Pioneering film director, the only woman director during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood and the first woman to direct a sound film.
Growing up in Los Angles, Dorothy Arzner spent time in her parents’ café in Hollywood, a gathering place for many silent film stars and directors. After graduating from Westlake School for Girls, Arzner started to study medicine at the University of Southern California but quit after two years, deciding it was not her destiny. At 22, a meeting with Lasky William DeMille, the director, and co-founder of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, led her to explore the different departments of the movie set, deciding she aspired to be a director “because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”
Her first role was as a stenographer, then a synopsis writer. Arzner was promoted from script girl to film editor within a year. At 25, after editing more than 50 films, Paramount Studio asked her to edit the film Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino. Her work on this film impressed the director James Cruze, who then employed her as the editor of his following four films. Over time, her ambitions to become a director grew, and Paramount assigned her as an assistant director. When Arzner threatened to leave the studio to work for Columbia, Paramount offered her to direct a comedy film. At 30, Arzner debuted her first film – Fashions for Women. After directing three more silent films, she got to direct Paramount’s first talkie film – The Wild Party, making history by being the first woman director of a talking movie.
In her films, Arzner examined the patriarchal systems and the expectations imposed upon women. She featured strong female characters and explored female relationships, marriage life, and the balance of power between the sexes.
During WW2, Arzner left Hollywood and began to direct training films for the Women’s Army Corps. Afterward, she worked on several documentary films and commercials and as a consultant at Pepsi. In 1950, Arzner founded the filmmaking program at the Pasadena Playhouse and was its first teacher. She also produced theater plays and starred in a radio program. At 64, Arzner became a staff member of the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television and taught there for four years.
In her last years, she left LA and moved to the desert, where she lived until she passed away at 82. Throughout her career, Arzner directed twenty films; to this day, she is the female director with the largest body of work in Hollywood.
Feminist film pioneer Dorothy Arzner finally takes the spotlight
TIFF’s Cinematheque's Working Girls: The Films Of Dorothy Arzner showcases six classics by the queer female director who who helped launch the careers of Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn
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- She was openly gay and had a forty years relationship with the choreographer and screenwriter Marion Morgan.
- She was known for her unconventional clothing style, wearing suits, and straight dresses.
- She refused to be classified as a woman director or as a gay one, insisting on being referred to just as a 'director.'
- She was the first editor in Hollywood to be credited.
- During WW1, she served as an ambulance driver.
- During her 16 years in Hollywood, she was the only working female director.
- She was the first woman member at The Directors Guild of America.
- Jodie Foster raised funds for the preservation of her files and films at UCLA.
- Her films inspired the early feminist film criticism, and they are still discussed at gender studies.
- She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- Paramount’s Dressing Room building is named in her honor.
- The play “Camera, Woman” depicts the last day of her career.
- She helped launch the careers of various actresses, such as Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Rosalind Russell.
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Feminist film pioneer Dorothy Arzner finally takes the spotlightTIFF’s Cinematheque's Working Girls: The Films Of Dorothy Arzner showcases six classics by the queer female director who who helped launch the careers of Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn
This post is also available in: Español