Introducing Dorothy Arzner and the Wild Party

Dorothy Emma Arzner [1] (January 3, 1897 – October 1, 1979) was an American film director whose career in Hollywood spanned from the silent era of the 1920s into the early 1940s. From 1927 until her retirement from feature directing in 1943, Arzner was the only female director working in Hollywood. Here is a good biography to learn more.  

What brought me to her story was how she curtailed Hollywood’s attitudes about women. She did this by being exceptional in her work of writing scripts. But she worked herself up from the bottom at a time when anything was possible with a keen eye and hard work.

With a film career spanning from 1919 to 1943, fifteen years of which were spent as a director, Dorothy Arzner remains the most prolific woman studio director in the history of American cinema. She has received significant scholarly attention from feminist film critics and queer theorists who have been interested in this pioneer filmmaker both for her body of work and for the critical possibilities suggested by feminist approaches to reading that work as a whole.

What brought her credit was after four successful silent feature films for Paramount and the rewrite of the Valentino vehicle “Blood and Sand,” her first major film in 1922.  Then —Fashions for Women (1927); Ten Modern Commandments (1927); Get Your Man (1927); and Manhattan Cocktail (1928)—Arzner was entrusted with the studio’s first sound film starring Clara Bow, The Wild Party (1929), the silent version of which she had edited earlier.

The Wild Party was a new “talkie” and the star Clara Bow was a “silent film star” who acted with much animation. This created problems with hiding microphones. Clara couldn’t get recorded with her flitting all over the set. So, what to do? This is where Dorothy’s legacy really came full circle.

To try to fix the sound problem, Dorothy assembled a type of “boom” from a fishing rod for the sound guy to steady above the heads of actors. After a few tries and adjustments, it worked and only got better from there.

To best see the influence of Arzner’s works, watch the film Dance, Girl, Dance, one of Arzner’s most celebrated films. Described by Variety as “an unlikely-female-buddy burlesque movie that conceals a withering attack on the male gaze under its showgirl wardrobe of sequins and feathers,” the film starred Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara as the pair of showgirl best friends. Dance, Girl, Dance is yet another example of the ways in which Arzner subverted and complicated traditional depictions of women and female relationships. The film is Arzner’s best-known and most-studied work and thematizes the issues of female performance, female relationships, and social mobility. 

Most notable though, is the film’s interrogation of the male gaze. Dance, Girl, Dance “foregrounds dance as women’s avenue to self-expression and economic independence.” In a scene towards the latter half of the film, O’Hara’s character Judy stops her stage performance to directly address the diegetic male audience. Judy confronts the men with a stirring admonishment of their objectification of women. In feminist film studies, this scene has been read as a “returning” of the male gaze and a larger address to the real life, not just diegetic, audience.

Dorothy left Hollywood in 1943, maybe because of the “Hay’s Code” which  gave films directives of how to depict certain scenes; the increasing of systemic sexism and homophobia after the implementation of the Hays Code. Despite leaving Hollywood, Arzner continued to work in the field of film. She made Women’s Army Corps training films during World War II.

In 1950 Arzner became associated with the Pasadena Playhouse, a well-known theatre company in southern California, where she founded filmmaking classes. She produced some theatre plays and starred in a radio program called You Wanna Be a Star. In 1952 she joined the staff of the College of the Arts of the Playhouse as the head of the Cinema and Television Department. She taught the first year of cinema in the university. In the late fifties, she became the entertainment and publicity consultant at the Pepsi company, with the influence of the boss’s wife, Joan Crawford, with whom Arzner had a close relationship. Arzner made a series of successful commercials for Pepsi, most of them with Crawford.

In 1961 Arzner joined the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, in the Motion Picture division as a staff member, where she spent four years supervising advanced cinema classes before retiring in June 1965. There she taught Francis Ford Coppola. and became an evident reference for him in the future. Arzner’s documents, files and films are preserved in Cinema and Television File in UCLA, thanks to Jodie Foster, who raised sufficient funds for their maintenance.

She was rumored to have had many affairs with women, but she was in a long relationship with Marion Morgan, a dancer. Otherwise, she was her own woman doing her own thing in a “man’s world.”

Introducing Esther Eng

With the rise of racism this last year, I want to honor another woman director of the era who has been “rediscovered,” Esther Eng. On April 1, 2013 a documentary about the life and career of Esther Eng titled Golden Gate Silver Light premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The film was directed by Louisa Wei and was inspired by the 2006 discovery of Eng’s photo albums dated between the years 1928 and 1948. During the production of the film, Wei found more albums but no audio or film records of Eng.

Louisa Wei’s 2014 feature documentary, Golden Gate Girls, compares the media representation of Eng with that of Dorothy Arzner. Judith Mayne, the author of Directed by Dorothy Arzner, is interviewed in the documentary, saying, “I love the fact that history of woman filmmakers now would include Dorothy Arzner and Esther Eng as the two of the real exceptions, who proved it was entirely possible to build a successful film career without necessarily being a part of mainstream identity.”

Once again, it shows where there is a will there is a way! Whatever yours is, keep at it. We can accomplish much more than we believe we can. Find your inspiration, expand your passions. Just keep at it, and remember to be inclusive….everyone deserves to follow their dreams.

Dorothy Arzner and the Wild Party
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