Female Badasses in History: Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)

by spaceinvaderjoe

Dorothy Arzner was an American film director. She was one of the few female directors who made movies in the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood system and one of the even fewer women who stayed in the industry after the Hayes Code (the list of “voluntary” regulations of the industry, effectively being a moral censorship code) and the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America. She is also credited with starting the careers of several famous actresses and with making movies that are often cited as progressive examples of Hollywood before the Hayes Code.

Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco in 1897 and spent her youth in LA, where her father owned a restaurant that was frequented by Hollywood celebrities. She started studying medicine but when the First World War broke out she enlisted in the ambulance corps. After the end of the war she gave up her studies and instead decided to pursue a career in Hollywood.

Her first job was as a stenographer at the Paramount Pictures movie studio. Dorothy because of her apparent talent began rising through the ranks quickly, first being promoted to a screenwriter and in 1922 becoming an editor. Her first assignment was the movie “Blood and Sand” starring Rudolph Valentino. People at the study were very impressed with her work and she started editing and writing for actor and director James Cruze, ultimately working on over fifty movies for Paramount.

In 1927 Dorothy threatened the studio with moving to a rival studio unless being able to direct movies. Paramount, afraid of losing such apparent talent, conceded and put her in charge of “Fashions for Women”, which turned out a financial success.

Her greatest success and one of the best examples of her progressive work was the 1929 feature film “The Wild Party” starring Clara Bowie in her first speaking role. Not only was the movie a success with critics and movie audiences, Dorothy Arzner also essentially invented the boom mike during its production by tying a microphone to a fishing rod.

Similar to other productions worldwide, “The Wild Party” is till this day discussed as an example of progressive movies featuring a lesbian undertone and introducing women-centered themes very often referred to in Arzner’s later work such as featuring strong, independent, and free-spirited women in its main roles.

With the introduction of the Hayes code in 1930 however made it more difficult for Dorothy to make these kinds of movies. Showing strong women in movies often with a lesbian sub-text was something deemed unacceptable by the men controlling the industry. It might have been due to these restrictions that Dorothy left Paramount in 1932 to work as an independent director for several studios. Her movies of this period are probably her best known. They not only include classics like “The Bride wore Red” but also started the careers of several well-known actresses such as Katherine Hepburn and Lucille Ball.

In 1943 Dorothy Arzner stopped working as director of feature length movies. The reasons for her decision are not known and have never been disclosed. She still continued to work on minor projects such as army training films and TV-commercials and taught screenwriting and directing at UCLA until her death in 1979.

Dorothy Arzner, while not being the only women directing movies in golden-age Hollywood, is certainly one of the best known and successful female directors of her era. One would like to assume that her movies portray women that were very similar to her: strong, independent and talented. To honor her achievements in the field of motion pictures, Dorothy Arzner was awarded a gold star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.