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Dorothy Arzner Poster

Biography

Jump to: Overview (3)  | Mini Bio (1)  | Trivia (13)  | Personal Quotes (1)

Overview (3)

Born in San Francisco, California, USA
Died in La Quinta, California, USA
Height 5' 4" (1.63 m)

Mini Bio (1)

Dorothy Arzner, the only woman director during the "Golden Age" of Hollywood's studio system--from the 1920s to the early 1940s and the woman director with the largest oeuvre in Hollywood to this day--was born January 3, 1897 (some sources put the year as 1900), in San Francisco, California, to a German-American father and a Scottish mother. Raised in Los Angeles, her parents ran a café which featured German cuisine and which was frequented by silent film stars including: Charles Chaplin and William S. Hart, and director Erich von Stroheim. She worked as a waitress at the restaurant, and no one could have foreseen at the time that Arzner would be one of the few women to break the glass ceiling of directing and would be the only woman to work during the early sound era.

In her 15-year career as a director (1928-43), Arzner made three silent movies and 14 "talkies". Her path to the director's chair was different than that of women directors in the future (indeed, different than most male directors too). Directors nowadays are typically graduates of film schools or were working actors prior to directing. Like most of the directors of her generation, Arzner gained wide training in most aspects of filmmaking by working her way up from the bottom. It was the best way to become a filmmaker, she later said.

After graduating from high school in 1915, she entered the University of Southern California, where she was in the pre-med program for two years. When the US entered World War I in 1917, Arzner was unable to realize her ambition of serving her country in a military capacity, as there were no women's units in the armed forces at the time, so she served as an ambulance driver during the war.

After the cessation of hostilities, Azner got a job on a newspaper. The director of her ambulance unit introduced her to film director William C. de Mille (the brother of Cecil B. DeMille, one of the co-founders of Famous Players-Lasky, which eventually became known by the title of its distribution unit--Paramount Pictures). She decided to pursue a film career after visiting a movie set and being intrigued by the editing facilities. Arzner decided that she would like to become a director (there was no strict delineation between directors and editors in the immediate postwar period as the movie studios matured into a "factory" industrial production paradigm).

Though she was the sole member of her gender to direct Hollywood pictures during the first generation of sound film, in the silent era a woman behind the camera was not unknown. The first movie in history was directed by a Frenchwoman, and many women were employed in Hollywood during the silent era, most frequently as scenario writers (some research indicates that as many as three-quarters of the scenario writers during the silent era--when there was no requirement for a screenplay as such as there was no dialogue--were women). Indeed, there were women directors in the silent era, such as Frances Marion (though she was more famous as a screenwriter) and Lois Weber, but Arzner was fated to be the only female director to have made a successful transition to "talkies". It wasn't until the 1930s and the verticalization of the industry, as it matured and consolidated, that women were squeezed out of production jobs in Hollywood.

The introduction to William deMille paid off when he hired her for the sum of $20 a week to be a stenographer. Her first job for DeMille was typing up scripts at Famous Players-Lasky. She was reportedly a poor typist. Ambitious and possessed of a strong will, Arzner offered to write synopses of various literary properties, and eventually was hired as a writer. Impressing DeMille and other Paramount powers-that-be, Arzner was assigned to Paramount's subsidiary Realart Films, as a film cutter. She was promoted to script girl after one year, which required her presence on the set to ensure the continuity of the script as shot by the director. She then was given a job editing films. She excelled at cutting: as an editor (she was the first Hollywood editor professionally credited as such on-screen), she labored on 52 films, working her way up from cutting Bebe Daniels comedies to assignments on "A" pictures within a couple of years. She came into her own as a filmmaker editing the Rudolph Valentino headliner Blood and Sand (1922), about a toreador. Her editing of the bullfighting scenes was highly praised, and she later said that she actually helmed the second-unit crew shooting some of the bullfight sequences. Director James Cruze was so impressed by her work on the Valentino picture that he brought her on to his team to edit The Covered Wagon (1923). Arzner eventually edited three other Cruze films: Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), Merton of the Movies (1924) and Old Ironsides (1926). Her work was of such quality that she received official screen credit as an editor, a first for a cutter of either gender.

While collaborating with Cruze she also wrote scenarios, scripting her ideas both solo and in collaboration. She was credited as a screenwriter (as well as an editor) on "Old Ironsides", one of the more spectacular films of the late silent era, being partially shot in Magnascope, one of the earliest widescreen processes. She would always credit Cruze as her mentor and role model. "Old Ironsides" proved to be the last film on which she was credited as an editor, as her ambitions to become a director would finally come to fruition. To indulge her, Paramount gave her a job as an assistant director, for which she was happy--until she realized it was not a stepping stone to the director's chair, and she was determined to sit in that chair.

Arzner pressured Paramount to let her direct, threatening to leave the studio to work for Columbia Pictures on Poverty Row, which had offered her a job as a director. Unwilling to lose such a talented filmmaker, the Paramount brass relented, and she made her debut with Fashions for Women (1927). It was a hit. In the process of directing Paramount's first talkie, Manhattan Cocktail (1928), she made history by becoming the first woman to direct a sound picture. The success of her next sound picture, The Wild Party (1929), starring Paramount's top star, Clara Bow, helped establish Fredric March as a movie star.

Arzner proved adept at handling actresses. As Budd Schulberg related in his autobiography "Moving Pictures", Clara Bow--a favorite of his father, studio boss B.P. Schulberg--had a thick Brooklyn accent that the silence of the pre-talkie era hid nicely from the audience. She was terrified of the transition to sound, and developed a fear of the microphone. Working with her sound crew, Arzner devised and used the first boom mike, attaching the microphone to a fish pole to follow Bow as she moved around the set. Arzner even used Bow's less-than-dulcet speaking tones to underscore the vivaciousness of her character.

Though Arzner made several successful films for Paramount, the studio teetered on the edge of bankruptcy due to the Depression, eventually going into receivership (before being saved by the advent of another iconic woman, Mae West). When the studio mandated a pay cut for all employees, Arzner decided to go freelance. RKO Radio Pictures hired her to direct its new star, headstrong young Katharine Hepburn, in her second starring film, Christopher Strong (1933). It was not a happy collaboration, as both women were strong and unyielding, but Arzner eventually prevailed. She was, after all, the boss on the set: The director. The fiercely independent Hepburn complained to RKO, but the studio backed its director against its star. Eventually the two settled into a working relationship, respecting each other but remaining cold and distant from one another. Ironically, Arzner would display her directorial flair in elucidating the kind of competitive rivalries between women she experienced with Hepburn.

The Directors Guild of America was established in 1933, and Arzner became the first woman member. Indeed, she was the only female member of the DGA for many years.

Arzner's films featured well-developed female characters, and she was known at the time of her work, quite naturally, as a director of "women's pictures". Not only did her movies portray the lives of strong, interesting women, but her pictures are noted for showcasing the ambiguities of life. Since the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1960s, Arzner's movies have been seen as challenging the dominant, phallocentric mores of the times.

Arzner was a lesbian, who cultivated a masculine look in her clothes and appearance (some feel as camouflage to hide the boy's club that was Hollywood). Many gay critics discern a hidden gay subtext in her films, such as "Christopher Strong". Whereas feminist critics see a critique of gender inequality in "Christopher Strong", lesbian critics see a critique of heterosexuality itself as the source of a woman's troubles. The very private Azner, the woman who broke the glass ceiling and had to survive, and indeed thrived, in the all-male world of studio filmmaking, refused to be categorized as a woman or gay director, insisting she was simply a "director." She was right.

Arzner did have less troubled and more productive collaborations with other actresses after her experience with Hepburn. She developed a close friendship with one of her female stars, Joan Crawford, whom she directed in two 1937 MGM vehicles, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) and The Bride Wore Red (1937). Arzner later directed Pepsi commercials as a favor to Crawford's husband, Pepsi-Cola Company's Chairman of the Board Alfred Steele.

In 1943 Arzner joined other top Hollywood directors such as John Ford and George Stevens in going to work for the war effort during World War Two. She made training films for the US Army's Women's Army Corps (WACs). That same year her health was compromised after she contracted pneumonia. After the war she did not return to feature film directing, but made documentaries and commercials for the new television industry. She also became a filmmaking teacher, first at the Pasadena Playhouse during the 1950s and 1960s and then at the University of California-Los Angeles campus during the 1960s and 1970s. At UCLA she taught directing and screenwriting, and one of her students was Francis Ford Coppola, the first film school grad to achieve major success as a director. She taught at UCLA until her death in 1979.

She was honored in her own lifetime, becoming a symbol and role model for women filmmakers who desired entry into mainstream cinema. The feminist movement in the 1960s championed her. In 1972 the First International Festival of Women's Films honored her by screening "The Wild Party", and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at the Second Festival in 1976. In 1975 the DGA honored her with "A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner." During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburn was read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?"

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood (in honour of Sarah Polley) (qv''s & corrections by A. Nonymous)

Trivia (13)

In 1936, she became the first woman to join the newly formed Directors Guild of America.
Biography in: John Wakeman, editor. "World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945". Pages 3-8. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.
She made history when she became the first woman to direct a sound picture, Manhattan Cocktail (1928).
She started in the film business as a typist for director William C. de Mille, and within three years had worked her way up to screenwriter, then editor.
On the set of The Wild Party (1929), Arzner, irritated that the microphone was always in one place, had the sound technicians rig one up to a fishing pole and follow the actors around the set with it, in effect creating the first boom mike.
In the 1960s, she began teaching screenwriting and directing courses at the UCLA Film School, and did so until her death.
During World War II, she produced training films for the Women's Army Corps.
The subject of Canadian poet/playwright R.M. Vaughan's 2000 play "Camera, Woman", inspired by Arzner's last film, First Comes Courage (1943).
She was posthumously awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 North Vine Street in Hollywood, California on January 24, 1986.
Dorothy Arzner passed away on October 1, 1979, three months away from what would have been her 83rd birthday on January 3, 1980.
Longtime companions with Marion Morgan.
Attended and graduated from the University of Southern California.
She invented the boom microphone while directing Clara Bow's first talkie, The Wild Party (1929).

Personal Quotes (1)

When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

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