Dorothy Arzner, 1897-1979

  • Dorothy-Arzner-WWP

Woman Category: Theater & CinemaWoman Tags: Director, Editor, and LGBTQ

  • HerStory

    Pioneering film director, the only woman director during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood and the first woman to direct a sound film.

    Born in San Francisco, California, and grew up in LA. Her parents owned a café in Hollywood that was a gathering place for many silent film stars and directors. After she graduated from Westlake School for Girls, she started to study medicine at the University of Southern California but quit after two years when it is not her destiny. At 22, she met to Lasky William DeMille, the director and co-founder of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Following this meeting, she spent a week exploring the different departments of the movie set and decided to become a director “because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”
    She worked her way up the ladder. Her first role was a stenographer, then a synopsis writer. Within a year, she got promoted to a script girl, and not long after, she became a film editor. 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 next four films. Over time, her ambitions to become a director grew, and Paramount assigned her as an assistant director. When she threatened to leave the studio to work for Columbia, Paramount offered her to direct a comedy film. At the age of 30, she 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 to direct a talking movie. She continued to direct eleven more films for the studio before leaving to work as a freelance. She directed her most recognized films and launched the careers of various actresses, such as Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Rosalind Russell. In her films, she examined the patriarchal systems and the expectations imposed upon women. She featured strong female characters and explored female relationships, marriage life, and balance of power between the sexes.
    During WW2, she left Hollywood and began to direct training films for the Women’s Army Corps. Afterward, she worked on several documentary films and commercials and served as a consultant at Pepsi. In 1950 she 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, she 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, she directed twenty films, and to this day, she is the female director with the largest body of work in Hollywood.

    “Just let the picture stand on its own.”

    “Just let the picture stand on its own.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • 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 women director or as a gay one, insisting on being referred 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.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Movies she directed

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Woman Tags: Director, Editor, LGBTQ

    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

  • Arzner in 1927. Photo credit - LOC

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Wikipedia page.
    IMDB page.
    UCLA Library website.