January 3, 1897- Dorothy Arzner:
“Each day when I went to work at a studio, I took my pride & made a nice little ball of it & threw it right out the window.
Portland’s own Todd Haynes has been promising a biopic of Dorothy Arzner since 2003. Her story has has yet to make it to the screen, maybe Julianne Moore would be Haynes’ number one choice for the role. Who else do you think might embody the men’s suit wearing, openly gay Arzner? I’ll even throw in Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn for a second time. Arzner gave Hepburn her first starring role playing a famous female flyer in Christopher Strong (1933).
Arzner nurtured the careers of several strong female film stars. She has also served as an inspiration for other women directors, even in our own era. Someday, when having a woman direct a major Hollywood film isn’t worth mentioning, film fans will be shocked to learn that there was a time when Arzner & Ida Lupino were the only gals working behind the camera.
Arzner started at Paramount Pictures as typist, before her way up to a screenwriter & editor. She eventually demanded a chance to direct, threatening to move to another studio. She showed real pluck & panache with her first film Fashions For Women (1927), a box-office hit. She was then offered Paramount’s very first sound film, The Wild Party (1929).
The Wild Party starred “It Girl” Clara Bow in her first speaking role & Frederic March in his film debut. It proved popular with the critics & fans. & for its time, it was controversial with scantily clad co-eds & chorus girls.
Paramount thought Arzner was right for melodramas with female leads like Sarah And Son (1930), with Ruth Chatterton who was nominated for an Academy Award, & giving Rosalind Russell her first great role in Craig’s Wife (1936).
One of the reoccurring themes in Arzner’s films is the emotional toll of an unhappy marriage. Her work often features a man who behaves like he owns a woman, or a man competing with a woman.
Arzner’s films also frequently show nuanced, complex, sympathetic female friendships with hints of homoeroticism. Just last month on TCM, I caught Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) with Lucille Ball, in her first starring role, & Maureen O’Hara as roommates Bubbles & Judy, who scrap over men & money, tossing off wisecracks & dancing like a lesbian version of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. It also has a nutty turn by famed acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya as an especially butch dance instructor.
Arzner had a major love affair with Marion Morgan, the choreographer on Dance, Girl, Dance. She also spent some special time with Joan Crawford, before, during & after they worked together on The Bride Wore Red (1937) & The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). Crawford was even able to lure Arzner out of retirement to shoot commercials for Pepsi, when Crawford was the spokesperson & on the Board Of Directors for the company.
In 1943, Arzner made her final film, First Comes Courage, a war film overflowing with lesbian subtext. Systemic sexism & overt homophobia had been on the upswing with the start of The Hays Code in 1934. There was a return to traditional gender roles after the end of WW2. I am not certain if these were reasons why a woman whose films were as good as any man’s, & who made money for the studios, stopped making movies. Her inability to conform to an increasingly conservative moral climate in Hollywood is certain.
Arzner was a complicated & unique woman. She possessed a biting sense of humor & a sophisticated personal style. Between 1927 & 1943, Arzner directed 17 feature films. Almost all have unconventional heroines, strong & self-sufficient, who must reconcile marriage & career. Like James Whale, her films resonate with gay subtexts.
After leaving the studio system, Arzner made Army training films & taught at UCLA, & she shot those Pepsi commercials. In 1936, she became the very first woman to join The Directors Guild Of America. They finally honored her contribution in 1975, 4 years before her passing.
In 2015, 2 out of the top 25 grossing films were directed by women Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks) & 50 Shades Of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson). Women directed just 4% of the top money-making films in the 21st century. Of the 700 top-grossing films in history, women make 13% of the directors. In 85 years of the Academy Awards, only 4 female directors have even been nominated for Oscars: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost In Translation (2003), & Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009). Only Bigelow has taken home the statue.
Lesbian making feature films is a very small list, but I particularly admire Kimberly Peirce who directed Boys Don’t Cry (1999), & Lisa Cholodenko who directed the terrific Oscar nominated The Kids Are All Right (2010).