Article abstract: An exception within the Hollywood film industry, Arzner was the major woman film director of the Hollywood studio system from the late 1920’s through the early 1940’s.
Although she was born in San Francisco, Dorothy Arzner grew up around the film stars, directors, and stage personalities who gathered at her father’s well-known Hollywood restaurant, the Hoffman Cafe. D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Eric von Stroheim, Hal Roach, and Mack Sennett among others met at the round table Louis Arzner’s café featured for its show business guests. When asked later in life about her early years in Hollywood’s film colony, Arzner remarked that it was a wonder that she went into films at all since she spent her youth being terrified by actors who were always tossing her up into the air.
After graduating from the Westlake School, Dorothy entered the University of Southern California, where she planned to study medicine. During World War I, she volunteered as an ambulance driver, an experience, among others, that deterred her from further medical studies.
The Hollywood studios expanded after the war and demand for workers rose dramatically as a result of the devastating flu epidemic of 1918. In 1919, Dorothy Arzner, who had never expected to work in the motion picture business, went to Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Studios) looking for a job, and she was hired as a $15-per-week script typist. Shortly after her arrival, she was made script supervisor. Arzner later confided that her work in the script department taught her the basics of film structure.
Soon Arzner began training as an assistant cutter responsible for splicing and assembling motion picture film negatives into a unified work. By 1921, she had moved to a Paramount subsidiary, Realart Studios, as chief editor. During the next year she cut more than fifty films and trained other editors. In 1922, she went back to Paramount to work on Fred Niblo’s Blood and Sand, a vehicle starring Rudolph Valentino for which she earned her first credit. Next, James Cruze took her on location as the editor for his epic western, The Covered Wagon. By the mid-1920’s, Arzner had a reputation as one of the best cutters in the business. She also began to write scenarios, some of which were filmed by Paramount’s best directors. Impatient to begin her own career as a director, Arzner threatened to leave Paramount, but she was placated when the studio gave her her first directing assignment. She brought Fashions for Women (1927) in under budget and ahead of deadline, completing her apprenticeship and opening a position for herself as a director within the Hollywood studio system.
Capitalizing on the success of her first film, Dorothy Arzner secured her place at Paramount by making two more silent comedies in 1927. Ten Modern Commandments starred Esther Ralston, who had been acclaimed for her role in Fashions for Women, and Get Your Man featured the “it” girl, Clara Bow. Next she was asked to direct Paramount’s first sound film, Manhattan Cocktail (1928). That she was chosen suggests that either Arzner was highly regarded as a professional and therefore capable of tackling the new technology or that she was expendable and could be blamed if the film failed. She made her first talking picture in 1929, a remake of Wild Party, a silent film she had edited in 1923. Again, the film starred Clara Bow and launched the career of Fredric March, who had appeared in the stage version from which the film was adapted. Through the years, Arzner became known as something of a career maker and was responsible for directing films which established a number of actors who later became major Hollywood stars.
Dorothy Arzner was very busy during the early 1930’s. In 1930, three of her films were released by Paramount: Sarah and Son, Anybody’s Woman, and an episode for a compilation film Paramount on Parade. In addition, Arzner worked on two more films: Behind the Makeup, which she codirected with Robert Milton, and Charming Sinners, which she completed for the same director. Sarah and Son was the first film that was scripted by playwright and screenwriter Zoë Akins—with whom Arzner was to work later—and it made Ruth Chatterton into an international star. A smash hit at the box office, Sarah and Son established Arzner as one of Paramount’s most sought-after directors. When Anybody’s Woman also became a hit, Arzner remarked that the studio would give her anything she wanted. She next directed Honor Among Lovers (1931), which featured Ginger Rogers in one of her earliest roles and advanced the rising careers of Fredric March and Claudette Colbert. In a somewhat daring move, Arzner ended the film with Colbert’s heroine running off to take a world cruise with her boss (March) before she had divorced her first husband. It is a mark of Arzner’s success that the studio did not interfere with the film’s...
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