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#BornThisDay: Film Director, Dorothy Arzner

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Arzner with DP, Lucien Ballard, Film Quarterly via YouTube

 

January 3, 1897– Dorothy Arzner:

“Each day when I went to work at a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

Portland’s own Todd Haynes (who was yesterday’s #BornThisDay figure) has been promising a Dorothy Arzner biopic since 2003. Her story has yet to make it to the screen, but maybe Julianne Moore could be Haynes’ number one choice for the role. Who else do you think might embody the men’s suit wearing, openly gay Arzner? I’ll even throw in Cate Blanchett to play Katharine Hepburn for a second time. Does that make it more enticing?  After all, Arzner was the one that gave Hepburn her first starring role, playing a famous female flyer in Christopher Strong (1933).

Arzner nurtured the careers of several strong female film stars. She has also served as an inspiration for other women directors, even in our own era. Someday, when having a woman direct a major Hollywood film isn’t worth mentioning, film fans will be shocked to learn that there was a time when Arzner and Ida Lupino were the only gals working behind the camera.

Arzner started at Paramount Pictures as a typist, before making her way up the ladder, first as a screenwriter and then editor. She eventually demanded a chance to direct, threatening to move to another studio. She showed real pluck and panache with her first film Fashions For Women (1927), a box-office hit. She was then offered to direct Paramount’s very first sound film, The Wild Party (1929).

The Wild Party starred “It Girl” Clara Bow in her first speaking role, along with Frederic March in his film debut. It proved popular with the critics and fans. For its time, it was quite controversial, daringly featuring scantily clad co-eds and chorus girls. For The Wild Party, she tied a microphone to a fishing pole to put nervous star Bow at ease and get better audio, basically inventing the first boom microphone.

Paramount thought Arzner was right for directing melodramas with female leads like Sarah And Son (1930), starring Ruth Chatterton who was nominated for an Academy Award, and giving Rosalind Russell her first great role in Craig’s Wife (1936). As a technician, she was anything but fussy. She eschewed meandering shots or anything that would distract from her clarity of vision or her devotion to detail. She stated:

“Maintain conscious control of your medium – nothing random.”

One of the reoccurring themes in Arzner’s films is the emotional toll of an unhappy marriage. Her work often features a man who behaves like he owns a woman, or a man competing with a woman.

Arzner’s films also frequently show nuanced, complex, sympathetic female friendships with hints of homoeroticism. Just last month on TCM, I caught Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) with Lucille Ball in her first starring role, along with Maureen O’Hara. They play roommates Bubbles and Judy, who scrap over men and money, tossing off wisecracks and dancing like a lesbian version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It also has a nutty turn by famed acting coach Maria Ouspenskaya as an especially butch dance instructor. I really enjoyed this one.

Arzner had a major love affair with Marion Morgan, the choreographer on Dance, Girl, Dance. She also spent some very special time with Joan Crawford, before, during, and after they worked together on The Bride Wore Red (1937) and The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney (1937). Their bond was so strong that Crawford was even able to lure Arzner out of retirement to shoot more than 50 commercials for Pepsi when Crawford was the spokesperson and on the Board Of Directors for the company.

In 1943, Arzner made her final film, First Comes Courage, a war film overflowing with lesbian subtext. Noted for being a hard worker, Arzner was still able to enjoy a romantic fling with the star of the film, Merle Oberon.

Systemic sexism and overt homophobia had been on the upswing with the start of The Hays Code in 1934. The Hays Code was the set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most films released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. Hollywood became more conservative and there was a return to traditional gender roles after the end of WW II. I am not certain if these were reasons why a woman whose films were as good as any man’s, who’s films came in on time and under-budget and who made money for the studios, stopped making movies. Maybe because she was often the only woman director working in Hollywood, her first goal was to prove that she was competent because competence was far more important than brilliance or originality in making sure she had a career. Her inability to conform to an increasingly conservative moral climate in Hollywood had to have been a major stumbling block.

Arzner was a complicated and unique woman. She possessed a biting sense of humor and a sophisticated personal style, noted for her short-cropped hair and the wearing of pants.

Between 1927 and 1943, Arzner directed 17 feature films. Almost all have her trademark unconventional heroines, strong and self-sufficient, who must reconcile marriage and career. Like the masterful gay director, James Whale, her films resonate with gay subtext.

She mentored a young film director named Francis Ford Coppola. I hear things turned out well for him.

After leaving the studio system, Arzner made Army training films and taught at UCLA, plus she shot those Pepsi commercials. In 1936, she became the very first woman to join The Directors Guild Of America. The Guild finally got around to honoring her contribution in 1975 with their Legend Award, four years before her passing. She left this world with no Oscars, honorary or otherwise, and aside from that DGA reward, after a prolific career that spanned from 1922 to 1943, she only has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

There is some promise and progress for women directors. Currently there are 245 films by women streaming on Netflix.  In 2016, there were 49 films directed by females according the DGA, not all of them found distribution. Only one film of the top 25, Kung Fu Panda 3, was directed by a woman, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, and she gets to share the credit with a dude, Alessandro Carloni.

In 2017 and 2018, there are only 24 films directed by women, despite the attention paid to Hollywood’s gender inequality issues. Granted, Warner Bros. had Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster Wonder Woman, but the studio has nothing on the docket for 2018 that is to be directed by a woman. In 2017, only two of the Top 50 money makers were directed by women, Wonder Woman and Trish Sie’s Pitch Perfect 3.

Disney had zero films directed by women in 2017, although their 2018 lineup includes Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, the first $100 million live-action feature to be directed by a female director of color.

They might not have been huge at the box-office, but some of the year’s best reviewed films were directed by females: The Beguiled directed by Sofia Coppola, Dee Rees’ Mudbound, Angelia Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, Faces Places directed by 89-year-old Agnes Varda, and one of the most honored films of the year Lady Bird from Greta Gerwig.  I would also mention Battle Of The Sexes directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, and the fascinating Wonder Woman backstory Professor Marston & the Wonder Women directed by Angela Robinson.

Women directed just 4% of the top money-making films in the 21st century. Of the 700 top-grossing films in history, women make up 13% of the directors. In 89 years of the Academy Awards, only four female directors have even been nominated for Oscars: Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost In Translation (2003), and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009). Only Bigelow has taken home the statue, making the ratio of female to male winners 1 to 89.

Lesbians making feature films is a very small list indeed. There is Phyllida Lloyd, Dee Rees, and Jodie Foster, and I particularly admire Kimberly Peirce who directed Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Lisa Cholodenko who directed the terrific Oscar nominated The Kids Are All Right (2010). My gaydar goes off for Ava DuVernay, director of the landmark, Selma (2014) and 13 (2015)  but she keeps her private life private, although I know she vacations with Oprah and Gayle.

As Katharine Hepburn put it to Arzner in a telegram when she was at last honored by the DGA in 1975:

‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?”

 


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