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“If one is going to be in the movie business,” Dorothy Arzner once remarked, “one should be a director. He is the one who tells everyone what to do. In fact, he is the whole world.” Given that Arzner, whose oeuvre spans the years 1927 through 1943, still stands as the most prolific and consistently employed female director in Hollywood history, it‘s ironic that she used the masculine pronoun. But then, the success of her career owed in no small part to her readiness to pay lip service to the men who were her bosses. Arzner may have been the one telling everyone what to do, but she came by her power cannily and knew its limits. She learned both moviemaking and studio navigation from the bottom up, chose her battles carefully, and when it no longer suited her to fight them, walked away. In a 1933 Silver Screen article written by her friend Adela Rogers St. John, Arzner said, “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.” She was either being modest or shrewd -- or as one of Arzner’s most vibrant characters, the burlesque queen Bubbles in the great Dance, Girl, Dance, more colorfully puts it, “Listen, kid. I don‘t fall in gutters. I pick my spots.”
Born in San Francisco in 1900, Arzner grew up in L.A., where her father ran a German cafe popular with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Erich von Stroheim and Arzner’s future mentor, James Cruze. Still, the girl dandled on such august knees wasn‘t enthralled by Hollywood. Instead she opted for pre-med studies at USC and wartime ambulance driving before begging a job from William De Mille, Cecil’s older brother and a big shot at Famous Players--Lasky and its nascent Paramount division. Insisting that she start at the bottom, Arzner typed scripts, then worked her way through the ranks, earning respect as a gifted scenario writer and editor, most famously with her dynamic cutting of the Rudolph Valentino vehicle Blood and Sand. By the time she strong-armed her first directorial assignment from Jesse Lasky (by threatening to jump ship to Columbia), Arzner had, in addition to editing, directed scenes for Cruze‘s Old Ironsides and his Western-epic prototype The Covered Wagon. She went on to make 10 features for Paramount, including the studio’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929), which starred Clara Bow in her first speaking role. The Wild Party opens “Directed by Dorothy Arzner,” a three-weekend retrospective presented by UCLA in conjunction with Jodie Foster and the National Endowment for the Arts. While it may not be Arzner‘s best work, the movie is as snappy an example as any of her flair for imbuing standard “women’s pictures” with pre-feminist subversion.
Certainly the partnership was a happy experience for Bow. Terrified of making the transition to talkies, Bow found a sympathetic director in Arzner, who not only appreciated the radiant star‘s flirtatious elan, but gave her added dimension by plunging her into a loving, all-girl universe replete with nightie-wearing, dorm-room get-togethers and ladies-only costume balls. (Arzner is also widely credited with innovating the first boom mike -- on a fishing pole -- in order to free up her nervous star’s effervescent physicality.) As Stella, ringleader of the “hard-boiled maidens” at a women‘s university, Bow marshals the troops for fun and trouble, and wins the heart of a dashing anthropology professor, played by Fredric March in his first leading film role. When crisis comes, however, Stella’s comeuppance for her careless frivolities is ennobling rather than degrading, as she sacrifices her fun and her man to rescue a beloved girlfriend from scandal.
The Wild Party was a critical and commercial success, a score for Bow and an entree for March, and it helped solidify Arzner‘s reputation as a star maker. She catalyzed the careers of Ruth Chatterton, a major ’30s star; Rosalind Russell, who, after much urging from Arzner, reluctantly took her first lead as an obsessive hausfrau in Craig‘s Wife; Lucille Ball, incandescent as Bubbles in Dance, Girl, Dance; and Katharine Hepburn, who also played her first starring role, in Christopher Strong, under Arzner’s guidance. Arzner left Paramount in 1932, after a shift in personnel left her without the support to which she‘d become accustomed. She made six more features as an independent, then bowed out in 1943 after suffering through a protracted bout with pneumonia; an untenable relationship with her last boss, Louis B. Mayer; and a studio atmosphere that was becoming increasingly hostile to women. Still, she never stopped working. She made World War II films for the Women’s Army Corps, taught and directed at the Pasadena Playhouse, helmed 50-odd Pepsi commercials for her friend Joan Crawford (who, according to gossip and Crawford‘s bitter daughter, was also Arzner’s lover), became a founding member of the Directors Guild, and lectured in writing and directing at UCLA. She died near Palm Springs in 1979.
Arzner‘s track record may be unmatched among female filmmakers, but aside from the occasional article or retrospective, her body of work has long gone underappreciated. Feminist film theorists of the 1970s never fully embraced her: Arzner rates relatively little space, for instance, in Molly Haskell’s seminal 1973 book about women in film, From Reverence to Rape. Despite a marked sympathy for the lives of working women, a tendency to highlight butch-femme dualities, and a keen eye for womanly beauty, Arzner‘s work is tacitly revolutionary, built more on making hits than making waves. Like her lesbianism, which by all accounts Arzner neither hid nor flaunted, her movies are matter-of-factly what they are -- skilled studio fare, lightly flavored by an instinctive radicalism.
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