The Review/Feature/

The Passion of Dorothy Arzner

Classic Hollywood's leading female director was also a fiery feminist and queer pioneer

by Alicia Fletcher
Feb 22, 2017

"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 Director’s 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 17 feature films, Arzner produced the largest body of work for a female director working within the studio system during Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1920s to 1940s, and she was also the only female director to successfully transition from the silent era to sound.

Featuring the cream of the studio crop — including stars like Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Rosalind Russell — Arzner’s films are stylish, fun, at times scathing, and unfailingly complex in their treatment of their female characters. Whether they be socialites, secretaries, showgirls, strippers 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 — restrictions that are still all too familiar in today’s disturbing political landscape.

Dorothy Arzner and Joan Crawford take a break during the filming of The Bride Wore Red

An ahead-of-her-time feminist, 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 what was then (and can still be now) a ruthlessly puritanical society. A rebel from the outset, Arzner initially assailed another traditionally male bastion when she enrolled in medical school at USC. With America’s entry into the war, Arzner left school to join the volunteer ambulance corps as a driver. Upon her return home from France, a contact she had met in Europe introduced her to William C. DeMille, the brother of top Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, who gave her a job at the Famous Players Lasky studio, which later became Paramount. (It should be noted that this was not Arzner’s first encounter with Hollywood: as a preteen she had served such luminaries as Mary Pickford, William S. Hart, and Charlie Chaplin at her father’s Los Angeles café.)

Starting out as a stenographer, Arzner rapidly ascended the studio ranks, becoming a script clerk and then landing a promotion to lead film cutter. After working on some of the highest-grossing films of the era — including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino vehicle Blood and Sand — she became the first person in film history, man or woman, to receive the onscreen credit of “Editor,” for James Cruze’s 1926 action epic Old Ironsides. In addition, Arzner 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.

After mastering so much in so short a time, Arzner demanded the opportunity to direct. When Paramount attempted to appease her by offering her some distinctly less-than-prestigious fare, she threatened to quit. The studio relented and assigned her to the 1927 picture Fashions for Women, starring the cherubic Esther Ralston, a solid commercial and critical success that launched Arzner’s career behind the camera.

Esther Ralston in Fashions for Women, 1927

Following Fashions, Paramount proved their faith in Arzner by giving her helming duties on the new film starring the studio’s most lucrative asset, the original “It Girl” Clara Bow. Despite her lofty status at the studio, Bow was the victim of antagonistic, if not emotionally abusive, relationships with directors and studio brass; Arzner, however, put Bow at ease, making her feel valued and safe. Their first film together, Get Your Man — which reunited Bow with Charles “Buddy” Rogers (the future Mr. Mary Pickford), her co-star in the previous year’s Oscar winner Wings — is a Paris-set matrimonial farce full of missed connections and zany romantic hijinks, featuring Bow in a strong, assertive role. Marion Morgan, Arzner’s romantic partner of 41 years, handled the film’s choreography, including the staging of the impressive wax museum sequence.

The wax museum sequence from Get Your Man, choreographed and staged by Arzner's partner Marion Morgan

Arzner and Bow paired again for 1929’s The Wild Party, the star’s first “all-talking” picture. The director once again proved herself an innovator in these wild and woolly early days of sound cinema: knowing that Bow was terrified of the microphone, as she feared that her thick Brooklyn accent would destroy her career, Arzner strung a microphone to a fishing pole so that it was outside of Bow’s view — effectively inventing the first boom mic, which remains the primary method for recording dialogue via direct sound.

Arzner’s Pre-code gem Merrily We Go to Hell (whose sensationalistic title caused many newspapers to refuse to publicize the film) balances sex and scandal with a biting critique of matrimonial oppression. Sylvia Sidney (much later of Tim Burton fame) stars as Joan Prentice, a society heiress who marries an alcoholic (played by Arzner favourite Fredric March) and suffers the consequences of his addiction; when she discovers his infidelity, she seeks revenge in the arms of other men. Arzner demonstrated her remarkable intuition for talent by casting the then unknown Cary Grant as Joan’s most impressive conquest.

Fearing that Paramount’s financial woes would impact her projects, Arzner struck out on her own as an independent director for hire. She landed at RKO with the astounding aviation picture Christopher Strong, which gave Katharine Hepburn one of her earliest starring roles (and saved her from appearing in a Tarzan knock-off).

Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, 1933

As brazen aviatrix Lady Cynthia Darrington, Hepburn established her star persona as a stubborn, strong-willed adventure-seeker, while Arzner’s impressive handling of the aerial scenes further attested to her directorial talents. (As a bonus, the film includes the most exquisite and eccentric costume piece of any Arzner title: a metallic insect get-up, complete with antennae, that serves no real narrative purpose.)

The Bride Wore Red is somewhat notorious in film history as the title that led to star Joan Crawford’s branding as “box-office poison” by the exhibitors’ organization the National Theater Distributors of America. Crawford plays Anni Pavlovitch, a cabaret singer (and implied former prostitute) who a callous aristocrat attempts to pass off as a society star as a joke. Although Arzner’s technical prowess was noted in reviews, the film was a critical and commercial failure, mostly due to the perceived miscasting of Crawford. Despite all this, Crawford and Arzner became lifelong friends, and in the 1950s the actress had her husband, the CEO of Pepsi, hire the then retired Arzner to direct soda-pop commercials.

A bone fide feminist masterpiece, Dance, Girl, Dance was Arzner’s most flamboyant, dynamic and important film. Starring Lucille Ball as a brassy burlesque dancer and Maureen O’Hara as her ballet-dancer rival, DGD is Arzner’s most overt critique of female subjugation (and as such, it was reviled by male film critics); O’Hara’s famous speech to a leering male crowd is the most stunning and powerful indictment of patriarchal privilege in any classic Hollywood film.

Rediscovered in the 1970s by second-wave feminists, who adopted the film as a key text and Arzner as a retroactive figurehead, Dance, Girl, Dance was eventually preserved by the Library of Congress as an entry on the United States National Film Registry.

Dance, Girl, Dance was both Arzner’s masterpiece and her final film: while working on 1943’s First Comes Courage, she fell ill and had to be replaced. After her aforementioned stints as a commercial director, Arzner landed a position teaching filmmaking at UCLA, where she influenced a new generation of directors (including Francis Ford Coppola). While she welcomed her late-in-life critical rediscovery and belated tributes from the film industry, Arzner assumed that few of her films would ever be seen again; she died in 1979 believing that all the prints of her silent titles had been irretrievably lost (happily, two of three have survived). The recent restoration of the delightful Get Your Man (which was rescued from nitrate decomposition at the proverbial 11th hour) reminds us that, above and beyond her status as a feminist pioneer and a queer trailblazer, Arzner was a director — period.