she honed her skills working on fifty-two films.

Then in 1922 came Blood and Sand, starring Hollywood’s swarthy Italian heart-throb, Rudolph Valentino.   Arzner, by now known as one of the best cutters in the business, was called back to Paramount to help with the editing. Her use of stock footage in Spanish bullfight crowd scenes and actual in-the-ring moments was revolutionary from an editing standpoint and created the critical illusion of Valentino on the sand with the bull. When he stabs the bull the final blow in a one-shot, and then immediately there’s a cut to real footage of a mortally wounded, crumbling bull, Valentino’s heroism as a matador is cemented in the audience’s mind.

Valentino had been promised there would be on-sight shoots. He and conceivably many others involved in production were disappointed when none of the film was shot in Spain. The film’s success hinged upon offering the audience a sense of the bullfight’s immediacy, reality. Blood and Sand is based on a novel which condemns bullfighting’s bloodlust. Arzner’s cut convinces.

Director Francine Parker, who knew Arzner, produced a retrospective for the Director’s Guild in 1979 featuring Arzner’s work. She emphasized the importance of her editing and cutting skills. “As an editor, her close-ups to create the bullfighting scene… were stunning- no one had ever intercut a scene like that.”[iii]

Arzner’s skillful editing saves the film from becoming just another romantic story starring Hollywood’s pretty boy. It is essential to the meat of meaning in the story. It places the audience literally on the sand with the matador and the bull. Her technique was revolutionary in 1922.

Blood and Sand is also the first film for which Arzner did some filming, evidence that her career track was expanding. In the twenties, a woman’s career in film COULD expand. It was the silent-era, an era of experimentation and invention within a new industry, informed by what had come immediately before it. Louis Lumiere and Thomas Alva Edison had been busy developing motion picture equipment in the 1890’s, and by 1896 Alice Guy Blache had directed and premiered the first fiction film, her La Fee aux choux, at the International Exhibition in Paris. Back in Hollywood, by 1915 Julia Crawford Ivers had become general manager at Bosworth, Inc., and by 1916 Lois Weber, a mentor of Arzner’s, was breaking records as Universal Studio’s highest paid director. In 1919, Mary Pickford, one of the era’s great actresses, co-founded a film studio, United Artists, with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Charlie Chaplin.

Hollywood’s pre-code, pre-studio period was well established as the twenties rolled around, and women played an integral part. Paramount let Arzner write their shooting script, and also cut and edit, for Old Ironsides in 1926. Her reputation was such, by then, that Paramount almost lost her to a project at Columbia Pictures but wooed her back with promises that she could direct some of their “A” films. In 1927, as the decade closed, film turned into big business, and studios began to hire men over women for increasingly remunerative work, reflecting societal strictures that supported the idea that women did not belong in the workforce and should not hold jobs which might prove lucrative for men. But Arzner fortunately was well on her way.   She quickly directed three silent feature films in 1927- Fashions for Women, Ten Modern Commandments, and Get Your Man. Then in 1928, she directed Manhattan Cocktail.

Manhattan Cocktail is one of Hollywood’s “lost” films. Only a one-minute montage sequence remains. That sequence alone, however, testifies to the skill of the crew assembled by Arzner and also her involvement in what could possibly be considered early auteur film style.

Her Famous Players-Lasky Corporation colleagues, Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor, produced Manhattan Cocktail, and Lasky is credited with the montage sequence. It is a fast paced minute which begins with a high focus, very literal few seconds of a band director waving his wand at his unseen band, effectively the audience, and behind him an impromptu line-up of dancing revelers in a bar. The way attention is drawn first to stage left and the band director’s wand, and then beyond the wand, on the beat of diegetic band music (although is it the movie’s audience playing the instruments?) to the dancers, is arguably deliberate mise-en-scene directorial style before its time. Lasky, or Arzner herself, then cuts directly to silhouetted dancing girls who zigzag across the screen to frenetic, non-diegetic music, sometimes jumping over the camera and out of shot. The shots then are superimposed, canted, double-framed, geometrically interesting. The effect foreshadows nineteen-seventies kaleidoscopic special effects, approaches the style of nineteen-eighties music video, and has an organically anxious prohibition-era mood. The montage plays like a political statement. Is it possible that much film work in the early days of cinema was, to a degree, auteur? There was rampant political and social unrest during the pre-World War II period, plenty to express through media such as film. And the big machine of the Hollywood studios was just settling in, assigning its own literal and aesthetic value to the artform. It hadn’t yet squashed experimentation.

Arzner w Clara Bow,

Arzner with Clara Bow,

Arzner also solved a huge technical difficulty that arose with the advent of talking pictures. From a biographical standpoint, she completely “auteured” her own film by making the sound work for her directorial purposes. She found herself dealing with an understandably nervous silent-film actress, the already famous Clara Bow. Clara apparently didn’t “get” how to work with mics, and she was Paramount’s star in their first sound film, one that Arzner was directing, The Wild Party, 1929. As a director faced with an expanded palette of audio and storytelling possibilities, specifically the opportunity to record the speaking voices of her actors and thus expand the audience’s cinematic experience, Arzner conceivably was both excited and near frustration frequently. She needed to get it right.

Clara’s voice proved childlike. And it frequently got lost in the action of a scene. Arzner suggested that a mic be hung from a simple fishing pole and kept in range of Bow as she moved. Whether this was the first use of a boom mic is up for debate, but Arzner definitely used the technique and revolutionized sound in the early talking picture era.

She also gave several major female stars their start in the early days of what quickly became a classical, stereotype-driven Hollywood cinematic machine, the “studio system.” Beginning with the formation of MGM in 1924, out went the experimenter, the independent film and the women working as creative artists alongside men. In came big business, women relegated to costume departments or as script girls, and the Hollywood studio staple- the sex symbol. Arzner admitted that “she stifled her criticism of other filmmaker’s studio projects…(and) felt she ‘ought not complain’, and yet she carefully maintained that no obstacles were put in her way by men in the business.”[iv] This may have made partial reference to the sex-symbol craze. Feminist criticism could easily view Arzner’s portrayals of her own leading ladies, soon-to-be stars like Esther Ralston, Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball, against the aggressive pimping of starlets in then-contemporary films, and discuss the care with which Arzner both glamorized and dignified her female leads.

A simple example of this is seen in her Paramount film, Merrily We Go To Hell, from 1932. Its leading lady is Sylvia Sidney, cast as Joan, a naïve rich girl who falls for an alcoholic, philandering playwright. She could so easily have been directed as the silly fool- simpering, crying too much, spoiled. But, starting with Sylvia’s first close-up, the audience are treated to frequent, elegant one shots of a lovely young woman who is also a good actress. Arzner does not direct her to cry like a girl, pucker for sexual effect, as happens in many films of the day, or avoid direct eye contact with the camera. Instead, she has Sidney guile-lessly communicate with the lens against a backdrop of perfectly soft focused skin and coiffed hair. Arzner also judiciously allows a sudden sparkle of sequin or diamond earring in certain scenes- to highlight Joan’s status, or at a particularly upbeat or angst-ridden moment, or simply to play up the joyful cinematic experience of involving oneself in a woman’s story. Arzner clearly understands how to show the depths of female beauty. Her Sidney is filmed with great care, even when the movie plunges into a pat ending, wherein the philandering alcoholic rushes to Joan’s hospital bedside and all is right with the world because her man has returned. The overall result of Arzner’s directing her leading lady is the creation of cinematic female beauty, not just a female image meant to “make bank” in theatres and turn on the audience.

During her tenure with Paramount, Arzner directed eleven features. She left them in 1932.

And then she worked with Katherine Hepburn. Arzner directed her in her second major role, the 1933 RKO movie, Christopher Strong. Both Arzner and Hepburn were opinionated, strong women on a similar career trajectory. Up. By the time Hepburn starred in Christopher Strong, she was turning into not just a superfemale actress but a superwoman one. These adjectives, as applied to both Hepburn and Arzner, women in the same industry but on opposite sides of the lens, are worth noting.

Molly Haskell, in discussing female stars of the 1940’s, defines the former as, “a woman who, while exceedingly ‘feminine’ and flirtatious, is too ambitious and intelligent for the docile role society has decreed she play. She is uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to rebel completely; her circumstances are too pleasurable.”[v]  And the latter she defines as, “a woman who, like the ‘superfemale,’ has a high degree of intelligence or imagination, but instead of exploiting her femininity, adopts male characteristics in order to enjoy male prerogatives, or merely to survive.”[vi] As superwoman, Arzner actively adopted male attributes to survive in a male dominated industry and ultimately to succeed. But during her tenure making films for big studios, what does Arzner say, through her films, about a woman’s survival and success?  

In Christopher Strong, Hepburn plays a character who is an aviatrix but also a woman in love.   She must choose between her high stakes career and the man in her life. Christopher Strong is criticized by Feminist scholars for raising the question of whether women can have it both ways- career and love- and then not fully answering the question. Arzner lets them down, essentially. Hepburn’s character dies in a plane crash. If anything, they posit, the film can be read as ultimately reflecting cautionary views of the day which held that the freedom of single women was best “surrendered once the idea of a family becomes a concrete reality.”[vii]

Or is a plane crash akin to the Thelma and Louise car flight into a canyon? Is Arzner’s intent misread by overzealous Feminists? Does Arzner’s Christopher Strong more than adequately address the question by showing that extremes were woman’s only way out in 1933? She, after all, directed but did not write the screenplay. Another woman, Zoe Akins, did. Akins was a playwright and author who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for dramatizing The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton. With Arzner directing a script written by Akins, it is likely that gender issues in Christopher Strong sensitively reflected their day.

Film critic Pauline Kael goes straight to the point over “one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view,”[viii] and discusses the “intelligent woman’s primal post-coital scene”[ix] in Christopher Strong when Hepburn’s love interest beds her then insists she not fly in the next day’s contest. Kael notes that “In movies up to the 70s, this primal scene was never played out satisfactorily; the woman always gave in, either in the paste-up screwball style that provided the fake resolutions of the 40s, or, as in this picture, fatally.”[x] Hepburn nose dives her plane. The woman gives in. That tracks for Arzner and Akins, as evidenced in their directing and scripting.  And the fact that it tracks, in 1933 in the hands of a gifted director and writer, speaks loudly to irony.

Critic Pam Cook uses Arzner’s work to discuss Hollywood’s already highly articulated patriarchal ideology, thus high-focusing the years when Arzner was the only female studio director in Hollywood, the period of 1927 to 1943.  For instance, by 1936 Arzner had joined the newly formed Director’s Guild of America as its only female member, a distinction, if it can be called that, which she held throughout her career. She was undeniably uniquely situated to comment on the entire Hollywood system. Cook hopes to find in Arzner’s films, “some ideas which will open out the problem of the place of women within that (highly articulated) system.”[xi]

Arzner directed RKO’s Dance, Girl, Dance, in 1940. It features Maureen O’Hara as Judy O’Brien and Lucille Ball as Bubbles, two faces of the feminine- the wanna-be, virtuous ballet dancer and the realistic, low-brow vamp. Both must make a living by dancing.

Cook suggests that, overall, Arzner’s films show woman as stereo-typed and static, due to the era in which they are made and also to Hollywood’s dictates that man, the hero, be able to find his place in relation to the static woman, and thus arc within the confines of the story.   Cook goes further to suggest that Arzner’s films walk a fine line and attempt, in complying with classical structure, to actually show that structure as what it is, a false placement of women in emotionless, objectified roles. Arzner’s heroines may not break through those strictures and into active roles, Cook suggests, but, as in Dance, Girl, Dance, “When Judy O’Brien finally turns on her audience in fury and in her long speech fixes them in relation to her critical look at them it does indeed have the force of a ‘pregnant moment’. The place of the audience in the film and the audience of the film is disturbed, creating a break between them and the ideology of woman as spectacle, object of their desire.”[xii]

Even if Dance, Girl, Dance, were the only film Arzner ever directed, it’s the perfect one to prove Cook’s points and, further, to show Arzner’s ability to capture societal ironies on film, work within them as scripted, and carefully leave an audience thinking there’s something that needs to be changed.

Dance, Girl, Dance ends with our heroine, O’Hara’s Judy, nestling into the bosom of the man who represents the world where she belongs. Her mentor, an aging Russian ballet star- who incidentally looks quite lesbian- had planned to introduce her to the professional ballet early in act one. By fits, starts and complications motivated by Judy’s innocence or pride, it takes ‘til the end of the movie for her to get there. Instead of crying with relief as she nestles, Judy gently laughs and is questioned for it. She responds that she just finds it funny how it could all have been so much easier.

And the movie ends.

Towards the end of Dance, Girl, Dance, a movie about a woman pursuing her dreams in spite of societal and financial realities, the professional ballet director and his middle-aged assistant attend the low-brow theatre where Judy dances as foil to Bubbles’ gaudy act. Throughout the film, the assistant has appeared as a nicely dressed bit-part extra. But at the theatre, after Judy directly addresses her rude audience, the camera centers the assistant in a movie crowd scene, and she starts the applause. She is dressed very like Arzner herself. Is this character’s strong cinematic statement, the brave first clap, the exhortation that an audience should respect a woman who is struggling to achieve her own dreams, actually Arzner breaking the fourth wall and entering her own film?

Did Arzner frequently laugh over how much easier things might have been if only…?

Dorothy Arzner left Hollywood filmmaking in 1943 but remained involved with local theater, commercials, private projects and teaching at UCLA until her death in early October, 1979.

What did she, approaching her seventieth year, notice about her UCLA film students as the world of Hollywood faced competition from television and the first wave of film-school educated writers and directors who would, by the late 1960’s, change the face of big studio productions forever? What of herself- her desires, the things she could not or did not accomplish but perhaps imagined as possible- might have evidenced itself in students like Francis Ford Coppola, causing her to encourage him when he needed it most?

Surely she, as a lone woman in a man’s industry, frequently needed encouragement. Hopefully her body of work exists as encouragement and example for future artists to emulate. Definitely she influenced those who followed her, including one whom the industry openly considers truly great.

As Katherine Hepburn put it in a telegram read during a Director’s Guild tribute to Arzner in 1975, “Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?”[xiii]

Arzner on set,

Arzner on set,


[i] Academy of Achievement interview, Francis Ford Coppola. (Washington, DC: Museum of Natural History, June 17, 1994), August 1, 2014.

[ii] David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), p. 37.

[iii] Linda Seger, When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), p. 14.

[iv] Amy L. Unterburger, Women Filmmakers and Their Films. (Detroit, New York, London: St. James Press, 1998), p. xvii.

[v] Molly Haskell, “From Reverence to Rape: Female Stars of the 1940’s,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 505.

[vi] Haskell, “From Reverence to Rape,” p. 505.

[vii] Haskell, “From Reverence to Rape,” p. 510.

[viii] Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), p. 108.

[ix] Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, p. 108.

[x] Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, p. 108.

[xi] Pam Cook, “Approaching the Work of Dorothy Arzner,” in Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, ed. Patricia Erens. (New York: Horizon Press, 1979), p. 224.

[xii] Cook, “Approaching the Work of Dorothy Arzner,” p 225-226.

[xiii] John Hopewell, “Dorothy Arzner to Receive a San Sebastian Retrospective: Honoree a Distaff Direct Pioneer,” in Variety,, April 3, 2014.


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§ One Response to Dorothy Arzner. A Woman Working when Women REALLY didn’t work the top industry jobs.

  • Hallelujah, I’m glad to see your blog. Been wondering about you and miss seeing you. Will read this later; not enough time right now, but in the meantime, glad to see lightscamerawomen is still up and running.

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