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Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner

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Also Known As: Died: October 1, 1979
Born: January 3, 1897 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: San Francisco, California, USA Profession: Director ... director screenwriter editor filmmaking instructor script clerk waitress ambulance driver stenographer
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BIOGRAPHY

In the early days of Hollywood when women had few paths to choose from, Dorothy Arzner bucked the system and became a feature film director. Though her body of work remained uneven at best, Arzner nonetheless managed to rise from being an editor to directing her first picture, "Fashions for Women" (1927), a silent comedy that went on to box office success. After helming "Ten Modern Commandments" (1927) and "Get Your Man" (1927), she entered the talkie era with "The Wild Party" (1929) and quickly established herself as a director who made movies featuring fiercely independent women. Arzner typically cast appropriate actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford to ably play such roles, as they did in "Christopher Strong" (1933) and "The Bride Wore Red" (1937), respectively. Not shy about her sexuality, Arzner took to wearing skirt suits on set while gaining a reputation for pursuing her actresses, as she did with Crawford. Meanwhile, after directing "Dance, Girl, Dance" (1940) and "First Comes Courage" (1943), she fell ill with pneumonia and found it difficult to return to pictures. Instead, she taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Pasadena Playhouse, while Crawford helped pave the way for her to direct over 50 commercials for Pepsi. Though she slipped into obscurity before her death in 1979, Arzner re-emerged as a pioneering woman who managed to compile a body of work at a time most other women were given opportunities to do so.

Born on Jan. 3, 1897 in San Francisco, CA, Arzner grew up in Los Angeles and spent a great deal of time at the Hoffmann Cafe, a restaurant owned by her father, Louis, that was frequented by top celebrities and filmmakers like Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith. Although drawn to the world of show business, she enrolled at the University of Southern California as a medical student and even signed on to be an ambulance driver during World War I. In 1919, having decided to pursue a career as a film director, Arzner was hired by William de Mille to work as a typist in the script department of Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount Pictures. While still in its infancy, the film industry allowed women more opportunities for work behind the camera, although Arzner did get pigeonholed for a time as an assistant editor in part because of her exemplary work cutting the bullfighting sequence of "Blood and Sand" (1922). James Cruze was convinced to hire her to edit "The Covered Wagon" (1923), and Arzner went on work on several films for the director including "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1923), "Merton of the Movies" (1924) and "Old Ironsides" (1926).

Using an offer from Harry Cohn at Columbia as leverage, Arzner finally convinced Paramount head B.P. Shulberg to give her a shot at directing, mainly by threatening to leave for rival Columbia Pictures. Her first assignment was "Fashions for Women" (1927), a lightweight comedy that earned respectable reviews and became a box office success. She went on to handle similar chores on "Ten Modern Commandments" (1927) and "Get Your Man" (1927) before breaking into talking pictures with "The Wild Party" (1929), one of the quintessential flapper pictures starring Clara Bow. By this time, Arzner had begun to develop a reputation for films built around fiercely independent women and her ability to elicit strong performances from the actresses in those roles. Beginning an ongoing film collaboration with screenwriter Zoe Akins, she continued in this vein with such efforts as "Sarah and Son" (1930), which brought star Ruth Chatterton an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress, and "Anybody's Woman" (1930). After Arzner left Paramount, she and Akins reteamed once more for one of her more interesting efforts, "Christopher Strong" (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn as an aviatrix modeled on Amelia Earhart.

Hired by Samuel Goldwyn to direct the screen adaptation of "Nana" (1934), Arzner was tasked with directing the American debut of Russian actress, Anna Sten, whom the producer was trying to build into the next Greta Garbo. But Arzner's homogenized take on Émile Zola's novel was a box office failure and helped pave the way to Sten being released by Goldwyn. The director found a more satisfactory leading lady in Rosalind Russell for "Craig's Wife" (1936), in which the actress played a shrew who drives away her husband and friends with her incessant need to control everything. She next directed Joan Crawford in "The Bride Wore Red" (1937), a rags-to-riches tale in the vein of "Cinderella" that suffered from an underdeveloped script and overproduced production values. With "Dance, Girl, Dance" (1940), Arzner featured Lucille Ball in one of her best straight performances, as a vain stripper who accepts the grimy environment in which she works with no illusions. Although visually unremarkable, the film's critique of the inherent sexism of the world of burlesque was far ahead of its time. By this time, Arzner - who made almost no attempts to hider her sexuality - had conducted affairs with a number of actresses, allegedly including Joan Crawford, Billie Burke and Alla Nazimova. But for the most part, she maintained a long-standing relationship with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan.

After a stint making training films for the U.S. Army during World War II, Arzner made one last studio film for Columbia, the little known "First Comes Courage" (1943), starring Merle Oberon as a Norwegian double agent who pretends to be in love with a Nazi commandant (Carl Esmond) in order to extract secrets. But once the film was complete, Arzner fell ill with pneumonia and was bedridden for more than a year. With societal changes and the after-effects of women working during WWII, changes in Hollywood were taking place. Women were no longer finding the opportunities they had in the halcyon early days as the studios began adopting a more bottom line approach to the business. Certainly a woman in her mid-40s was regarded as problematic. Undoubtedly, Arzner could have returned to the editing room or might have been allowed a chance to write scripts but the idea of a female film director was now becoming rare. Faced with these harsh realities, Arzner opted to leave the business and instead turned to teaching, first at the Pasadena Playhouse and later at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she counted Francis Ford Coppola as one of her students.

Meanwhile, old friend Joan Crawford, then married to the chairman of PepsiCo, helped Arzner get hired to direct over 50 television commercials for the soft drink in the 1950s. She lived the remainder of her days in quiet anonymity, though in 1975 she was given a tribute by the Directors Guild of America, having been the first woman to ever join the guild. She lived to 82 years old and died on Oct. 1, 1979 in La Quinta, CA. After her death, Arzner was rediscovered by a new generation of film historians and her uneven body of work became fodder for discussion due to its targeting of feminist issues that prefigured the concerns of contemporary directors like Lizzie Borden, Joyce Chopra and Agnes Varda. While there certainly were female directors before her, Arzner held the unique distinction of being the only woman to compile a significant body of work within the studio system of the 1930s and 1940s, a time when women had few opportunities behind the camera.

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