Dorothy Arzner was one of the very few women who established a name for herself as a director in the film industry of the 1920s and ’30s, what remains to this day the largest body of work by a woman director within the studio system, for years she was the sole female member of the Directors Guild. Nonetheless, she has been virtually ignored in most film histories. It was only with the emergence of ’70s feminism that scholars began to reclaim women such as Arzner from relative obscurity. She was central to the development of the studio system, the genre film, the development of sound technology (inventor of the fishpole microphone), the star system, and the representation of women in the Hollywood mainstream.
However brief her film career, she stands as an early example of a woman who insisted upon creative autonomy and control in her work. Another reason for retiring from Hollywood was that she felt that the kind of pictures she was interested in making were no longer encouraged or supported in Hollywood.
Arzner’s directorial style was consistently revealed by an emphasis on costume and that changes in a woman’s life and relationships to each other were emphasised through costume and dress. As the title of a Jane Gaines essay put it “dress tells the woman’s story’ Her main themes focused on female friendship and communities, the uneasy navigation of the relationships between men and women, class differences and always with an emphasis on performance and costume. For much of Arzner’s work, sexuality stands as a threat to women’s community. Women, in the heterosexual contract, must play their part, as opposed to the more “honest’ form of love between women.
A quote from director Francine Parker in an essay about Dorothy sums up her idea of the director’s role involving both authority and collaboration:
“…a woman has a different point of view on life. And the world does take on a rather startling and surprising look when observed through the eyes of a skilled, talented, hard-working, learned and thoroughly unintimidated female”.
Casella, D. (2009) ‘What women want: the complex world of Dorothy Arzner and her cinematic women
The Journal of Cinema & Media Vol. 50 Issue 1/2, pp. 235-270.
Christopher Strong (1933) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [DVD] RKO.
Craig’s Wife (1936) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [Internet Archive] Columbia.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [DVD] RKO.
First Comes Courage (1943) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [Internet Archive] Columbia.
Honor Among Lovers (1931) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [YouTube] Paramount.
Mayne, J. (1994) Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP.
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [DVD] Paramount.
The Bride Wore Red (1937) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [DVD] MGM.
The Wild Party (1929) Dir. Dorothy Arzner [Internet Archive] Paramount.