Dorothy Arzner's Working Girls
Classic Hollywood's leading female director was also a fiery feminist and queer pioneer
The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Working Girls: The Films of Dorothy Arzner begins Saturday, January 12.
"Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?" — telegram sent by Katharine Hepburn to Dorothy Arzner, 1975
The namesake of a prestigious Directors Guild of America award (whose winners include such filmmakers as Barbara Kopple and Ava DuVernay), Dorothy Arzner was the first female member of the DGA, and would remain its only female member for decades. As the director of 16 feature films (as well as several films for which she did not receive credit), Arzner was not only far and away the most prolific female director in the Hollywood studio system from the 1920s to the early 1940s, but also the first woman to direct a sound film and the only female director to successfully transition from silent to sound cinema.
Fun, stylish, and sometimes scathing, her films offered showcases for a host of the era’s top female stars — including Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Sylvia Sidney, Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara — and, unlike so many films then (and now), allowed them to play women who were vibrant, independent, and unfailingly complex (especially in contrast to her male characters, which Andrew Sarris characterized as “spectacularly spineless”). Whether they be socialites, secretaries, coeds, showgirls, burlesque queens, or prostitutes, Arzner’s heroines invariably take aim at the oppressively patriarchal systems in which they are enmeshed, exposing and challenging the unjust and inequitable expectations imposed upon women in American society.
A feminist before the term existed, Arzner was as transgressive as her characters, defying both the gender norms of her industry and — as an openly gay woman — the norms of sexual orientation in a ruthlessly puritanical society. A rebel from the outset, Arzner launched her first assault on a traditionally male bastion when she enrolled in medical school at USC, before dropping out to join the volunteer ambulance corps when the United States entered the First World War. After the Armistice, a contact she had made in the corps introduced her to William C. DeMille, the brother of top Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, who got her a job at the Famous Players Lasky studio, later renamed Paramount.
Starting out as a typist, Arzner rapidly ascended the studio ranks, becoming a script clerk before landing a promotion to lead film cutter. Working on some of the highest-grossing films of the era — including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino vehicle Blood and Sand, for which she also directed (without credit) the spectacular bull-fighting sequence — she became the first person in film history, man or woman, to receive an onscreen credit as “Editor,” for James Cruze’s 1926 action epic Old Ironsides. Arzner also established herself as a screenwriter (a position not unusual for women to occupy in the silent era, when writers like Frances Marion and Anita Loos wielded substantial clout), providing scripts for such films as The Red Kimono — which was directed by another female trailblazer of the time, Dorothy Davenport — and When Husbands Flirt, an early effort by the great William Wellman. (After she established herself as a director, Arzner made a point of working with female collaborators throughout her career, including screenwriters like Pulitzer Prize-winning author Zoë Akins and Hope Loring, as well as editor Jane Loring.)
Having mastered so much in such a short time, Arzner demanded the opportunity to direct, and then threatened to quit when Paramount initially offered her some distinctly less-than-prestigious fare. The studio relented and assigned her to the 1927 Fashions for Women, which became a solid commercial and critical success and launched Arzner’s career behind the camera.
Following Fashions, Paramount proved their faith in Arzner by giving her helming duties on Get Your Man, starring the studio’s most lucrative asset: the original “It Girl” Clara Bow, who, despite her lofty status at the studio, was a victim of antagonistic (if not emotionally abusive) relationships with her directors and the studio brass. Arzner, however, put Bow at ease, making her feel valued and safe, and after the success of Get Your Man they paired again for The Wild Party, Paramount’s first “all-talking” picture. Arzner once again proved herself an innovator in these wild and woolly early days of sound cinema: knowing that Bow was terrified of microphones (due to her thick Brooklyn accent), Arzner suspended a mic from a fishing pole so that it was outside of the actress’ field of vision — effectively inventing the first boom mic, which allowed for greater freedom of movement and even today remains the primary method for recording dialogue via direct sound.
After directing 12 films for Paramount, Arzner — fearing that the studio’s financial woes would impact her creative freedom — struck out on her own as a director for hire. She first landed at RKO, where she made Christopher Strong, an astounding aviation picture that gave Katharine Hepburn (who receives her own TIFF Cinematheque retrospective this season) one of her earliest starring roles, and saved her from appearing in a Tarzan knock-off.
Arzner then moved to Columbia for Craig’s Wife with Rosalind Russell, a huge success that brought the director to the attention of the top studio of the era, MGM, who hired her to direct Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red. While Bride floundered both critically and commercially, it brought Arzner a lifelong friend in Crawford, as well as an important new collaborator in screenwriter Tess Slesinger, who Arzner would partner with for her undeniable magnum opus, Dance, Girl, Dance.
A bone fide, ahead-of-its-time feminist masterpiece starring Lucille Ball as a brassy burlesque dancer and Maureen O’Hara as her prim ballet-dancer rival, DGD was Arzner’s most flamboyant, dynamic, and important film. A bomb upon its initial release, it was rediscovered in the 1970s and adopted as a key text by second-wave feminists, who also enshrined Arzner as a retroactive figurehead for the movement.
Dance, Girl, Dance was both Arzner’s masterpiece and her final film: while working on First Comes Courage in 1943, she fell ill and had to be replaced. Earning a living via such assignments as Pepsi commercials and army training films, she eventually landed a position teaching filmmaking at UCLA, where she instructed and influenced a new generation of directors (including Francis Ford Coppola). While she welcomed her late-in-life critical rediscovery and the belated tributes from the film industry (including the 1975 DGA celebration for which Hepburn provided the telegram message above), Arzner still assumed that few of her films would ever be seen again. Although three of her early films are indeed lost (her directorial debut Fashions, as well as Ten Modern Commandments and the “part-talkie” Manhattan Cocktail), it is heartening that almost all of her sound features survive in archives, including Dance, Girl, Dance, which was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2007.
It is a sad commentary on Arzner’s era that, despite the fact that her films were as commercially successful as those by such directors as Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Ernst Lubitsch, she requested that her name not appear prominently in her films’ opening credits, concerned that her gender would relegate her work to novelty status. At the same time, however, this choice reflected the kind of no-nonsense craftsmanship that filmmakers of the time prided themselves on. In 1977, two years before her death, Arzner did an interview with silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow in which she offered the following advice: “Just let the picture stand on its own.” It’s a reminder that, above and beyond her status as a feminist pioneer and a queer trailblazer, Arzner was a director — period.