Reimagining the Canon: Dorothy Arzner

Talented artists whose lives and works may not be as familiar and lauded as those in the canon because, well, you know…

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979, San Francisco, USA)


Since the early days of Hollywood, actresses have been central to the success of movies and many are still household names. Film fans and casual observers alike know the Silent and Golden Age performers Claudette Colbert, Clara Bow, Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara and Joan Crawford. All of those glittering stars appeared in movies directed by the only female director in Hollywood in the 1930s. Her name was Dorothy Arzner.

As a child, Arznar came into contact with Hollywood luminaries at her father’s restaurant in Los Angeles. A short-lived ambition to be a doctor saw her study medicine for 2 years and join the Southern California ambulance unit in World War One, but a post-war demand for film workers led her to Paramount Studios. She began work typing scripts and, after 6 months, progressed to editing, a labour-intensive job still done in those days by hand and glue. She edited 52 films for the studio but also saw renowned directors, including Cecil DeMille, at work, observing;

“If one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”

Her break came in 1922, editing ‘Blood and Sand’ starring Rudolf Valentino, when she was given the chance to film some additional footage for the bullfighting scenes. Afterwards, she was taken under the wing of director James Cruze, as his writer and editor. An opportunity to direct for Columbia Pictures gave her a bargaining chip and she successfully made a deal to direct ‘Fashions for Women’ for Paramount in 1927. She made 3 more silent movies for the studio before sound arrived, a transition she handled successfully. On her first shoot with sound, ‘The Wild Party’, she is credited with inventing the boom mic, when her star Clara Bow was struggling with the bulky sound equipment required to be carried by the actors and Arzner solved the issue by attaching the microphone to a fishing rod and had it dangled above the performer. Arzner went on to direct 14 more movies, featuring many of the Golden Era stars, before departing Hollywood in 1943. Afterwards, she worked in theatre and for commercial interests, including directing adverts for Pepsi. She also taught classes at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television from 1961, with her students including Francis Ford Coppola. She died in 1979 aged 82.

Arzner’s movies were commercially successful but also portrayed a female perspective on the lives and roles of women that was unique in Hollywood at the time. Her early movies had the freedom to explore nonconformist and unconventional female behaviour and she worked closely with female writers, often adapting scripts to tell stories with female characters portrayed in a more sympathetic light. In the early 1930s, there was concern in the big movie studios that conservative panic over the ‘immorality’ of cinema would lead to increased government censorship. Preferring self-regulation, the studios worked with religious advisors to develop the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code). From 1934, the themes and content of movies became strictly monitored in an attempt to promote traditional values and present strict moral standards. It is not clear if Arzner’s open lesbianism caused her any difficulties after this time, or was in any way connected to her retirement from Hollywood in 1943. However, in spite of the controls placed on creative output, her movies still managed to question the domestic role of women and their position in heterosexual relationships, as well as celebrating female friendship and sisterhood.

Almost 100 years after Arzner rolled up to the gates of Paramount to start her career, women behind the camera are still in a minority. Of the 500 top grossing movies of 2018, females made up 23% of editors, 19% of writers and only 15% of directors. And while the works of 1930s studio directors such as Cecil DeMille, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and John Ford are still viewed, taught and discussed, the work of Hollywood’s first female and first lesbian director has a much lower-profile in the history of the medium.

June 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald


Women Film Pioneers Project – “Dorothy Arzner”

Senses of Cinema – “Arzner, Dorothy”

Agnès Films – “Interview with Dorothy Arzner”

British Film Institute – “Dorothy Arzner: Queen of Hollywood”

See also:

Reclaiming History: Mary Prince

Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13

Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis

Reclaiming History: Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia




5 thoughts on “Reimagining the Canon: Dorothy Arzner

  1. Pingback: Reclaiming History: Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia | Knothole

  2. Pingback: Reimagining the Canon: Edmonia Lewis | Knothole

  3. Pingback: Reclaiming History: The Mercury 13 | Knothole

  4. Pingback: Reimagining the Canon: Emily Kame Kngwarreye | Knothole

  5. Pingback: Reclaiming History: Mary Prince | Knothole

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