Dorothy Arzner claimed she didn't have to rely on directing to keep food on the table. She always insisted she could do what she wanted, how she wanted, and filmmaking was just one area in which she would have her way.... [more]
Dorothy Arzner claimed she didn't have to rely on directing to keep food on the table. She always insisted she could do what she wanted, how she wanted, and filmmaking was just one area in which she would have her way.
Arzner grew up in Los Angeles where her parents owned a restaurant frequented by "Hollywood types." Perhaps it was this early exposure to the scene that prompted her later film ambitions. But in fact, despite her later confidence, hers was not an instant success. Arzner got her start as a stenographer typing scripts, then graduated to cutting and editing film. With 52 edited films under her belt and nothing to lose, she negotiated a deal to direct a film called "Fashions for Women" (1927) for Paramount. From that point on, nothing could stop her; she directed more than 50 films between 1927 and 1943. And she was the only female director working in Hollywood during those years. Not just for Paramount, but in the entire industry.
Arzner's films have a knack for capturing and highlighting the ambiguities of life -- in particular, women's lives. She came to be known for directing "women's pictures" that challenged the social norms of the times. "Dance, Girl, Dance" (1940) indicts the world of burlesque dancing for the empty spectacle it makes of women: quite renegade for the time. "Christopher Strong" (1933) -- Arzner at her finest -- is a high-drama piece that features a woman who must negotiate between her man, her pregnancy, and her career. In a break from most "working girl" flicks at the time, it refuses to domesticate its wayward heroine: she commits suicide rather than conform to the demands of the man she loves.
Some critics have seen a hidden lesbian agenda working in Azner's films. Azner was in fact a lesbian, and the image of her dressed in men's clothing with pretty actresses on her arm is understandably compelling. But does "Christopher Strong" suggest that heterosexuality itself is the source of female trouble or simply more general gender inequality? It's hard to submit a concrete answer, since Azner vehemently refused to be categorized as anything but simply "director."
In 1943 Azner contracted pneumonia; after her recovery, she decided not to return to directing features, turning instead to documentaries, commercials, and teaching. She died in 1979, unknown outside the abstruse world of early film scholarship. In more recent years, though, film historians and feminists have rediscovered Arzner and the one-time prominence of female directors. [show less]