Dorothy Arzner

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2108

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 ending. Her next film was a far more typical “woman’s picture.” Despite its script by Zoë Akins, Arzner’s Working Girls (1931) did not do well at the box office and became her least successful film of the 1930’s. In 1932, she made Merrily We Go to Hell, her last film for Paramount. A bittersweet comedy, the film has received critical attention, especially for the ingenuity and courage of its central female character as played by Sylvia Sidney. In spite of the film’s success, Arzner left Paramount to work as an independent director and moved from studio to studio for the rest of her professional career.

The first film that Arzner made as a freelance director was Christopher Strong (1933), which was scripted by Zoë Akins and shot at RKO for producer David O. Selznick. The story goes that Arzner rescued her leading lady, Katharine Hepburn, from a jungle picture by literally bringing her down out of a tree. Christopher Strong became one of Arzner’s most famous films, and Hepburn’s performance as a headstrong woman aviator helped boost her fledgling career. The critics were largely complimentary, and studio executive Samuel Goldwyn admired the film so much that he hired Arzner to make an adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel Nana, which was released in 1934. The film was designed to launch the career of the Russian actress, Anna Sten, who Goldwyn hoped would rival Greta Garbo. Moving over to Columbia Pictures, Arzner made Craig’s Wife (1936), a film based on the well-known play by George Kelly, whose niece Grace eventually became a film star herself. Craig’s Wife starred Rosalind Russell, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of an obsessive housewife. Joan Crawford was sufficiently impressed by the film, or at least by Russell’s Oscar nomination, that she took the lead in Arzner’s next film, The Bride Wore Red (1937), which was shot at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) with a screenplay by Tess Slesinger from a Ferenc Molnár play. Arzner disliked the superficiality of the film’s plot, but she became a lifelong friend of Crawford.

Although she did not know it at the time, Arzner was to direct only two more pictures. The first, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), adapted from a Vicki Baum story by Tess Slesinger, once again helped to advance the careers of its principal actors: Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball. Subsequently, it also generated a sizable body of critical commentary, particularly for its feminist perspectives. During the early part of World War II, Arzner made some training films for the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). In 1943, however, she returned to Columbia to make her final film, a war picture starring Merle Oberon as a member of the Norwegian underground entitled First Comes Courage.

At this time a serious illness forced Arzner to take a temporary leave from directing; eventually, her retirement became permanent. Nevertheless, Dorothy Arzner did not entirely leave filmmaking. She established the first filmmaking course at the Pasadena Playhouse and taught film at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) for four years during the 1960’s. She also shot some fifty Pepsi commercials for television during Joan Crawford’s association with that company. Arzner was the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA); at a Guild tribute in 1975, her former student Francis Ford Coppola attested to her influence on his directing career. In 1979, Dorothy Arzner died at the age of eighty-two at La Quinta, near Palm Springs, California, where she had spent the last years of her life.


Dorothy Arzner was the only major woman director during the Golden Age of Hollywood and as such occupies a unique position in film studies and a central one for feminist film criticism. Although Arzner denied any overtly feminist intentions in her cinema and often talked of herself as just one of the “boys” who made motion pictures at the studios, her films are increasingly read as promoting opposition to the dominant male-centered, or patriarchal, ideology of American studio films. As interest in gender studies has grown, increasingly Arzner’s work has been examined as well for its possible lesbian content. There is still controversy over whether her films developed a fuller expression of gay sexuality than was otherwise occasionally available in other films of the period.

Regardless of Arzner’s own sexual orientation, her films are receiving increasing attention from both film scholars and the general public alike. She has become recognized as one of the best American directors of the 1930’s, and her films are being revived around the world. It is a recognition that might have come sooner had she not cut short her career in the mid-1940’s. Not only are her films praised for their overall quality, but Arzner herself is being acknowledged for the careers she helped to launch or further. Not just another marginal Hollywood professional, Dorothy Arzner has begun to be considered a major directing talent, one significant enough to rank with her male counterparts as a cocreator of the classic Hollywood cinema of the interwar years.


Doty, Alexander. “Whose Text Is It Anyway?: Queer Cultures, Queer Auteurs, and Queer Authorship.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 15 (November, 1993): 41-54. Doty examines Arzner’s films along with those of her contemporary, director George Cukor. Doty attempts to demonstrate that these works, although made for straight audiences, were subtly influenced by the directors’ sexual identities as a lesbian and a homosexual.

Heck-Rabi, Louise. “Dorothy Arzner: An Image of Independence.” In Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1984. Heck-Rabi’s chapter on Arzner places her within the context of Hollywood’s “boom” years. Surveys film critics’ assessments of Arzner’s career, discusses the revival of interest in her work during the 1970’s, and includes a filmography of motion pictures directed by Arzner.

Houston, Beverle. “Missing in Action: Notes on Dorothy Arzner.” Wide Angle 6, no. 3 (1984): 24-31. This essay introduces Arzner’s work and examines four of her films to judge how effectively they violate the specular practices of classic Hollywood films.

Johnston, Claire, ed. The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1975. This first short monograph on Arzner contains critical essays, an interview with Dorothy Arzner, and a comprehensive filmography.

Kort, Melissa Sue. “‘Spectacular Spinelessness’: The Men in Dorothy Arzner’s Films.” In Men by Women, edited by Janet Todd. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981. The author argues that it is not the weakness of the men but the strength of the women in her films which marginalizes the male in her narratives.

Lesage, Julia. “The Hegemonic Female Fantasy in An Unknown Woman and Craig’s Wife.” Film Reader 5 (1982): 83-94. According to Lesage, the countervailing tendencies in Arzner’s Craig’s Wife attack the hegemonic female fantasies promoted by Hollywood—fantasies that flattened out contradictions in women’s lives and promoted conventional solutions to women’s issues.

Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. Based on research in archival collections at the University of California at Los Angeles, this book-length work is more properly a critical study of Arzner’s career than a definitive biography. Mayne explores the connections between Arzner’s provocative depiction of women in her films and her identity as a lesbian at a time when such an identity was commonly repressed and ignored.

Mayne, Judith. “Female Authorship Reconsidered.” In The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Mayne raises questions about how overtly Arzner’s life and films can be read as raising lesbian issues. Considers whether her films present anything more sustained or developed than the occasional lesbian images that have routinely appeared in other Hollywood films.

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Critical Essays