Arzner, Dorothy (1897–1979)

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Arzner, Dorothy (1897–1979)

American filmmaker and the only woman director of the era who developed a substantial body of work within the Hollywood system. Born in San Francisco, California, on January 3, 1897; died in La Quinta, California, on October 1, 1979; only daughter and one of two children of Louis Arzner (a restaurant manager); graduated from the private Westlake girls' school, 1915; studied pre-med at University of Southern California, 1915–1917; lived with Marion Morgan (a dancer and choreographer); never married; no children.


Fashions for Women (1927); Ten Modern Commandments (1927); Get Your Man (1927); Manhattan Cocktail (1928); The Wild Party (1929); Sarah and Son (1930); (co-director with others) Paramount on Parade (1930); Anybody's Woman (1930): Honor Among Lovers (1931); Working Girls (1931); Merrily We Go to Hell (1932); Christopher Strong (1933); Nana (1934); Craig's Wife (1936); The Bride Wore Red (1927); Dance, Girl, Dance (1940); First Comes Courage (1943).

When not being called a "girl" director ("Girl Film Director Sets New Standards of Beauty" bannered the Los Angeles Record, February 10, 1927), Dorothy Arzner was defined by a simple phrase: "woman's director." If one of her movies tended toward the sentimental, it was because, unfortunately, she was a "woman's director." If the movie presented a realistic portrayal of women, it was because, fortunately, she was a "woman's director." The phrase could go either way, as a positive or a pejorative, and gave the press and the male-dominated industry a convenient way to deal with Arzner and her work.

Born into an upper-middle-class household in San Francisco in 1897, Dorothy Arzner moved with her family to the Los Angeles area shortly after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. By then, her father had remarried, and she grew up with a stepmother. Nothing has been written about what happened to her mother, or about an older brother who died when Arzner was very young. Her father Louis Arzner operated several restaurants, including Hoffman Café, where powerful members of Hollywood's film colony congregated, such as Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, and James Cruze. According to Hollywood lore, this whetted the child Arzner's appetite for a film career. She would later deny the claim. If anything, she said, they turned her off; actors were always tossing her up in the air.

Her stepmother, concerned about her "tomboyish ways," sent Arzner to Westlake, a private school for girls. Set on medicine, Arzner underwent two years of pre-med studies at the University of Southern California. During World War I, she left to join the Los Angeles volunteer ambulance corps, then worked in a doctor's office. She was soon convinced that medicine could not give her the immediate gratification she sought. "I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly."

Unlike many women of her era, Arzner had options. Her father, not only well-off but generous, saw to it that she wasn't dependent on a job. She also invested wisely. Following a chance visit to the studio, her film career began in 1919 at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount. Her first job was typing scripts. She recalled being: "a terrible typist. There was a big, redheaded Irish girl … who was a wonder at typing. She took pity on me and did more than half of my work. But for her I wouldn't have lasted a week." Instead, Arzner lasted three months.

From there, she was assigned a continuity job (also known as script girl) on the film Stronger Than Death for Alla Nazimova 's production company. Then a friend, Nan Heron , who was cutting the Donald Crisp movie Too Much Johnson, invited Arzner to cut a reel while she oversaw the work. Arzner cut a second reel unattended. With her career as a cutter and editor now launched, Arzner worked day and night at Realart, a subsidiary of Paramount, cutting 32 movies in one year and becoming chief editor. In 1922, she was brought back to Paramount to edit Rudolph Valentino's Blood and Sand, her "first waymark to my claim to a little recognition as an individual." Intercuts between stock and original footage in the bull-fight scenes were masterfully executed. Arzner was efficient and economical, a recipe for Hollywood success.

From there, director James Cruze took her under his wing. Arzner edited several pictures for him and was sometimes scriptwriter: The Covered Wagon, Ruggles of Red Gap, Merton of the Movies, Old Ironsides. She also moonlighted, writing scripts for Columbia in the mid-1920s and adapting a seduced-and-abandoned story by Adela Rogers St. Johns into The Red Kimono (1925), which was produced by Dorothy Davenport Reid . Arzner then threatened to leave Paramount for Columbia unless she were offered a movie to direct, "an A movie." Her first effort, completed in two weeks, was the light comedy Fashions for Women, starring Esther Ralston . Oddly enough, due to the uniqueness of Paramount's signing its first woman director, it was Arzner, rather than Ralston, who received star billing in the press when the movie was released in April 1927. The reviews were generally good, along with the take at the box office. Arzner was signed to a long-term contract with Paramount and Esther Ralston once again played the lead in Arzner's second film, Ten Modern Commandments, released that July.

Arzner's next film Get Your Man was a plum assignment starring Clara Bow , then Paramount's hottest property. The happy and quite successful collaboration resulted in Arzner's directing Bow once again in Paramount's first talkie The Wild Party, for which Arzner cast Broadway star Fredric March in one of his first leading film roles. Throughout her career, Arzner received particular praise for bringing out the best in her actors. Considered a starmaker, she would eventually help launch the careers of Lucille Ball, Rosalind Russell, Ruth Chatterton, Katharine Hepburn, Sylvia Sidney , and Irene Dunne . Because Clara Bow was nervous with the new medium of sound, Arzner reputedly took an ordinarily immovable microphone and put it on a fishpole to give the actress freedom of movement and reduce her fear. Thus, the boom was born.

Arzner's The Wild Party was one of the first movies to put a positive face on female bonding. "Perhaps is it the first (certainly it is a rare) case in the cinema where relationships among women are shown to be anything other than catty," writes Ally Acker . Whereas the friendship of two women is generally a subplot in films, in The Wild Party the women's friendship and the male-female romance are thoroughly intertwined. The novel, Unforbidden Fruit by Warner Fabian, from which the movie was adapted, portrayed "all female friendship as pathological," notes Acker. In the book, Fabian emphasized what he called the "peculiar atmosphere of compressed femininity which produces an intellectual and social reaction not unlike the prison psychosis of our penal institutions." This would not be the last time that Arzner, in adapting a book for the screen, would stand the message on its head. The choice of Clara Bow was also a masterstroke; an earlier Fabian book, Flaming Youth, had reached the screen as a Bow vehicle, making her the "it" girl. Those with "it" in Fabian's world are seductive and suitably sexual. In short, enchanting to men.

Arzner's next two films, Sarah and Son and Anybody's Women, both starred Ruth Chatterton who would realize her first taste of extensive praise. They were also the first of many collaborations between Arzner (who continually acknowledged her debt to good writing) and screenwriter Zoë Akins . Variety dubbed them "all-femme" films. Then came Honor among Lovers starring Claudette Colbert and Fredric March (his third film with Arzner), which was a moderate success.

But Working Girls, which followed in 1931, with another script by Akins, was a financial disaster. "This was perhaps the most daring and innovative film Arzner ever made," writes Judith Mayne , "and its virtual invisibility is a shame. If Arzner rarely took bold artistic risks in her films, Working Girls may well provide the rationale, since this effort cost Arzner dearly." Publicity for the film was anemic, and it had no rising stars. Never released nationally, it can only be seen in archival prints. The title is intentionally ambiguous, since 1930s mores deemed women who worked outside the home morally suspect. Arzner had to fight the censors because the story line included an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Paramount's shabby treatment of the film remains a mystery.

In 1932, Arzner returned to comedy with Merrily We Go to Hell starring March and Sylvia Sidney. Though it gathered mixed reviews, it was financially one of the most successful films of the year. After Arzner refused to accept a paycut issued across the board for Paramount employees, it became her last film for the studio.

As a freelancer, she moved to RKO to direct Katharine Hepburn's second film, Christopher Strong—Zoë Akins' screenplay about an aviator. (Arzner contended that the protagonist Cynthia Darrington, played by Hepburn, was modeled on Britain's Amy Johnson , not America's Amelia Earhart as often thought). The story line centered around the doomed relationship between the flyer and a married Member of Parliament. "It was a no-win situation for the woman of the 1930s," writes Acker, "and Arzner had Hepburn do the only sensible thing a woman in her situation could have done in that time: commit suicide kamikaze style." The film proved weak at the box office. Though some accounts report that Arzner and Hepburn did not get along on the set, Hepburn wrapped up their professional relationship succinctly in her autobiography Me: "Dorothy was very well known and had directed a number of hit pictures. She wore pants. So did I. We had a good time working together." Even so, they never collaborated again. When Arzner was offered Hepburn's next starrer Morning Glory (script again by Akins), she declined. Except for taking over production of a loose adaptation of Émile Zola's Nana, starring Anna Sten , in 1933, Arzner did not work again until February 1934, when she was signed by Harry Cohn as an associate producer at Columbia and embarked on her most successful film, Craig's Wife.

To be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of a studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn't get my way.

—Dorothy Arzner

George Kelly's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name came with a built-in hazard, an unsympathetic protagonist. Harriet Craig places home, hearth, carpet, and furnishings—and the cleanliness of same—before any human relationship, including those with her husband, sister, and niece. Arzner sidestepped the problem by casting the likeable Rosalind Russell in the lead. She also tempered the character from Kelly's play. Whereas Kelly focused on the failure of a woman, Arzner also focused on the needs of that woman and the failure of the institution of marriage. "This is not to suggest that Arzner presents Harriet as a victim," writes Mayne; "rather, she presents her as a woman with a limited number of choices, whose obsession about her house is in many ways an extension of what is considered a more 'normal' preoccupation for women." As the movie progresses, Russell is found alone in the house. "The audience hated her up to that point," Arzner told Marjorie Rosen , "and I only had one close-up left with which to turn their emotion to sympathy. Russell did it so perfectly that in movie theaters handkerchiefs began coming out." With the help of screenwriter Mary Mc-Call, Jr. , Arzner had once again turned the tables. Writer and director worked well together. Arzner "had the peculiar notion that a writer might be of some use on the set," said McCall. "This was again all quite new to me. At the end of each rehearsal she turned and said 'how was that for you?' and I couldn't believe it." Edited by Viola Lawrence , the movie was another "allfemme film."

Arzner then stepped in to complete the Joan Crawford vehicle The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), which led to her contract to direct The Bride Wore Red for MGM. Bride would be the beginning of the end. Though intended for Luise Rainer , the lead went to Crawford who looked forward to working again with Arzner. By the end of the movie, however, they only communicated through written notes. (All must have been forgotten by the 1950s, when Crawford requested that her company hire Arzner to direct some 50 Pepsi commercials.) But there were bigger problems, most notably the death of the film's backer Irving Thalberg and the rise of Louis B. Mayer.

The film was based on The Girl from Trieste, a play by Ferenc Molnar about a prostitute who vainly tries to change her profession. Mayer insisted that the prostitute become a cabaret singer and that the movie be given a happy ending. He met his match with Arzner. Soon to become the first woman admitted to the Director's Guild of America, she was one of the first to insist that directors have control over their films. Throughout the shoot, Mayer and Arzner were at loggerheads. He not only interfered, he was also known as a sexist and a homophobe. The poison in their relationship had a great deal to do with Arzner's early retirement. When, in her words, The Bride Wore Red, "turned out to be synthetic and plastic," she refused to do the next two or three scripts and was suspended. "Mayer put out the word that I was difficult, and you know how producers talk to each other. I think that was the reason I left." The film was panned by the critics as synthetic and plastic. One noted that it had "no dramatic conviction." They called it a "woman's picture."

In 1940, Arzner took over an RKO production of Dance, Girl, Dance (not to be confused with a 1933 clunker of the same name). Though the backstage musical was not a hit in 1940, it is now recognized as Arzner's best-known film. Based on a story by Vicki Baum , script by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, the movie concerns two women dancers (Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball) and their contrasting roads to success in a troupe led by Maria Ouspenskaya . One pursues burlesque, the other ballet. Burlesque wins. In the plot structure, Arzner avoids the use of easy conflicts; neither woman is villainized, nor do they spend their allotted movie time turning on each other. The conflict instead comes from without, from class expectations and values. The most famous scene in the film takes place when O'Hara, who has become a comedic stooge for stripper Ball, turns on the audience who watches them strip and tells them what she thinks of them. While Arzner allows the man to objectify the woman with his gaze (the most commonly portrayed interaction between men and women), Arzner allows the woman the last look in a crisp reversal of roles. Arzner never went totally against her material; she just did it one better, adding the woman's perspective. As Judy, Maureen O'Hara addresses the audience:

Go ahead and stare. I'm not ashamed. Go on. Laugh! Get your money's worth. Nobody's going to hurt you. I know you want me to tear my clothes off so's you can look your fifty cents worth. Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won't let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here—with your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of? And we know it's the thing of the moment for the dress suits to come and laugh at us too. We'd laugh right back at the lot of you, only we're paid to let you sit there and roll your eyes and make your screamingly clever remarks. What's it for? So's you can go home when the show's over and strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute? I'm sure they see through you just like we do.

The theme of working women—from research assistants and telegraph operators to cabaret singers and prostitutes—was often invoked in Arzner's films. Her female characters, notes Mayne, are "active and complex subjects, regardless of what they are subject of or subjected to." Arzner's projects criticized Hollywood films from within and suggested that traditional masculine and feminine roles consist of a series of unnatural poses. She focused on the influence of the social class, on the community of women, and on the frail bond of heterosexual love.

Arzner returned to Columbia in 1943, for First Comes Courage, about a female spy in Norway played by Merle Oberon . Based on Elliot Arnold's novel The Commandoes, it was to be her last film. With a week to go on shooting, Arzner contacted pneumonia and Charles Vidor was brought in to replace her. She went into retirement and never directed in Hollywood again—possibly because she was blackballed, possibly because she no longer wanted to put up with the likes of Louis B. Mayer. "I went out with the big studio era," she said, "I wouldn't say that I left it. I think it left me also."

Arzner made training films for the Women's Army Corps during World War II, and developed a short-lived radio show "You Were Meant to be a Star," which presented scenes drawn from life. She taught at Pasadena Playhouse in 1951 and for the theater arts department at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1959 to 1963. She also produced plays in California starring Billie Burke . In the 1970s came recognition. In January 1975, there was a tribute from the Director's Guild of America (Ida Lupino introduced the film clips). There were also laudatory articles and comments by Molly Haskell, Nancy Dowd, Francine Parker, Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, Claire Johnston and Pam Cook .

During Arzner's career in Hollywood, the press led off numerous newspaper and magazine pieces with her appearance—short hair brushed back, pants and jackets, comfortable shoes, no make up—and generally treated her as a spinster. When she died at age 82 in her La Quinta home, obituaries all concluded with a variation on this unhappy theme: Never married, she left no known survivors.

Morgan, Marion (c. 1887–1971)

American choreographer. Born around 1887; died in 1971; grew up in California; graduated from Yale School of Drama, 1934; lived with Dorothy Arzner from 1930–71; married; children: one son Roderick (died in the 1930s).

In 1910, after teaching physical-education at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, Marion Morgan began directing dance programs for University of California at Berkeley's summer program. She then founded the Marion Morgan Dancers. Her troupe, composed of women students from Berkeley, used interpretive dance to focus on classical legends and history. The Marion Morgan dancers toured on the vaudeville circuit from 1916 to mid-1920s, before they began to be seen on Hollywood soundstages, appearing in Don Juan (1926), Up in Mabel's Room (1926), A Night of Love (1926), The Masked Woman (1926), as well as Arzner's first three films: Fashions of Women, Ten Modern Commandments, and Get Your Man. Morgan was also advisor on the set of Manhattan Cocktail.

In 1930, about the same time she moved in with Arzner, Morgan terminated the group and established a dance school, with instruction in all manner of dance. Now in her 40s, she enrolled in graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama. After graduating from Yale in 1934, she collaborated with George Brendan Dowell on two stories that formed the basis of screenplays for Mae West : Goin' to Town (1935) and Klondike Annie (1936).

But Arzner had shared her home with the same person for 41 years. She was Marion Morgan , a dancer and choreographer, who had been married and had a son. For the first 21 years (1930–51), they lived in the Hollywood Hills. In 1951, they moved to the desert in La Quinta, California, where they continued living together until Morgan's death in 1971. Ten years older, Morgan was frequently on the set of Arzner's movies, working on the fashion shows in Fashions for Women and the choreography in Ten Modern Commandments. Arzner's preference for women was well known throughout the movie colony. "For too long clichés of spinsterhood, of asexuality, of careers managed at the price of any personal satisfactions, have not only rendered lesbianism invisible, but insignificant and meaningless as well," writes Mayne. Arzner not only had a significant other, she left a rich legacy in her motion pictures.


Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.