Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Born Today January 3: Dorothy Arzner

Arzner on the set (photo credit unknown)


One the most important directors of the 20th century Dorothy Emma Arzner was born on this date in San Francisco.  Though born in San Francisco, she grew up in Los Angeles, where her father owned a resturant popular with Hollywood celebrities.  To look at her body of work as a director, on the page, it would not suggest her importance to the history of cinema; the fact is, that not only is she one of the most important directors to come out of the U.S., she was also responsible for launching the careers of a whole host of strong minded and seriously talented actresses (the list is impressive and includes Katherin Hepburne and Lucille Ball).  She was the first woman to become a hired gun at any major studio; and her work with women of the silent era is equally of import.  She is also a a very important inspiration to filmmakers in the LGBT community.  She broke barriers when the cost doing so was more than sky-high. 

Azner's original plan for a career was to become a doctor; she spent two years in a pre-med program at the University of Southern California; she even spent time working as an ambulance corp in World War I.  The experience made he realize that becoming a physician was not what she wanted to do in life.  Around the time she returned from the war, she caught the movie bug.  It probably didn't hurt that she had been around people in the business through her father's establishment as she was growing up.  There were obviously some family connections.  She is known to have been introduced to William de Mille, the brother of Cecil, through the owner of the newspaper that she went to work for after returning from the war.  This lead to a job as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lasky, which would shortly become Paramount.  She was exposed to editing rooms and active film sets during her work, intriguing her and piquing her interest in directing.  This also lead to her working on the editing, without formal credit, of the Donald Crisp directed 1919 film Too Much Johnson; working along side one Nan Heron--who curiously as only one credit (this would lead me to believe that the credit for editing of the film should be Arzner's).  She does have full credit on the next Crisp directed film that she edited in 1920: The Six Best Cellars.  Her first experience with directing came with work on the 1922 Valentino film Blood and Sand which Fred Niblo was heading up; she directed additional footage for the film for which she received no credit, and was known to be very much involved with the editing, though again, she was given no credit.  

Her career throughout most of the rest of the 1920's was in the Paramount editing department and as a writer for director James Cruze, one of the film industry's first minority directors at a major studio, who saw in her talent and technique.  Her scenario writing is featured in Inez From Hollywood (1924), one of the only films that she worked on the 1920's that was not a Cruze picture (the director was Alfred Green).  Her work, yet again went uncredited formally, on Cruze's Old Ironsides, but it earned her praise at the studio who knew her contributions to the film (she importantly was the script supervisor for the film); this led to her first real directing job.  She was not just handed this job on merits alone however, she had to fight for it.  In the end, she threatened to move to Columbia and Paramount realized she meant it.  She was then given the reigns to Fashions For Women, which was released in March of 1927.  The film turned out to be quite the financial success, so the brass at the studio had to at least acknowledge in private that they had a talented director on their hands.  She directed two more films in 1927, one of which, Get Your Man, starred Clara Bow.  This is worth pointing out, because in 1929 she would direct Bow in her first talkie The Wild Party.  In the process of making this film, Arzner invented, more or less impromptu, the boom mike--but didn't patent it, and therefore a male employee at Fox or did, gets credit for it's invention.  Arzner deserves all the credit in the history books however.  You also be hard pressed to find a poster for the film that contains Arzner's name, this despite coming in 3rd for earnings that year.  She became the first female director to make an all sound film. In 1927,  Arzner met the woman that she would spend the rest of her life with.  She met Marion Morgan on the set of Fashions (Morgan was credited with editing on the film), who was a choreographer and sometime screenwriter (the two also almost shared the same birthday--Morgan was born on January 4th).

Many hold that her films in the early 1930's--the bulk of her work-during the pre-code days of Hollywood are not just her finest work, but rank as some of the most important pre-code films period.  Arzner would go on to be the the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America in 1936 (a newly formed organization at the time).  Although she lived to the age of 82, she left directing in the 1940's.  The last film that she directed was a war picture for Columbia (the company she had threatened to abscond to in the 1920's while at Paramount).  That film First Comes Courage stars Merle Oberon as a woman risking her life working for the Norwegian underground; the film is definitely a product of the time; however it is an interesting feminist slant on war subjects turned out at the time.  Arzner died passed away in 1979--on 1 October, 8 years after Morgan had died (Dorothy was 16 years younger of her).  The pair had retired to La Quinta, California; par Arzner's wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were over their estate.

One of my favorite Hepburn films of the 30's, made in 1933.


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