Alice Guy, Boom mike, Career, Clara Bow, Craig's Wife, Dorothy Arzner, Editor, Famous Players-Lasky, For One Week Only, History, Lois Weber, Manhattan Cocktail, Movies, Old Ironsides, Screen Directors Guild, Screen writer, Silent Era, The Wild Party, Women directors
Later than advertised (and now running from 5-11 November 2015), this edition of For One Week Only is going to focus on women directors.
Women have been directing movies since the very beginnings of cinema. In 1896, Frenchwoman Alice Guy made what is regarded as the first movie directed by a woman, La fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). It’s not the most sophisticated of early silents, and only lasts a minute, but it does go some way to proving that it wasn’t entirely a man’s world at the end of the 19th century. Guy went on to have a prolific career as a director: between 1896 and 1920 she made a staggering 430 movies.
During the silent era there were many other “firsts” involving women directors, from Lois Weber’s being the highest-paid female director of the silent era – $5000 a week – to actresses such as Cleo Madison and Grace Cunard finding as much or more success behind the camera than they did in front of it. And the world’s first full-length animated feature, Die Geschichte des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed), made in 1926, was directed by Germany’s Lotte Reiniger. But with the advent of the Talkies, women’s involvement in directing – in the US at least – began to lessen, although by coincidence, there was one woman who managed to buck the trend and carved out a career that included a significant number of achievements.
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)
It’s ironic looking back over Dorothy Arzner’s life and career that she had a connection to Hollywood from quite a young age. Her parents ran a café in Los Angeles that was frequented by such movie luminaries as Charles Chaplin, William S. Hart and Erich von Stroheim, and Dorothy worked there as a waitress. But her ambition lay in the medical profession and she enrolled in a pre-med programme after graduating from high school; during World War I she served as an ambulance driver.
Once hostilities had ceased, Arzner changed tack and got a job working for a newspaper. There she was introduced to William C. DeMille – Cecil’s brother – and landed a job as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lasky (the forerunner of Paramount Pictures). Having become very interested in working in the movies, Arzner began to amass as much knowledge as she could and she soon became a script writer, as well as an editor. Between 1919 and 1926 she worked on eight features as a screen writer, and eight features as an editor, including uncredited duties in both capacities on James Cruze’s Old Ironsides (1926). So good was her work that she was the first person of either gender to receive an on-screen credit as an editor.
Her ambition though was to become a director, and in 1927 she made her first feature, Fashions for Women, a drama about a cigarette girl played by Esther Ralston who falls in love with a count while finding success as a model. It was a rather innocuous start to her career as a director but did well enough for her to tackle two more movies that year, Ten Modern Commandments, a romantic comedy-drama that also featured Ralston, and Get Your Man, a romantic comedy set in Paris that starred Clara Bow. But it was Manhattan Cocktail (1928) that was to be the second of many “firsts” that Arzner would achieve in her career, as she became the first female to direct a sound feature (albeit a part-talkie).
Reuniting with Bow for The Wild Party (1929), Arzner found her star struggling with the demands of making her first talkie, and specifically the microphones that were being used. In order to accommodate and reassure her star, Arzner came up with what was, for then, a unique solution: she devised the industry’s first boom mike so that Bow could move around unhampered by having to be near a microphone.
As her career continued into the Thirties, Arzner made a number of moderately successful pre-Code movies, and worked with a variety of Paramount stars, such as Claudette Colbert, Pat O’Brien, Ginger Rogers, Fredric March, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Sylvia Sidney, and a young Cary Grant. But as Paramount’s fortunes suffered due to the Depression, and the company insisted on pay cuts across the board, Arzner became a freelance director and was quickly snapped up by RKO to direct Christopher Strong (1933). The movie starred Katharine Hepburn and the two didn’t get along, so much so that Hepburn complained about Arzner to the studio; wisely, RKO backed their director.
Despite the animosity between the two women the movie was a critical, if not financial, success, and Arzner moved on to Nana (1934), a vanity project for Anna Sten, a Russian actress being promoted by Samuel Goldwyn. Alas the movie was a flop, and it wasn’t until 1936 that Arzner made another picture, the well-received and critically lauded Craig’s Wife, starring Rosalind Russell. Also that year, Arzner was the first woman to be enrolled into the recently formed Screen Directors Guild; for many years afterward she would remain the only woman in the Guild until Ida Lupino joined in 1950.
1937 saw Arzner work with and establish a close friendship with Joan Crawford, firstly providing uncredited direction on The Last of Mrs Cheyney, and then directing the star in that same year’s rags-to-riches tale The Bride Wore Red. Both movies were successful with audiences, but Arzner was unable to secure another picture until 1940 and the romantic drama Dance, Girl, Dance. Though it was a critical and commercial failure at the time, the movie underwent a re-evaluation in the 1970’s and is now regarded as one of Arzner’s more intriguing and important movies and as an early example of female empowerment. Three years later, Arzner made her last feature, the wartime drama First Comes Courage, an exercise in propaganda that featured the clearly Scandinavian Merle Oberon as a resistance fighter torn between Nazi Carl Esmond and Brit Brian Aherne.
Arzner turned her attention to the war effort after that, and made several training movies for the Women’s Army Corps. After the war she decided to work in television, making documentaries and commercials until the 1950’s when she became a filmmaking teacher. She first taught at the Pasadena Playhouse before moving to UCLA in the Sixties (one of her pupils was Francis Ford Coppola). She stayed there until her death in 1979.
Even though Dorothy Arzner was the most well-known female director working in Hollywood during its so-called Golden Age, the late Twenties through to the early Forties, she was also the only female director working in Hollywood during that time. She made movies that featured strong female heroines, and she found ways of including some of her feminist beliefs in the movies she made, slyly and with style. She also had a unique visual approach to the material she directed, and if you watch her movies today there’s a freshness about them that separates them from the otherwise formulaic movies being made at the time.
Arzner fought her way up from the bottom, and refused to be intimidated by the phallocentric system she worked in. She occupied a unenviable position in Hollywood, both as a woman and as a lesbian, but did so without compromising those values she felt strongly about. That she chose to give up directing movies after World War II is a cause for disappointment; it would have been interesting to see what she made of the role of women in the post-War era. But perhaps she’d had enough of being the only woman in such a male-dominated industry. After all, she did have this to say: “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.”