Ed and I were at the Whitney Museum yesterday and there was a set of images of a young female director and a African American female actor. The director was Dorthy Azner.
|Arzner and Crawford on set of The Bride Wore Red|
I assumed sexism and homophobia drove her out of Hollywood, but that isn't the case. During WWII she directed several training films, and then pneumonia made her give up features. But she still made documentaries, TV shows and TV commercials (she made TV commercials for Pepsi as a favor to Crawford).
|Dorothy and Marion Morgan - together for 40 years.|
She lived for 40 years with a woman choreographer named Marion Morgan. First in the Hollywood Hills (on Mountain Oak, just around the corner from friends of ours) and the last few decades inLa Quinta (near Palm Springs). Marion died in 1971 and Dorothy passed 8 years later in 1979. (Scandal - before Marion, Dorothy was romantically linked to Billie Burke! - Oz' Good Witch of the South.)
|The difference in the way she presented herself (left) versus how she had to dress for the the studio publicity department|
|Hepburn in Arzner's Christopher Strong|
|Lucille Ball, Maureen O'Hara and Virginia Field in Dance, Girl, Dance|
She then was given a job editing films. She excelled at cutting: as an editor (she was the first Hollywood editor professionally credited as such on-screen), she labored on 52 films, working her way up from cutting Bebe Daniels comedies to assignments on "A" pictures within a couple of years. She came into her own as a filmmaker editing the Rudolph Valentino headliner Blood and Sand (1922), about a toreador. Her editing of the bullfighting scenes was highly praised, and she later said that she actually helmed the second-unit crew shooting some of the bullfight sequences. Director James Cruze was so impressed by her work on the Valentino picture that he brought her on to his team to edit The Covered Wagon (1923). Arzner eventually edited three other Cruze films: Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), Merton of the Movies (1924) and Old Ironsides (1926). Her work was of such quality that she received official screen credit as an editor, a first for a cutter of either gender.
While collaborating with Cruze she also wrote scenarios, scripting her ideas both solo and in collaboration. She was credited as a screenwriter (as well as an editor) on "Old Ironsides", one of the more spectacular films of the late silent era, being partially shot in Magnascope, one of the earliest widescreen processes. She would always credit Cruze as her mentor and role model. "Old Ironsides" proved to be the last film on which she was credited as an editor, as her ambitions to become a director would finally come to fruition. To indulge her, Paramount gave her a job as an assistant director, for which she was happy--until she realized it was not a stepping stone to the director's chair, and she was determined to sit in that chair.
Arzner pressured Paramount to let her direct, threatening to leave the studio to work for Columbia Pictures on Poverty Row, which had offered her a job as a director. Unwilling to lose such a talented filmmaker, the Paramount brass relented, and she made her debut with Fashions for Women (1927). It was a hit. In the process of directing Paramount's first talkie, Manhattan Cocktail (1928), she made history by becoming the first woman to direct a sound picture. The success of her next sound picture, The Wild Party (1929), starring Paramount's top star, Clara Bow, helped establish Fredric March as a movie star.
Arzner proved adept at handling actresses. As Budd Schulberg related in his autobiography "Moving Pictures", Clara Bow--a favorite of his father, studio boss B.P. Schulberg--had a thick Brooklyn accent that the silence of the pre-talkie era hid nicely from the audience. She was terrified of the transition to sound, and developed a fear of the microphone. Working with her sound crew, Arzner devised and used the first boom mike, attaching the microphone to a fish pole to follow Bow as she moved around the set. Arzner even used Bow's less-than-dulcet speaking tones to underscore the vivaciousness of her character
Though Arzner made several successful films for Paramount, the studio teetered on the edge of bankruptcy due to the Depression, eventually going into receivership (before being saved by the advent of another iconic woman, Mae West). When the studio mandated a pay cut for all employees, Arzner decided to go freelance. RKO Radio Pictures hired her to direct its new star, headstrong young Katharine Hepburn, in her second starring film, Christopher Strong (1933). It was not a happy collaboration, as both women were strong and unyielding, but Arzner eventually prevailed. She was, after all, the boss on the set: The director. The fiercely independent Hepburn complained to RKO, but the studio backed its director against its star. Eventually the two settled into a working relationship, respecting each other but remaining cold and distant from one another. Ironically, Arzner would display her directorial flair in elucidating the kind of competitive rivalries between women she experienced with Hepburn.
The Directors Guild of America was established in 1933, and Arzner became the first woman member. Indeed, she was the only female member of the DGA for many years.
Arzner's films featured well-developed female characters, and she was known at the time of her work, quite naturally, as a director of "women's pictures". Not only did her movies portray the lives of strong, interesting women, but her pictures are noted for showcasing the ambiguities of life. Since the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1960s, Arzner's movies have been seen as challenging the dominant, phallocentric mores of the times.
Arzner was a lesbian, who cultivated a masculine look in her clothes and appearance (some feel as camouflage to hide the boy's club that was Hollywood). Many gay critics discern a hidden gay subtext in her films, such as "Christopher Strong". Whereas feminist critics see a critique of gender inequality in "Christopher Strong", lesbian critics see a critique of heterosexuality itself as the source of a woman's troubles. The very private Azner, the woman who broke the glass ceiling and had to survive, and indeed thrived, in the all-male world of studio filmmaking, refused to be categorized as a woman or gay director, insisting she was simply a "director." She was right.
Arzner did have less troubled and more productive collaborations with other actresses after her experience with Hepburn. She developed a close friendship with one of her female stars, Joan Crawford, whom she directed in two 1937 MGM vehicles, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) and The Bride Wore Red (1937). Arzner later directed Pepsi commercials as a favor to Crawford's husband, Pepsi-Cola Company's Chairman of the Board Alfred Steele.
In 1943 Arzner joined other top Hollywood directors such as John Ford and George Stevens in going to work for the war effort during World War Two. She made training films for the US Army's Women's Army Corps (WACs). That same year her health was compromised after she contracted pneumonia. After the war she did not return to feature film directing, but made documentaries and commercials for the new television industry. She also became a filmmaking teacher, first at the Pasadena Playhouse during the 1950s and 1960s and then at the University of California-Los Angeles campus during the 1960s and 1970s. At UCLA she taught directing and screenwriting, and one of her students was Francis Ford Coppola, the first film school grad to achieve major success as a director. She taught at UCLA until her death in 1979.
She was honored in her own lifetime, becoming a symbol and role model for women filmmakers who desired entry into mainstream cinema. The feminist movement in the 1960s championed her. In 1972 the First International Festival of Women's Films honored her by screening "The Wild Party", and her oeuvre was given a full retrospective at the Second Festival in 1976. In 1975 the DGA honored her with "A Tribute to Dorothy Arzner." During the tribute, a telegram from Katharine Hepburn was read: "Isn't it wonderful that you've had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?"