Covering Dorothy Arzner

by Shari Kizirian

A misplaced scrap of the “A Little from Lots” column in a 1927 edition of Film Daily obscures a review with, among other sundries, a correction in bold type: “A newspaper report to the effect that Dorothy Arzner is the first woman to direct is in error, as Lois Weber, Ida May Park, Vera McCord, and Mme. Alice Blache have directed pictures.” The brief item also occupies its rightful place on the next page, as if history were trying to double the chances of it being seen—someone, it seems to want to say, had tried to get it right.

With Paramount’s announcement that former studio typist, “script clerk,” and editor Dorothy Arzner had been signed to direct, the trades prepared profiles on the studio’s first woman to man “a megaphone.” Photoplay’s took the form of a lament, “Good-bye to Another Tradition,” which spends four paragraphs describing how Arzner almost cried when given the “little megaphone made out of red cardboard,” as if she’d gotten “a diamond tiara or sea-going yacht.” (The author imagined, too, Queen Victoria tearing up when she got her crown.)

Arzner did continuity under the exacting Alla Nazimova, read scripts and wrote, then she gained a reputation as one of the best cutters in the business, editing fifty-two titles for Paramount, including the Valentino vehicle Blood and Sand for which she directed bullfight scenes and weaved in stock footage, saving the studio money. The Photoplay writer saw fit to spend his first page explaining why men direct, acknowledging “that women have directed before but they have nearly always been their own producers,” as if that makes it easier. It might have been more instructive to note that Paramount extended her the job after she leveraged an offer to direct from a competitor or that she added a viewfinder to her megaphone to facilitate directing.

Lillian W. Brennan of Film Daily found Arzner’s promotion encouraging, in a way: “there looms a possibility of further competition among women, perhaps it will whet the appetites of others.” After seeing her first, Fashions for Women starring Esther Ralston, Brennan concludes “Miss Arzner has been watching the methods of her brother directors.” Picture-Play’s coverage neglects almost the whole history of women making movies while simultaneously nailing why there aren’t more: “Other women have undertaken to direct from time to time … but the studios haven’t been very eager to encourage them.”

Arzner directs a second picture starring Ralston and Photoplay played up the strengths of the director-actress matchup: “Paramount thinks so highly of the team that it has told the two gals to make some more pictures. The newest of these ultra-feminine concoctions is called Ten Modern Commandments.”

Get Your Man is Arzner’s third film and first with the valuable Clara Bow. Photoplay reported even more news on that film’s female front: “Women are getting further and further in this motion picture business. Now we introduce the first woman production manager, Henrietta Cohn … The entire responsibility for the cost of the production falls on Miss Cohn’s shoulders.” Good thing she wasn’t also directing.

Arzner soon became “the only woman director in talkies,” coaching Bow through her first dialogue picture (The Wild Party), dangling the microphone from a fishing pole in the first ever “boom” mic. A headline in a 1929 issue of Screenland exclaims: “Directed by Dorothy Arzner!” giving her credit for keeping up with the fellahs by “cleverness, a great capacity for absorbing knowledge, and a genius for accomplishing grinding, nerve-crushing mountains of work”—but not before assuring us that she hides “her generalship” behind “an artful feminine fantasy.” Writer Julie Lang spends the last few paragraphs of the article speculating about Arzner’s marriage prospects, perhaps to deflect rumors Arzner dressed as a boy when young or that she shared her life with choreographer Marion Morgan.

In 1931 Arzner became the first woman to direct an actor to an Oscar nod, Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son. More profiles were prepared. Silver Screen titled its, “She Thanks her Lucky Stars: Dorothy Arzner Is the Movies’ Only Woman Director and She’s Never Had a Failure.” By now the “only woman director in America” had grown tired of her assignments: “I suppose the reason I am always given women stars to handle is because that’s a man’s idea of what a woman’s work in pictures should be.” The writer concludes that Arzner “possesses a combination of shrewdness and imagination to a degree not yet attained by any other woman who has ever penetrated behind in the picture world.”

Paramount continued to promote the female angle, rounding out its behind-the-camera foursome in “Paramount Has Clever Quartet of Women” with the head of the lot’s school and nursery. A later such piece stretched it to include the lot masseuse. Before long Paramount lost its only woman director, and its publicity angle. Variety let everyone know in “Only Femme Director Quits Over Pay Slice.” Perhaps she had discovered how much her brother directors made.
She began to freelance and continued to garner praise for her direction. Her Christopher Strong, starring Katharine Hepburn as an aviator, contained, according to one reviewer, “one of the most beautiful love scenes we have ever seen in pictures.” Studios also gave her stars they didn’t quite know what to do with, like Russian import Anna Sten (Nana, 1934) and Joan Crawford, somewhere between her flapper luster and her noir appeal. A 1937 article about films in production visits Crawford on the set of The Bride Wore Red long enough to take the kind of swipe at the director familiar to women from all walks of life: “When the scene is finished, Dorothy Arzner who is directing the picture and whom I have never seen smile, says to Joan, ‘You look like Napoleon coming out of that door and marching down the steps in that cape.’” (Emphasis mine.)

Arzner made her last film in 1943 then went on to direct training films for the Women’s Army Corps and fifty commercials for Pepsi Cola. She did other things, including teaching at UCLA, which turned her into an inadvertent footnote in student Francis Ford Coppola’s career. The year of the second Godfather film, no doubt at Coppola’s behest, the Directors Guild of America finally honored Arzner, alongside King Vidor, William Wellman, Robert Wise, and the thirty-five-year-old Coppola. The headline read: “No chauvinism.”