Today is the 126th birthday of the first female film director in Hollywood, and the first lesbian film director in Hollywood: Dorothy Arzner. She made a total of twenty films between 1927 and 1943 and launched the careers of a number of Hollywood actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Lucille Ball. Additionally, Arzner was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America and the first woman to direct a sound film. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Dorothy Arzner
DATE OF BIRTH: 3-Jan-1897
PLACE OF BIRTH: San Francisco, CA
DATE OF DEATH: 1-Oct-1979
PLACE OF DEATH: La Quinta, CA
CAUSE OF DEATH: unspecified
PARTNER: Marion Morgan (1927–1971; her death)
REMAINS: Cremated (ashes scattered)
HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: 1500 Vine Street
BEST KNOWN FOR: Dorothy Emma Arzner was an American film director whose career in Hollywood spanned from the silent era of the 1920s into the early 1940s.
Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco, California on January 3, 1897, but moved with her parents Louis and Jenetter Arzner to Los Angeles, where her father opened the very prestigious restaurant Hoffman Café next to a theatre in Hollywood. Arzner spent her childhood surrounded by celebrities who came to the restaurant, including Maude Adams, Sarah Bernhardt and David Warfield, among others, but she was so used to them that she was never attracted to the cinema world.
Even though she started her medical degree at the University of Southern California, in a 1974 interview with Karin Kay and Gerald Peary published in Cinema, Arzner said “With a few summer months in the office of a fine surgeon and meeting with the sick, I decided that was not what I wanted. I wanted to be like Jesus – ‘Heal the sick and raise the dead’, instantly, without surgery, pills, etcetera.” It was then, two years into her degree, that she left and decided to find a job so she could acquire economic independence. Arzner, in spite of having abandoned the degree, had a broad education, which included architecture and art history courses. As soon as she left the university she began working for Paramount Studios doing jobs such as that of a cutter or editor, for which she would be specifically recognized in Blood and Sand (1922). Later, the studios would offer her a two-year contract as a director, but it was not until the contract was finished that she would start a freelance career.
Arzner would maintain a forty-year relationship with Marion Morgan, a dancer and choreographer who was sixteen years older than Arzner. Morgan choreographed some dancing sequences in some of Arzner’s movies, such as Dance, Girl, Dance. Even though she tried to keep her private life as private as possible, Arzner had been linked romantically with a number of actresses, including Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke. It was rumored, though never confirmed, that Arzner also had relationships with Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. She never hid her sexual orientation, nor her identity; her clothing was unconventional for a woman of that time, she wore suits or straight dresses.
In 1930, Arzner and Morgan moved to Mountain Oak Drive, where they lived until Morgan’s death in 1971. While they lived in Hollywood, Arzner assisted various cinematographic events. In her last years Arzner left Hollywood and went to live in the desert. In 1979, at the age of 82, Arzner died in La Quinta, California.
Arzner’s work, both as a female filmmaker and a lesbian filmmaker, has been an important area of film studies. Perhaps due to Arzner’s leaving Hollywood in the 1940s, her work had been all but forgotten until the 1970s when she was rediscovered by feminist film theorists. Arzner’s films inspired some of the earliest forms of feminist film critic, including Claire Johnston’s 1973 seminal essay, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema”. Arzner’s films are notable for the depictions of women’s relationships, with Arnzer typically reversing societal expectations of women, allowing them to find solidarity with one another. Since the resurgence of Arzner’s films, they have been studied by feminist and queer theorists alike for their depictions of gender, female sexuality, and Arzner’s focus on the female relationship.
For her achievements in the field of motion pictures, Arzner was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street, the only award she received.
In 1972 the First International Festival of Women’s Films honored her by screening “The Wild Party”, and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at the Second Festival in 1976. In 1975 the Directors Guild of America honored her with “A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner.” During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburn was read: “Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?”
In March 2018, Paramount dedicated its Dressing Room building to Arzner.
R.M. Vaughan’s 2000 play, Camera, Woman depicts the last day of Arzner’s career. In the play, Harry Cohn fires her over a kissing scene between Merle Oberon and fictitious actor Rose Lindstrom – the name of a character played by Isobel Elsom in Arzner’s last film, First Comes Courage, in which Oberon starred – in a never-completed final film. The play also depicts Arzner and Oberon as lovers. It is told in a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue in the form of a post-show interview that contains actual quotations from Arzner.
S. Louisa Wei’s 2014 feature documentary, Golden Gate Girls, compares the media representation of Arzner with that of Esther Eng, Hong Kong’s first woman director who was a Chinese American. Judith Mayne, the author of Directed by Dorothy Arzner, is interviewed in the documentary, saying, “I love the fact that history of woman filmmakers now would include Dorothy Arzner and Esther Eng as the two of the real exceptions, who proved it was entirely possible to build a successful film career without necessarily being a part of mainstream identity.”
Too Much Johnson (1919; lost, editor only)
The Six Best Cellars (1920, editor only)
Blood and Sand (1922) (additional footage) (uncredited)
The Covered Wagon (1923, editor only)
Inez from Hollywood (1924, editor only)
Fashions for Women (1927; lost)
Ten Modern Commandments (1927; lost)
Get Your Man (1927; missing two of six reels)
Manhattan Cocktail (1928; lost, except for the montage sequence by Slavko Vorkapić released in 2005 on DVD Unseen Cinema)
The Wild Party (1929)
Charming Sinners (1929, uncredited)
Behind the Make-Up (1930, uncredited)
Sarah and Son (1930)
Paramount on Parade (1930, co-director)
Anybody’s Woman (1930)
The House That Shadows Built (1931; Paramount promotional film with excerpt of never-produced film Stepdaughters of War to be directed by Arzner)
Honor Among Lovers (1931)
Working Girls (1931)
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Christopher Strong (1933)
Craig’s Wife (1936)
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937, uncredited)
The Bride Wore Red (1937)
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
First Comes Courage (1943)