Past as Prologue: Director Dorothy Arzner in Hollywoodland

Dorothy Arzner (1897 - 1979) and Sonya Levien (1888 - 1960), the film director and screen writer who are collaborating on the Fox film 'The Captive Bride'. A former editor, Arzner gained fame as the only female director in Hollywood in the 1930's. | (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

Long before there was Penny Marshall, Kathryn Bigelow, or even Elizabeth Banks, there was Dorothy Arzner. She was the only woman who worked regularly as a director in Hollywood during the 1920s through the 1940s, and her record of helming 20 films is still unbroken. These included major studio releases such as "Christopher Strong" (1933) and "Craig's Wife" (1936), films with feminist undertones and unhappy endings. Her best known creation, however, is "Dance, Girl, Dance" (1940), a rollicking comedy about dance, and the battle between art and commerce, a film which launched Lucille Ball into stardom. But, this proved to be Arzner's penultimate film, and she retired in 1943.

Born in San Francisco, she was raised in Los Angeles. Her father ran a restaurant popular with the Hollywood set, and through William DeMille (Cecile B.'s brother), she got a job working at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which became Paramount, as a stenographer. She quickly moved into script writing and then editing. They valued her so highly as an editor that they gave her "Blood and Sand," the Rudolph Valentino vehicle. Arzner directed some of the bullfighting scenes. In 1927, she was ready to leave for a smaller studio so she could direct, because that is what she had decided she really wanted to do. In a 1974 interview with film critics Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, Arzner said she had been thinking, "If one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do. In fact, he was the 'whole works.'"

1931: A scene from the film "Working Girls," featuring Judith Wood and Stuart Erwin (1903 - 1967) the character comedian. The film was directed by Dorothy Arzner. | (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
1931: A scene from the film "Working Girls" featuring Judith Wood and Stuart Erwin (1903 - 1967) the character comedian. The film was directed by Dorothy Arzner. | (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

To keep her, Paramount offered her the helm of "Fashions for Women," a comedy about a cigarette girl who falls in love with a count. Not surprisingly, Arzner was handed a series of what came to be known as "women's films," and a rather delirious implausibility of plot is one of the common characteristics of the genre. Having worked her way through the system, the transition was a natural one, although the news media had a field day hailing the "girl director." As a director, Arzner was considered a good one, competent and reliable enough to bring a film in on time and on budget. Paramount entrusted her with Clara Bow's first talkie film, "The Wild Party" (1929). The director suggested putting a mike on a fishing pole to better capture dialogue -- thus, the invention of the "boom mike." In 1932 she finally left Paramount, and worked as an independent director for several studios, often working with women who were major stars -- or who were to become major stars.

In appearance, Arzner wore her dark hair short and outfitted in snappy tailored suits, sometimes with a tie. A youthful photo of her shows her dressed like a schoolboy, replete with cap. Arzner lived in an earlier age of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as it was apparently widely known in the business that she was a lesbian, but she just didn't talk about it. She had several liaisons with women, and lived the last 40 years of her life with Marion Morgan, a choreographer who sometimes worked on her films.

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Over the last few decades, with the rise of women and gender studies, film scholars have deconstructed Arzner's films, looking for feminist and lesbian content. It seems to me that while Arzner might have found fast-talking, liberated women delightful to put on screen, she almost always had to rein them in at the end. This was consonant with popular mores -- as well as what studio bosses thought was good for their audiences. There was a reason why Arzner worked long and successfully in the studio system.

Take "Christopher Strong," Katharine Hepburn's first starring film. She plays Lady Cynthia Darrington, a glamorous free spirit and an aviatrix, who at the beginning of the film denies having had any love affair -- and indeed, hopes not to have one. In one scene, she steps out of her bedroom covered head to feet in a gold lamé, form-hugging bodysuit that makes her appear an interstellar traveler, a woman from the future. Alas, she's pulled back down to earth in typical 1930s melodrama fashion -- she falls in love with a married man, and then, oops, gets pregnant. Her response is to do the honorable and kill herself while flying. Critic Pauline Kael has written that Strong "was drawn to her because, unlike his conventionally feminine wife (Billie Burke), she had audacity and independence... But as soon as they went to bed together, he insisted, late on the very first night, that she not fly in the match she was entered in."

A somewhat more complex woman is presented in "Craig's Wife," a melodrama adapted from a play. In her breakthrough role, Rosalind Russell played Harriet Craig, an oppressive control freak who likes her home and the people around her to be just so. She recognizes that marriage was her way to achieve "independence" -- she has so few choices in life -- but in the end her cold heart pushes everyone away. Producer Cecil B. DeMille said the film is about "A woman who made the fatal mistake of making love come second..." which is in fact often the allegation against women in "women's films." While these films were made for the female audience, they also served as object lessons for keeping women in their place.

"Dance, Girl, Dance" is generally considered Arzner's best film. She lets her actresses go with fast lines and screwball situations. Ball plays gold-digger "Bubbles," who becomes queen of New York burlesque, while her colleague Maureen O'Hara plays idealistic Judy, who aspires to become a serious dancer. It contains one of the most celebrated scenes in feminist film criticism, the scene where Judy, having had to dance a ballet in Bubble's burlesque show for comic relief, confronts the mostly male audience. "Go ahead and stare, I'm not ashamed," she scolds them from the stage. "What do you suppose we think of you up here -- with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of?" In fact, she says, we think YOU are laughable. It's a landmark moment when the male gaze is confronted with the female gaze. And this film does have a happy ending for our heroine, at least in her professional life.

Arzner retired in 1943, after her last and not very successful film, "First Comes Courage," a film with a wartime theme. She had caught pneumonia the last week of shooting, and her health is often cited as the reason for her leaving the business. However, in a 1975 Los Angeles Times interview, she said, "[Louis B.] Mayer put out the word that I was difficult, and you know how producers talk to each other. I think that was the reason I left." Later, she made commercials, and also taught screenwriting and directing at UCLA -- among her students was Francis Ford Coppola. She died in 1979 in La Quinta.

Since Arzner's time, the number of women directors of feature films has certainly increased, although it is still low. Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University has been compiling research about women in film and television for the report, "The Celluloid Ceiling," for 17 years. The section called "Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2014" is sobering. In 2014, women made up 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on these top films ("top" meaning in terms of domestic gross). This was the same as in 1998. Women directors were 7 percent of the directors, up by one percent from the year before, but down 2 percent from 1998.

It's worth noting that a couple women directors headlined two major releases this year -- Sam Taylor-Johnson, known mainly as an art film director, directed the controversial "50 Shades of Grey" and actress Elizabeth Banks made her directorial debut with "Pitch Perfect 2." The latter's $69 million opening weekend gross set a record for a first time director. Of either sex. (Banks performed double duty on this one, also appearing onscreen as a newscaster having to deal with the sexist comments of her co-anchor.) However, like Arzner, they've had to cater to stereotypes -- "50 Shades" has been criticized for plugging into the notion that all women are secretly masochistic, and "Pitch" depicts young women as airheaded nincompoops in lipstick and high heels. Neither film can be called a feminist anthem.

This month through mid September, there's the opportunity to see some of Arzner's remarkable output -- on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen. The UCLA Film and Television Archive is presenting "Dorothy Arzner: A Retrospective" from July 31 - September 18, 2015 at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum. They will be showing 14 of her films, which includes films she wrote. For more information visit the UCLA Film & Television Archive website.


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