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Dorothy Emma Arzner (January 3, 1897 – October 1, 1979) was an American film director whose career in feature films spanned from the silent era of the late 1920s into the early 1940s. Arzner was the only female director working in the 1930s in the United States. She was one of the very few women who established a name for herself as a director in the American film industry during this time.
Born in San Francisco, California, to Louis and Jenetter (née Young) Arzner, Dorothy grew up in Los Angeles, where her father, Louis Arzner, owned a restaurant frequented by many Hollywood celebrities. After finishing high school, she enrolled at the University of Southern California with hopes of becoming a doctor. She even went as far as spending two years as a pre-med student at the University of Southern California. During World War I, she joined a local southern California ambulance unit with the hopes of going overseas, but never left the country. By the time the war ended, she decided against returning to her medical studies and, after a visit to a movie studio, decided to pursue a career as a film director. "I remember making the observation, 'if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do,'" she said, according to What Women Want: The Complex World of Dorothy Arzner and Her Cinematic Women.
Through connections with director William C. DeMille, Arzner got a job as a stenographer in 1919 at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which later became Paramount Pictures. She moved on to be a script writer, was promoted to film editor within six months and quickly mastered the job. Her first assignment as an editor was in 1922 for the renowned classic Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino. She was soon receiving accolades for the high quality of her work. Impressed by her technique, director James Cruze employed her as a writer and editor for several of his films, including Old Ironsides (1926).
Arzner achieved a great deal of clout through this, along with her work on over fifty other films at Paramount. She eventually threatened to move to rival Columbia Studios unless given a directorial position. Paramount conceded in 1927, putting her in charge of the film Fashions for Women, which became a financial success.
At Paramount, Arzner directed Clara Bow's first talkie, The Wild Party (1929). To allow Bow to move freely on the set, Arzner had technicians rig a microphone onto a fishing rod, essentially creating the first boom mike. She did not, however, take out a patent. One year later one was filed for a very similar sound-recording device by Edmund H Hansen, a sound engineer at the Fox Film Corporation. Although not the first to patent the boom microphone, Arzner is still credited with its invention.
The Wild Party was a success with critics and was the third top-grossing film of 1929. The film, set in a women's college, introduced some of the apparent lesbian undertones and themes often cited in Arzner's work. According to film scholar Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film "carefully articulates what happens when women stray from the confines of the safe all-girl environment" when they are "subject to the sexist advances of drunk, aggressive men." Her films of the following three years were strong examples of Hollywood before the Production Code. These films featured aggressive, free-spirited and independent women. She left Paramount in 1932 to begin work as an independent director for several of the studios. The films she directed during this period are her best known, including her 1940 film Dance, Girl, Dance. Judith Mayne has credited the film as helping to break down the conventions of the Hollywood narrative while also noting that it fit a standard mold of storytelling. Mayne goes on to note that the main character, Judy O'Brien (Maureen O’Hara), is an aspiring dancer stuck in a role as a stooge in a burlesque show. Night after night, the crowd (of mostly men) watches her dance and ridicules her pure, virtuous aesthetic. By the end of the film, Judy confronts the audience and tells them how she sees them, which Mayne opines calls out the crowd's patriarchal gaze and highlighting the objectification of women.
Arzner launched the careers of many actresses, including Katharine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), Rosalind Russell, Sylvia Sidney and Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance). In 1936, Arzner became the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America. She was also the first woman to direct a sound film.
Arzner had been linked romantically with a number of actresses, including Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke, but lived for the last 40 years of her life with her companion, choreographer Marion Morgan. Arzner died, aged 82, in La Quinta, California. Her ashes were scattered by the Chapel of the Desert over her home at 49-800 Avenida Obregon in La Quinta.