In an industry that was deeply influenced by a group of women artists from the 1890s onward, only one woman survived the conglomeration of the industry in the late 1920s to direct during the sound era: Dorothy Arzner. Before Arzner, many women had been active as directors in early Hollywood, but nearly all had been pushed out of the industry with the advent of sound. Arzner’s entry into the movie business was like that of many male directors. She attended the University of Southern California with plans to become a doctor but dropped out to pursue a career in motion pictures. Her first job was typing scripts.
Later she moved up to an editing position as a cutter for Realart Studio, a subsidiary of Paramount. She edited fifty-two films there as chief editor, including the Rudolph Valentino vehicle Blood and Sand (1922).
In addition, Arzner directed some of the grueling second-unit scenes for Blood and Sand, depicting the bullfights. She bargained with Paramount for
her first opportunity as director, Fashions for Women (1927). She then directed a handful of other films before hitting her stride with The Wild Party (1929), starring Clara Bow. Of all the films she directed for Paramount, The Wild Party displays the most overtly expressed lesbian consciousness.
Set at an all-female college, the film is ostensibly a heterosexual romance, but Arzner allows same-sex sexuality to develop between peripheral women characters. The Wild Party was also hailed for its technical achievements. It was the first sound picture made at Paramount, in which Arzner reportedly suggested the use of a fishing pole as a microphone extension, thus inventing the industry’s first boom mike.
Working Girls (1931) continued Arzner’s penchant for the creation of all-women environments set against the backdrop of patriarchal societal convention. Many of the themes of Working Girls, which revolved around the difficulties women face in the male-defined work environment and the manner in which women are so often pitted against one another in society, are revisited in her famous later movie Dance,
Girl, Dance (1940).
Arzner’s female characters were often career oriented. Christopher Strong (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn as a world-famous aviator fashioned after Amelia Earhart, is a classic female narrative woven around the choice between family and career. In Craig’s Wife (1936), Rosalind Russell stars as a manipulative woman so driven to become the embodiment of the perfect housewife that she destroys everyone around her, including herself. The film is a scathing attack on societal restrictions of women at a time when women were being moved back into the domestic sphere. Arzner’s last film, First Comes Courage (1943), starred Merle Oberon as a woman who sacrifices love for the safety and independence of her country.
Halfway through shooting the picture, however, Arzner became seriously ill with pneumonia and took time off to recuperate, but rather than wait for her return, the studio had the film completed as quickly as possible (with Charles Vidor directing, though only Arzner received screen credit). Bitterly disappointed with having the film yanked from her, Arzner realized that she was too independent-minded to fit into the Hollywood system. Shortly after leaving Columbia, she became a pioneer in directing television commercials (for Pepsi-Cola), and developed one of the first filmmaking courses in the United States, at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.
Later, she taught filmmaking at UCLA, where one of her early students was future director Francis Ford Coppola. In 1974, Arzner was finally honored for her work by the Directors Guild of America. Between 1943 and 1949, no women directed films at any major Hollywood studio.
It was not until 1949, when actress Ida Lupino co-produced, scripted, and directed Not Wanted, a drama involving teenage pregnancy, that women again became a force behind the camera. Lupino went on to direct a compelling series of dramas and suspense films in the 1950s.