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Lumière Festival: Dorothy Arzner, a Hollywood Trailblazer

A portrait of a Golden Age director way ahead of her time

Dorothy Arzner died with no Oscars to her name, honorary or otherwise, and to date, her only reward, to mark a prolific career that spanned from 1922 to 1943, is a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

And yet Arzner, who receives a tribute at France’s Lumière Festival,  remains one of the most interesting, if not one of the more significant, directors of the so-called Golden Age. Rising swiftly up through the ranks in the silent era, Arzner broke the glass ceiling at the age of 30, becoming one of the first ever women allowed to call the shots within the male-dominated studio system.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not so strange that Arzner, born in 1897, was attracted to the movies – while she was growing up, her father Louis ran a famous Hollywood restaurant that served all the heavy hitters of the silent era: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett and directing legend DW Griffith. Arzner originally aimed to pursue medicine, having studied the subject at USC, but dropped out shortly after WW1. By chance, a flu epidemic had swept the country, and every industry needed workers, no matter how inexperienced, and the movie business was no exception.

Hired by Cecil B DeMille’s brother William, Arzner began at Famous Players-Lasky in the script room, and after six months progressed to the editing department, cutting, by her own estimation, some 52 movies, including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino classic “Blood and Sand.” Fatefully, Arzner also shot some (uncredited) bull-fighting scenes for that movie, and it was her desire to direct that brought matters to a head in 1927. Arzner had been moonlighting as a scriptwriter and was about to quit, to take up a directing job at Columbia. But instead of walking out, Arzner wanted to say goodbye to someone – anyone – at the studio that had played fair by her. By chance, this turned out to producer Walter Wanger, who organised a summit meeting to keep her. Wanger offered her a directing job, but Arzner played hardball. “Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an A-picture,” she insisted. “I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B-picture for Paramount.” She got her wish: the result was “Fashions For Women,” with Esther Ralston, then a major star.

Arzner’s deal with Paramount was good by anyone’s standards. “I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time,” she told film historians Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in a rare interview in 1974, “[and] paid by the week. I ended with a two-year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.” After five films, and a reshuffle of top brass, Arzner left Paramount to go freelance, which is when Arzner began to make her name as a director of women. Although she didn’t get to realize one of several dream projects – an anti-war movie called “Stepdaughters of War” with Marlene Dietrich, Arzner worked with many big names of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, including Clara Bow, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball.

“The Wild Party,” Arzner’s 1929 film with Bow, her first talking picture, is often cited as a key work in the director’s filmography, being the story of a college girl whose party lifestyle gets her into trouble. Made before the restrictive Hays Code was introduced in 1930, “The Wild Party” features many of the themes that would recur in Arzner’s films, in which women choose independence and refuse to be dominated by men, or even each other.

Though Arzner remained private about her personal life, her sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood and has since made her films a treasure trove for latter-day critics and theorists. Legendary critic Pauline Kael described Arzner’s 1933 film “Christopher Strong,” starring Katherine Hepburn as a female aviator, as “one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view.”

Sadly, Arzner’s most famous film is also one of her last; a film so ahead of its time that it didn’t find its fanbase until the ’70s. Starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940) is an unlikely-female-buddy burlesque movie that conceals a withering attack on the male gaze under its showgirl wardrobe of sequins and feathers. This was to be Arzner’s penultimate film – after contracting pneumonia that laid her low for a year, the director – who died in 1979, aged 82 – made the decision in 1943 to quit for good, and stuck to it. The story might have ended there, but somehow Arzner’s legacy endured, just as she herself had survived in her heyday. As Katharine Hepburn put it to Arzner in a telegram, when she was honoured 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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