Dorothy Spencer - Writer

Editor. Nationality: American. Born: Covington, Kentucky, 2 February, 1909. Career: Hollywood film editor: first film, Married in Hollywood , 1929; 1945–79—worked at Twentieth Century Fox.

Films as Editor:


Married in Hollywood ; Nix on Dames


As Husbands Go (McFadden); Coming Out Party ; She Was a Lady


The Case against Mrs. Ames (Seiter); The Luckiest Girl in the World (Buzzell)


Stand-In (Garnett); Vogues ( Vogues of 1938 ) (Cummings)


Blockade (Dieterle); Trade Winds (Garnett)


Eternally Yours (Garnett); Stagecoach (Ford); Winter Carnival (Riesner)


Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock); The House across the Bay (Mayo); Slightly Honorable (Garnett)


Sundown (Garnett)


To Be or Not To Be (Lubitsch)


Happy Land (Pichel); Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch)


Lifeboat (Hitchcock); Sweet and Low-Down (Mayo)


A Royal Scandal (Lubitsch); A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Kazan)


Cluny Brown (Lubitsch); Dragonwyck (Mankiewicz); My Darling Clementine (Ford)


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Mankiewicz)


The Snake Pit (Litvak); That Lady in Ermine (Lubitsch)


Down to the Sea in Ships (Hathaway)


Three Came Home (Hathaway); Under My Skin (Negulesco)


Fourteen Hours (Hathaway)


Decision before Dawn (Litvak); Lydia Bailey (Negulesco); What Price Glory? (Ford)


Man on a Tightrope (Kazan); Tonight We Sing (Leisen)


Black Widow (Johnson); Demetrius and the Gladiators (Daves); Night People (Johnson)


The Left Hand Of God (Dmytryk); Prince of Players (Dunne); The Rains of Ranchipur (Negulesco); Soldier of Fortune (Dmytryk)


The Best Things in Life are Free (Curtiz); The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Johnson)


A Hatful of Rain (Zinnemann)


The Young Lions (Dmytryk)


The Journey (Litvak); A Private's Affair (Walsh)


From the Terrace (Robson); North to Alaska (Hathaway); Seven Thieves (Hathaway)


Wild in the Country (Dunne)


Cleopatra (Mankiewicz)


Circus World (Hathaway)


Von Ryan's Express (Robson)


Lost Command (Robson)


A Guide for the Married Man (Kelly); Valley of the Dolls (Robson)


Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (Robson)


Happy Birthday, Wanda June (Robson)


Limbo ( Women in Limbo ) (Robson)


Earthquake (Robson)


The Concorde—Airport '79 (Lowell Rich)


On SPENCER: articles—

Winetrabe, Maury, "How Do You Edit an Earthquake?," American Cinemeditor , Fall-Winter 1974–1975.

"Silver Anniversary Eddie Awards," American Cinemeditor , Spring 1975.

* * *

Dorothy Spencer's career as film editor spanned five decades in the industry. Beginning at the dawn of talking pictures, her work continued through the glory days of the Hollywood studio system to the widescreen extravagance of the 1950s and 1960s, working under such directors as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, Henry Hathaway and Mark Robson. Though her early days are affiliated with independent producer Walter Wanger, she involved herself exclusively with Twentieth Century-Fox from the late 1940s until her retirement in 1979. Despite a distinguished and varied career, she was nominated for an Oscar only four times, losing out on each occasion.

Beginning her career at the age of twenty, Spencer worked as cutter on many of Wanger's Thirties productions, including The Case against Mrs. Ames (1936) and Winter Carnival (1939). She also found herself working with director Tay Garnett on Stand In (1937), Trade Winds (1938) and Eternally Yours (1939). Her career with Wanger reached its peak with John Ford's seminal western, Stagecoach (1939) and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). In Stagecoach the editing principals of the Russian Formalists were deftly employed to convey suspense and pace. Most apparent is the chase sequence—in which the stagecoach is pursued by hostile Comanches—where the cutting is deliberately disorienting to convey the consternation of the passengers, while the crosscutting (alternating between the passengers' point of view and shots of the besetting Indians) increases the scene's tempo. The film was to earn Spencer her first Academy Award nomination.

In the early 1940s she began to work with Ernst Lubitsch, editing To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), A Royal Scandal (1944) and Cluny Brown (1946). She also completed work on her second (and final) Hitchcock film, the propagandist wartime drama, Lifeboat (1944). Notable for its expert use of limited space (the entire film is set on a lone lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic), the film is by and large muted. However, two scenes do stand out—the harrowing build-up to a necessary amputation and the lynching of a German U-boat commander—both of which build to their climax through a methodical use of montage. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), directed by Elia Kazan, marked her first film for Twentieth Century-Fox. Among her early projects for the corporation were Dragonwyck (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and John Ford's broodingly low-key western, My Darling Clementine (1946). Lacking significant mood music, Clementine achieved its suspense—most spectacularly in the famous O.K. Corral gunfight sequence—in its editing, a tight, pared-down construction in which only the barest (and most pertinent) of information is conveyed.

In 1948, Spencer began the first of her two assignments under producer/director Anatole Litvak; the acclaimed The Snake Pit was followed by Decision before Dawn (1952), a suspenseful espionage thriller which afforded Spencer her second Oscar nomination. It was her success in the latter that gave rise to Spencer's long association with big-budget actioners, an association which would direct the rest of her career. In the same year as Decision before Dawn , she edited Lydia Baily and What Price Glory? , and shortly thereafter embarked upon a long list of the Fox-patented Cinemascope pictures, beginning with Black Widow in 1954.

Though the widescreen format brought an initial rethinking of the medium's form—traditional framing was reformulated for the wider format and the duration of scenes increased to allow audiences time to register the spectacle—such modifications were limited. By and large the editor's task remained unaltered and Spencer's work, from the mid-1950s onward, shows no apparent change in technique. She worked on a variety of pictures, from large-scale Biblical epics ( Demetrius and the Gladiators [1954]) to Cold War anticommunist pictures ( Night People [1954]) to war movies ( The Young Lions [1958]). Her career in editing widescreen blockbusters reached its peak with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's labored epic Cleopatra (1963). Taking more than four years to produce, with countless writers and a $40 million budget, the film provided Spencer with more than 70,000 feet (120 miles) of film to reduce to the final print's 22,000 feet. A gargantuan task on every level, the film won four Academy Awards with Spencer receiving her third nomination.

Many of Spencer's later efforts were under the direction of Mark Robson. In total they worked together on seven pictures, including Von Ryan's Express (1965), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Earthquake (1967). Expressing many of the concerns of the industry at the time, being big, expensive, and destructive, Earthquake marked the crowning achievement of Spencer's work in the 1970s. A huge success, the film managed to enthrall audiences with the scale and magnitude of its destruction, much of which depended on Spencer's competent skills as editor. In between her collaborations with Robson, Spencer worked with directors Gene Kelly on A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Henry Hathaway on Circus World (1964) and with David Lowell Rich on her final picture, The Concord—Airport 79 (1979).

After fifty years in the industry Dorothy Spencer retired. A consummate studio craftsperson, her work traced the rise and fall of the Hollywood system. Rejecting the reactionist editing styles that emerged in the late 1960s, such as Dede Allen's work on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Sam O'Steen's on The Graduate (1967), she continued to employ the classical style formulated in the mid-teens. As with all editors however, her impact on the films she edited is difficult to gauge. Since the editor's role is secondary to that of the director's, and subservient to the nature and style of the film itself, a critical analysis of her own individual input is difficult to realize. Some of her best work was under such autocrats as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch, all of whom would have assumed complete responsibility for the style of the cutting employed. However, despite the lack of any auteurist evidence, her competence in the field, her success within the industry, and her devotion to her craft remain uncontested.

—Peter Flynn

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