Dorothy Arzner - Director

Nationality: American. Born: San Francisco, 3 January 1900. Education: Studied medicine at University of Southern California. Military Service: Ambulance driver in World War I, 1917–18. Career: Typist for William C. De Mille, at Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), 1919; editor for "Realart," a subsidiary of Paramount, 1922; wrote and edited Old Ironsides (Cruze), 1925; directed Paramount's first sound film, Wild Party , 1929; retired from directing, 1943. Awards: Honored at First International Festival of Women's Films, New York, 1972, and by Director's Guild of America, 1975. Died: 1 October 1979.

Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner

Films as Director:


Fashions for Women ; Get Your Man ; 10 Modern Commandments


Manhattan Cocktail


The Wild Party


Sarah and Son ; "The Gallows Song—Nichavo" sequence in Paramount on Parade ; Anybody's Woman ; Behind the Makeup (co-d); Charming Sinners (co-d, uncredited)


Honor among Lovers ; Working Girls


Merrily We Go to Hell


Christopher Strong


Nana ( Lady of the Boulevard )


Craig's Wife


The Bride Wore Red ; The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (co-d, uncredited)


Dance, Girl, Dance


First Comes Courage

Other Films:


Blood and Sand (ed)


The Covered Wagon (ed)


Inez from Hollywood (ed, sc); The Bread of the Border (sc); The No-Gun Man (sc)


Red Kimono (sc); When Husbands Flirt (sc)


Old Ironsides (ed, sc)


By ARZNER: article—

Interview with Gerald Peary, in Cinema (Beverly Hills), no. 34, 1974.

On ARZNER: books—

Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By , New York, 1968.

Johnston, Claire, Notes on Women's Cinema , London, 1973.

Pratt, George, Spellbound in Darkness: A History of Silent Film , Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973.

Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream , New York, 1973.

Haskell, Molly, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies , New York, 1974.

Smith, Sharon, Women Who Make Movies , New York, 1975.

Johnston, Claire, editor, The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Toward a Feminist Cinema , London, 1975.

Slide, Anthony, Early Women Directors , South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1977.

Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.

Penley, Constance, editor, Feminism and Film Theory , London, 1988.

Mayne, Judith, Directed by Dorothy Arzner , Bloomington, 1994.

On ARZNER: articles—

"Hollywood Notes," in Close-Up (London), April 1928.

Cruikshank, H., "Sketch," in Motion Picture Classic (Brooklyn), September 1929.

Potamkin, H. A., "The Woman as Film Director," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), January 1932.

St. John, Adela Rogers, "Get Me Dorothy Arzner," in Silver Screen (New York), December 1933.

"They Stand out from the Crowd," in Literary Digest (New York), 3 November 1934.

Feldman, J. and H., "Women Directors," in Films in Review (New York), November 1950.

Pyros, J., "Notes on Women Directors," in Take One (Montreal), November/December 1970.

Henshaw, Richard, "Women Directors," in Film Comment (New York), November 1972.

Parker, F., "Approaching the Art of Arzner," in Action (Los Angeles), July/August 1973.

Slide, Anthony, "Forgotten Early Women Directors," in Films in Review , March 1974.

Castle, W., "Tribute to Dorothy Arzner," in Action (Los Angeles), March/April 1975.

Kaplan, E. Ann, "Aspects of British Feminist Film Theory," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), no. 12–13, 1976.

Johnston, Claire, in Jump Cut (Berkeley), 30 December 1976.

Bergstrom, J., "Rereading the Work of Claire Johnston," in Camera Obscura (Berkeley), Summer 1979.

Obituary, in New York Times , 12 October 1979.

Houston, Beverle, "Missing in Action: Notes on Dorothy Arzner," in Wide Angle (Athens, Georgia), vol. 6, no. 3, 1984.

Forster, A., " Dance, Girl, Dance ," in Skrien (Amsterdam), September-October 1984.

Chell, S. L., "Dorothy Arzner's Dance Girl, Dance, " in Cineaction (Toronto), no. 24–25, Summer-Fall 1991.

Gaines, J., "Dorothy Arzner's Trousers," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), July 1992.

Doty, A., "Whose Text Is It Anyway?: Queer Cultures, Queer Auteurs, and Queer Auteurship," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video (Langhorne, PA), vol. 15, November 1993.

Mayne, J., "Dorothy Arzner, les femmes et la politique des auteurs," in Cinémaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), March 1993.

* * *

Dorothy Arzner's career as a commercial Hollywood director covered little more than a decade, but she had prepared for it by extensive editing and script writing work. Ill health forced her to abandon a career that might eventually have led to the recognition she deserved from her contemporaries. One of only a handful of women operating within the structure of Hollywood's post-silent boom, Arzner has been the subject of feminist critical attention, with film retrospectives of her work both in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1970s, when her work was "rediscovered."

Most feminists would recognize that the mere re-insertion of women into a dominant version of film history is a dubious activity, even while asserting that women's contributions to cinema have been excluded from most historical accounts. Recognition of the work of a "popular" director like Arzner and an evaluation of her contribution to Hollywood cinema must be set against an awareness of her place in the dominant patriarchal ideology of classic Hollywood cinema. Arzner's work is particularly interesting in that it was produced within the Hollywood system with all its inherent constraints (time, budget, traditional content requirements of particular genres, etc.).

While Arzner directed "women's pictures"—classic Hollywood fare—she differed from other directors of the genre in that, in place of a narrative seen simply from a female point of view, she actually succeeded in challenging the orthodoxy of Hollywood from within, offering perspectives that questioned the dominant order.

The films often depict women seeking independence through career—a burlesque queen and an aspiring ballerina ( Dance, Girl, Dance ), a world champion aviatrix ( Christopher Strong ). Alternatively, the escape route can be through exit from accepted female positions in the hierarchy—a rich daughter "escaping" into marriage with a poverty-stricken drunk ( Merrily We Go to Hell ). Even excess can be a way of asserting independence, as with the obsessive housekeeper rejecting family relationships in favor of a passion for domesticity and the home ( Craig's Wife ).

The films frequently play with notions of female stereotyping (most notably in Dance, Girl, Dance , with its two central female types of Nice Girl and Vamp). Arzner's "nice girls" are likely to have desires which conflict with male desires, while narrative requirements will demand that they still please the male. While these tensions are not always resolved, Arzner's strategies in underlining these opposing desires are almost gleeful at times.

In addition, Arzner's films offer contradictions which disturb the spectator's accepted relationship with what is on screen—most notably in Dance, Girl, Dance , when dancer Judy O'Brien turns on her Burlesque (male) audience and berates them for their voyeurism. This scene has been the focus for much debate about the role of the spectator in relation to the woman as spectacle (notably in the work of Laura Mulvey).

Although the conventions of plot and development are present in Arzner's films, Claire Johnston sees these elements as subverted by a "women's discourse": the films may offer us the kinds of narrative closure we expect from the classic Hollywood text—the "happy" or the "tragic" ending—but Arzner's insistence on this female discourse gives the films an exciting and unsettling quality. In Arzner's work, she argues, it is the male universe which invites scrutiny and which is "rendered strange."

Dorothy Arzner's position inside the studio system has made her a unique subject for debate. As the women's movement set about reassessing the role of women in history, so feminist film theorists began not only to re-examine the role of women as a creative force in cinema, but also to consider the implications behind the notion of women as spectacle. The work of Dorothy Arzner has proved a rich area for investigation into both these questions.

—Lilie Ferrari

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