Badass Ladies in History: Dorothy Arzner

Welcome back to Badass Ladies in History, Germ readers! June is finally here, and I’m sure you’re all excited that school is out, summer is here, and you can spend your long summer days at the beach, lounging at the pool, and perhaps even seeing some blockbuster films that you couldn’t see while you were studying for those pesky finals.

This month for our Badass Ladies segment, I would like to introduce you to a fine lady who quite literally broke all the rules and glass ceiling during her time as the only female feature film director during Hollywood’s Golden Age/Studio Era.

Dorothy Arzner on Set; courtesy of vascopress.com
Dorothy Arzner on set. Photo via vascopress.com

Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco, CA, but she grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents moved to open a restaurant. The restaurant, located in an area that was frequented by celebrities, had several high-end clientele, such as Hollywood celebrities, silent filmmakers, and directors. Dorothy, although influenced by the film industry at a very young age, decided at the beginning of her college career to devote her life to medicine while at the University of Southern California.

Dorothy changed her career path, though, to the film industry and used her connections with William C. DeMille, who was a major director at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which was the parent company to Paramount Pictures. Through her connection with DeMille, Dorothy started as a typist and then moved herself up to screenwriter and editor on major motion pictures.

She set herself apart from other film editors by saving the studio thousands of dollars on the film Blood and Sand. During a bullfighting scene in the movie, Dorothy intercut stock footage with original material in order to save money, and her actions impressed the director, James Cruze, so much that he exclusively used her as his writer and editor for several of his future films.

After working on more than 50 films for Paramount as an editor and scriptwriter, Dorothy had her sights set on the director’s chair. In a brave and risky career move, Dorothy leveraged her job at Paramount by threatening to leave the studio and to take her talent to Columbia Pictures — Paramount’s rival studio — if Paramount did not give her a job as a director. In 1927, Paramount gave in and made Dorothy a director at the studio, making her the only female director working for a major studio during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Dorothy’s first film was a silent film called Fashions for Women. Her films were welcomed by the public with commercial success, and in 1929, Dorothy was given the honor of directing Paramount’s first talkie, The Wild Party. It was during the filming of The Wild Party that Dorothy also added the term “inventor” to her long list of accomplishments.

While directing her first talkie, Dorothy was working with silent film stars who were not used to having speaking roles. So, in order to make one her actors more comfortable with moving around on set while speaking at the same time, Dorothy rigged a microphone on to a fishing rod so that the actor could freely walk around the set while speaking her lines. This was the very first boom mic to be used on the set of a film, and to this day, the boom mic is one of the most vital and widely used pieces of equipment on the sets of films and television shows.

Despite being the only woman working in the studios as a feature film director, Dorothy managed to take the male-dominated field by storm, making it her career during the late 1920s and 1930s. Dorothy worked with the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford before they became household names as well as with the actress and comedian Lucille Ball.

Dorothy stayed at Paramount until 1932 when she decided to become an independent director for several studios. Throughout her time at the studios, Dorothy also found love with dance choreographer Marion Morgan. Marion and Dorothy both met on the set of Dorothy’s second to last film — Dance, Girl, Dance — and they stayed together for 40 years until Dorothy’s death in 1979.

After Dorothy retired from the film industry, she went on to support the war effort of World War II by making training films for the Women’s Army Corps. In her later life, she took her knowledge of the studio and film sets and shared it in the classrooms of UCLA’s Film School. While there, she taught several future directors who would make a big impact with their films in the 1960s and ’70s. Most notably, she taught and influenced Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather.

Dorothy’s repertoire of work is a testament to her drive and commitment to be more than just an editor and scriptwriter of the film industry. Her drive and passion to create from the director’s chair and not just from the sidelines is truly a rad representation of Dorothy’s drive, bravery, and ability to compete in what was literally a male-dominated field and career; but, it’s also a representation of her absolute badassery as she continued on to be a director, an innovator, and even an inventor.

Dorothy’s accomplishments during the time she sat in the director’s chair are too many to number, but her achievements have been rewarded immensely. Her work allowed her to become the very first woman inducted in to The Director’s Guild of America, and for years, she remained the only woman to maintain that honor. She also earned herself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

So three cheers to Dorothy Arzner — a true badass lady who should be known more for her accomplishments in the film industry and for her ability to show up anyone who stood in her way!

Priscilla Carmona
Priscilla Carmona is a fourth year at the University of California, Los Angeles. Besides watching the Bruins' football team in action, Priscilla is an English major devoted to reading a plethora of books as well as writing her own. Besides her love of books, Priscilla is dedicated to entering law school after her career in undergrad is over. She loves the color purple (not the book), sleeping in, candle shopping, and drinking black tea, but most importantly, she loves watching USC lose.

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