Why Was One of Hollywood’s First Female Film Directors, Dorothy Arzner, Forgotten?

Arzner directed 20 feature films

Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner (left) poses with Clara Bow in a publicity shot for The Wild Party. Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons

In the golden age of Hollywood, one woman emerged amid a sea of male directors, writes Ella Morton for Atlas Obscura.

Dorothy Arzner directed around 20 films over the course of her 24 years in show business. She taught Francis Ford Coppola, directed Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford and became the first female member of the Director’s Guide Association (DGA). But somehow, for all her pioneering work, Arzner has been largely forgotten. As Morton laments, “type the name "Dorothy Arzner" into Netflix's search bar and you'll get zero results.” 

Arzner got her start in the film business in 1919 typing scripts as a stenographer at the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which later became Paramount Pictures. Soon she made the jump to film editor. In 1927, Arzner helmed her first feature, a silent movie called Fashions For Women that followed the antics of a Parisian cigarette girl named Lulu.

At the time, the industry was in the midst of a transition from silent films to “talkies,” which Arzner seems to have navigated quite seamlessly. On the set of one of Paramount’s first talking films, The Wild Party, she tied a microphone to a fishing pole to put nervous silent film star Clara Bow at ease and get better audio — in effect inventing the first boom microphone, argues Morton.

Leaving Paramount to work as a freelancer after five films, Arzner went on to direct a slew of films that featured high profile stars, including Hepburn, Crawford, and Lucille Ball. Arzner, a shorthaired, boyish director, preferred to wear pants, which led some to speculate about her relationships with female stars.

Arzner never spoke about her sexual orientation, as Morton notes, but she lived openly with a female companion, choreographer Marion Morgan, for most of her life. “Arzner was often depicted in the popular press as a woman for whom her career came first,” writes Judith Mayne in her book Directed by Dorothy Arzner. As a woman in a male dominated industry, Arzner challenged conventions and still succeeded in Hollywood's studio system.

In 1943, an unspecified illness forced her to abandon her last work and leave Hollywood, explains Morton. Later on, Arzner directed a few short films and taught at UCLA, but today her notoriety is restricted to film nerds. Nevertheless, she remains among the most prolific American female film directors ever.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article suggested that Arzner was the very first female film director. While she was one of the first extremely successful female directors in Hollywood, and one of the few females to make the transition from silent films to talkies, Alice Guy BlachéLois Weber and others made movies before her. We regret the error. 

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