Interview with Dorothy Arzner

Interview by Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary
Copy Editing and Posting by Alexandra Hidalgo

Dorothy Arzner directs Merle Oberon in First Comes Courage (1943). (Courtesy Dorothy Arzner)

It was a revelation when, in the feminist early 1970s, we discovered two Dorothy Arzner films, Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), in the RKO Collection at the State Historical Society on the University of Wisconsin campus. Articles on both films followed, in Cinema (LA) and The Velvet Light Trap. We were thrilled: an amazing woman director worked in Hollywood at a time when women directors were not allowed, making personal films featuring complicated female protagonists.

One day, we picked up the telephone and, nervously, called her up. Arzner answered, wary and suspicious at first. Then she was very friendly, taken, we think, by our enthusiasm for her movies. There was a time, after, when she actually called us! And trusting us, she agreed to speak on the record about her life and career.

The following interview was conducted over several months in 1974 by mail between Madison, Wisconsin and La Quinta, California. Questions were posed, answers supplied; then more questions surfaced from the previous answers. Dorothy Arzner personally read over the final print and made corrections and additional comments; so, in the best sense of the term, this can be considered an “authorized interview.” Because Ms. Arzner was busily at work writing an ambitious historical novel based on the early settling of Los Angeles, she found it impossible to detail her complete film career (the book was sadly never completed). Though an enormously private person, she allowed a personal visit to her California desert home for additional information. The addendum to the interview is based upon conversations during that meeting (with thanks to critic Joseph McBride for his questions on that occasion).

This interview, originally published in Cinema (U.S.) in 1974, was reprinted in the 1975 British Film Institute pamphlet, Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema, and in the co-authors’ 1977 book, Woman and Cinema: a Critical Anthology (Dutton). It remains by far the most comprehensive interview with Ms. Arzner, who died in 1979.

 

How did you decide on a film career?
I had been around the theatre and actors all my life. My father, Louis Arzner, owned a famous Hollywood restaurant next to a theatre. I saw most of the fine plays that came there—with Maude Adams, Sarah Bernhardt, David Warfield, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett, and all of the early movie and stage actors came to my dad’s restaurant for dinner. I had no personal interest in actors because they were too familiar to me.

I went to the University of Southern California and focused on the idea of becoming a doctor. But with a few summer months in the office of a fine surgeon and meeting with the sick, I decided that was not what I wanted. I wanted to be like Jesus––”Heal the sick and raise the dead,” instantly, without surgery, pills, et cetera. All thoughts of university and degrees in medicine were abandoned. Even though I was an A student and had a fairly extensive education—I had taken courses in history of art and architecture—I became a so-called dropout. Since I was not continuing in my chosen career, I only thought of work to do and independence from taking money from my dad.

This was after World War I and everything was starting to bounce––even the infant picture studios. An appointment was made for me to meet William DeMille. He was told I was an intelligent girl. There had been a serious flu epidemic, so workers were needed. It was possible for even inexperienced people to have an opportunity if they showed signs of ability or knowledge.

Could you describe this meeting?
There I was standing before William DeMille, saying: “I think I’d like a job in the movies.” William DeMille: “Where do you think you’d like to start?” Answer: “I might be able to dress sets.” Question: “What is the period of this furniture?”—meaning his office furniture. I did not know the answer, but I’ll never forget it—”Francescan.” He continued: “Maybe you’d better look around for a week and talk to my secretary. She’ll show you around the different departments.”

That sounded interesting enough to me. I watched the four companies that were working, particularly that of Cecil DeMille. And I remember making the observation, “If one was going to be in this movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do. In fact, he was the ‘whole works.’ ”

However, after I finished a week of observation, William DeMille’s secretary told me that typing scripts would enlighten me to what the film to be was all about. It was the blueprint for the picture. All the departments, including the director’s, were grounded in the script. So I turned up at the end of the week in William DeMille’s office. He asked, “Now where do you think you’d like to start?” I answered, “At the bottom.” He looked penetratingly serious as a schoolteacher might, and then barked, “Where do you think the bottom is?” I meekly answered, “Typing scripts.” “For that, I’ll give you a job.”

I was introduced to the head of the typing department. I was told I’d be given the first opening, but I had my doubts. Weeks went by. I took a job in a wholesale coffeehouse, filling orders and working the switchboard. It was through that switchboard that the call came from Ruby Miller, the typing department head. I was making $12.00 a week. I said, “What’s the salary?” “Fifteen dollars a week for three months, then $16.50.” So for $3.00 dollars more a week I accepted the movie job. And that is how I started at Paramount, then called the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation.

How did you become a cutter and editor?
At the end of six months I went from holding script to cutter, and a good cutter is also an editor, working in conjunction with the director and producer, noting the audience reaction when preview time comes. I was assigned to Realart Studio, a subsidiary of Paramount. I cut and edited fifty-two pictures while chief editor there. I also supervised and trained negative cutters and splicers.

Did Realart have its own stages and crews independent of Paramount? What kinds of films were made there?
Realart Studio was equipped fully—cameramen, set designers, writers, and I was the only editor. It was a small studio with four companies and four stars: Bebe Daniels, Marguerite Clark, Wanda Hamely, and Mary Miles Minter. One picture a week was started there and finished in four weeks. It would be eight reels when finished, and called a “program picture.” In those days pictures played for a week in theatres, and the cost of the ticket was thirty to fifty cents. At the end of the week there was another picture.

So much for Realart Studio. I was recalled to the parent company, Paramount, to cut and edit Blood and Sand (1922) with Valentino as star, with Lila Lee and Nita Naldi.  Fred Niblo was the director, June Mathis was the writer, having gained much fame and authority from guiding and writing The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) to enormous success. It was a Big Picture—hundreds of thousands of feet of film, twenty-three reels in the first tight cut, finally brought down to twelve.

What were the physical circumstances editing at this time?
There were no Moviolas or machinery. Everything was done by hand. The film was read and cut over an eight-inch by ten-inch box set in the table, covered with frosted glass and a light bulb underneath. The film pieces were placed over a small sprocketed plate, overlapped, and scraped about one-sixteenth of an inch, snipped with glue, and pressed by hand.

Were scenes shot simultaneously from several angles to help your editing?
No, films were shot normally with one camera, except for large spectacular scenes.

Do you feel that editors were paid decent wages before unionization?
For the time, I was paid very well. I never had any complaints. If you were a good editor, you asked a reasonable rate.

Had you done any shooting on Blood and Sand?
Yes, I filmed some shots for the bullfights.

Were there special instructions in editing Valentino’s scenes so as to preserve the glamour?
There were no special instructions. The glamour was all on the film, put there by the writer and director, both of superior experience.

What other movies were made with James Cruze?
Then came The Covered Wagon (1923), another “supercolossal” picture made eighty-five miles from a railroad in the “wilds of Utah.” We used five tribes of Indians, and oxen were broken to the yoke. I stayed with Cruze through several pictures—Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), with Eddy Horton, Merton of the Movies (1924), and a number of others—until I left to write scripts for independent companies like Harry Cohn’s Columbia. Then Cruze asked me to work on Old Ironsides (1926), another “Big Picture.” He wanted me to write the shooting script, stay on the deck of the ship with him, keep the script, cut, and edit—all of which I did for more salary.

Could you talk a little about Cruze, a director known today almost only by name?
It would take too long to tell you about James Cruze. He was one of the “Big Directors,” but he didn’t exploit himself. He saved Paramount from bankruptcy, and he was one of the finest, most generous men I knew in the motion-picture business. He had no prejudices. He valued my ability and told people I was his right arm.

Were you about to walk out on Paramount to direct pictures at a minor studio when given your directorial chance in 1927?
Yes. I was going to leave Paramount after Ironsides. I had been writing scripts for Columbia, then considered a “poverty row” company. Harry Cohn made pictures for $8,000 to $10,000 and I was writing scripts for $500 a piece. But I had told Jack Bachman, Cohn’s production man, that the next script I wanted to direct or “no deal.” When I finished Ironsides, I had an offer to write and direct a film for Columbia. It was then I closed out my salary at Paramount and was about to leave for Columbia. It was late in the afternoon. I decided I should say “good-bye” to someone after seven years and much work: B. P. Schulberg. (I had previously written a shooting script for Ben Schulberg when he had a small independent company. He had been short of cash and couldn’t pay, so I told him to take it and pay me when he could, which he did later. It was “bread on the waters” because soon after he was made Production Head of Paramount when we were about to start Ironsides.)

But Mr. Schulberg’s secretary told me he was in conference. So I went out to my car in the parking lot, had my hand on the door latch, when I decided after so many years I was going to say “good-bye” to someone important and not just leave unnoticed and forgotten. The ego took over. I had a feeling of high good humor. So I returned and asked the secretary if she minded if I waited for the conference to be over. She did mind. Mr. Schulberg would not see anyone. It was late then, and he had told her not to make any more appointments. Just about then Walter Wanger passed in the hall. He was head of Paramount’s New York studio on Long Island. And, as he passed, I called out, “Oh, you’ll do!” He responded, “What’s that?” And I told him, I was leaving Paramount after seven years, and I wanted to say good-bye to someone important. “Come into my office, Dorothy.” I followed him, and when he sat down behind his desk, I put out my hand and said, “Really, I didn’t want a thing, just wanted to say good-bye to someone important. I’m leaving to direct.” He turned and picked up the intercom and said, “Ben—Dorothy’s in my office and says she’s leaving.” I heard Ben Schulberg say, “Tell her I’ll be right in.” Which he was—in about three minutes.

“What do you mean you’re leaving?” “I’ve finished Ironsides. I’ve closed out my salary, and I’m leaving.” “We don’t want you to leave. There’s always a place in the scenario department for you.” “I don’t want to go into the scenario department. I’m going to direct for a small company.” “What company?” he asked. “I won’t tell you because you’d probably spoil it for me.” “Now Dorothy, you go into our scenario department and later we’ll think about directing.” “No, I know I’d never get out of there.” “What would you say if I told you that you could direct here?” “Please don’t fool me, just let me go. I’m going to direct at Columbia.” “You’re going to direct here at Paramount.” “Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an A picture. I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B picture for Paramount.”

With that he left, saying, “Wait here.” He was back in a few minutes with a play in his hand. “Here. It’s a French farce called The Best Dressed Woman in Paris. Start writing the script and get yourself on the set in two weeks. New York is sending Esther Ralston out to be starred. She has made such a hit in Peter Pan (1924), and it will be up to you.”

So, there I was a writer-director. It was announced in the papers the following day or so: “Lasky Names Woman Director.”

What was your directing training prior to Fashions for Women (1927)?
I had not directed anything before. In fact I hadn’t told anyone to do anything before. I had observed several directors on the set in the three years that I held script and edited: Donald Crisp, Jim Cruze, Cecil DeMille, Fred Niblo, Herbert Blaché, and Nazimova. I kept script on one Nazimova picture, The Secret Doctor of Gaya1, directed by the husband of the “directress” Madame Blaché. But I don’t recall meeting her.

Who championed your cause at Paramount? Adolph Zukor? Were you given trouble because you were a woman?
Ben Schulberg, Jim Cruze, Walter Wanger. Adolph Zukor was in New York where the pictures were distributed and had little to do with the making of movies. No one gave me trouble because I was a woman. Men were more helpful than women.

Could you talk about Esther Ralston, star of Fashions for Women, but a forgotten star today? Was she the same type as Clara Bow, another of your leads?
Esther Ralston was not the same type as Clara Bow—just the opposite. She was blonde, tall, and more of a showgirl type—very beautiful. Clara was a redheaded gamine, full of life and vitality, with the heart of a child.

The aggressive character that Ralston played in Fashions for Women, Lola, seems like the kind of character of many of your women. Do you agree?
No, I do not think Esther as Lola was like other women in my pictures. You would have to see Nancy Carroll, Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Chatterton, Anna Sten in Nana (1934), Merle Oberon in First Comes Courage (1943).

You made the first movies with Ruth Chatterton. Wasn’t she an unlikely movie star––a bit older and more mature than most leading ladies?
Ruth Chatterton was a star in the theatre. When talkies came to Paramount, they signed the stage actresses as many of the silent stars fell by the wayside. She was a good actress.

Did you affect her career?
Yes, I certainly affected it. When I made Ruth Chatterton’s first motion picture at Paramount, Sarah and Son (1930), it broke all box-office records at the Paramount Theatre in New York. Chatterton became known to the press as “The First Lady of the Screen.”

Why did Ruth Chatterton move over to Warner Brothers?
Warners offered her everything an actress could desire––choice of story, director, cameraman, et cetera, including a salary greater than Paramount.

You made a series of Paramount pictures with Fredric March. Was this coincidence or did you ask to work together again and again?
I took Fredric March from the stage in The Royal Family (1927) and cast him in The Wild Party (1929), I guess my pictures gave him a good start, and I liked his work, so I cast him as the lead in Sarah and Son, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), and Honor Among Lovers (1931).

In 1930 you began making movies with Robert Milton. Could you explain the nature of your collaboration?
Robert Milton was a fine stage director, but he didn’t know the camera’s limitations or its expansions. Because I did know the technique so well, I was asked to help him. I co-directed Behind the Makeup (1930) and I was called in to complete The Constant Wife [Charming Sinners, 1929—Eds.], which he had started with Ruth Chatterton. I don’t believe I took screen credit on it; I merely helped with technical work. He directed the performances. I blocked the scenes for camera and editing.

Didn’t you direct one part of Paramount on Parade (1930)? What was the idea behind this extravaganza?
“The Vagabond King” [“The Gallows Song”––Eds.] was the part I directed. Paramount on Parade was an innovative type picture, made mainly to exploit Paramount and its directors and stars and to show off the studio. Paramount was the greatest studio, with more theatres and more big pictures than any others until the Depression. Its Hollywood plant was one block square, on Sunset Boulevard and Vine.

Were you given a choice of technical crew when directing at Paramount?
Yes, I had the cameramen, assistants, costume and set designers I liked best. A director had his, or her, crew that stayed from one picture to another. I made my assistant cameraman, Charles Lang, my first cameraman. Adrian and Howard Greer did clothes for me.

Honor Among Lovers was one of the first Ginger Rogers films. Did you discover her? Was her famous “stage mother” found on the set during shooting?
Ginger Rogers was a star in Girl Crazy in the theatre. I saw her and liked her and requested her for a small part in Honor Among Lovers. Paramount gave me about everything I wanted after Sarah and Son and Anybody’s Woman (1930), so I imagine they offered her much money. She could also continue playing in Girl Crazy at the same time. I never saw her mother.

Honor Among Lovers ends with Julia, the married woman, going on an ocean voyage with a man not her husband. Was this unorthodox ending your choice? Was there pressure to have Julia finish the movie in the arms of her husband?
I collaborated in the writing of Honor Among Lovers, which I made for Paramount in New York. As audiences were ready for more sophistication, it was considered the smartest high comedy at the time. No, there was no pressure regarding the script, I had very little interference with my pictures. Sometimes there were differences in casting, sets, or costumes, but usually I had my way. You see I was not dependent on the movies for my living, so I was always ready to give the picture over to some other director if I couldn’t make it the way I saw it. Right or wrong, I believe this was why I sustained so long––twenty years.

Why the title Merrily We Go to Hell?
The movie was made during the overboard-drinking era during Prohibition. Freddy March played a drunken reporter with whom a socialite, Sylvia Sidney, fell in love. He made Sylvia laugh when she was bored with the social life of her class. You would have to know the times to judge, “Why the title?”

You were at Paramount at the same time as Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. Did you ever wish to make a movie with either of them?
Yes, I always wanted to make a picture with Marlene. There was a wonderful script called Stepdaughters of War. I’d worked on it for months for Chatterton, but when she signed with Warners it had to be called off. Much later, we were planning it again with Dietrich. It was to be a big antiwar picture showing the tragedies of war and how war makes women hard and masculine. When World War II broke out with Nazi Germany, it was called off again.

Could you describe your contract at Paramount? Did you have special clauses giving you control over certain phases of production?
I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time, paid by the week. I ended with a two-year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.

Why then did you leave Paramount?
Paramount changed by 1932. When I left, there was a complete change of executives. In fact, they were so fearful of the success of Merrily We Go to Hell that they spoke of shelving it. I begged them to release it. I was so sure of its success. A year later they were asking me, “Make another Merrily We Go to Hell,” but by that time I wanted to free-lance.

You were working already on Christopher Strong [1933]?
Yes, David Selznick asked me to do a film at RKO, which he headed at the time. It was to be an Ann Harding picture, but she was taken out due to contractual difficulties. So I chose to have Katharine Hepburn from seeing her about the studio. She had given a good performance in Bill of Divorcement (1932), but now she was about to be relegated to a Tarzan-type picture. I walked over to the set. She was up a tree with a leopard skin on! She had a marvelous figure; and talking to her, I felt she was the very modern type I wanted for Christopher Strong.

Did you pay special attention to directing Billie Burke in this movie? It seems the best acting performance of her career. In fact you seem more interested in all the women characters than in Christopher Strong. Is this true?
Yes, I did pay special attention to getting a performance from Billie Burke. But I was more interested in Christopher Strong, played by Colin Clive, than in any of the women characters. He was a man “on the cross.” He loved his wife, and he fell in love with the aviatrix. He was on a rack, I was really more sympathetic with him, but no one seemed to pick that up. Of course, not too many women are sympathetic about the torture the situation might give to a man of upright character.

What was your relationship with Christopher Strong‘s scriptwriter, Zoe Akins, who had also written Sarah and Son, Anybody’s Woman, and Working Girls for you at Paramount in 1931? What did Slavko Vorkapich contribute to the movie?
My collaboration with Zoe Akins was very close. I thought her a fine writer. [Slavko] Vorkapich did the montage of the around-the-world fight, when Cynthia (Katharine Hepburn) was met by Chris in San Francisco and their affair was consummated. Incidentally, Christopher Strong‘s story was not based on Amelia Earhart. It came from an English novel based upon the life of Amy Lowell, who made the around-the-world flight and also broke the altitude record in her time.

Why do you think Cynthia killed herself? Did you consider other endings?
No, there was no other ending. Cynthia killed herself because she was about to have an illegitimate child. The picture was set in England. We had not accepted so easily the idea of an illegitimate child. In the boat scene, she asked, “Do you love me, Chris?” His answer: “Call it love, if you like.” This was from a tortured man who deeply loved his wife and child, but fell in love with the vital, young, and daring aviatrix.

Wasn’t there a moment when Cynthia tried to save her own life by putting the oxygen mask back on her face after she had ripped it off?
No, Cynthia did not try to save her life. If you remember, she looked back over the whole affair seen through superimpositions as she flew to break the altitude record. Suicide was a definite decision.

How would you evaluate this movie?
Christopher Strong was one of the favorites of my pictures at the time, although I was always so critical of my own works that I could hardly consider any one a favorite. I always saw too many flaws. I was grateful, however, when they were considered so successful.

Some sources have credited you with making an RKO film, The Lost Squadron (1932), usually listed as directed by George Archainbaud. Did you work on this film?
No, I had nothing to do with George Archainbaud or The Lost Squadron.

All articles about your career say that you were the only woman director in Hollywood at this time. But another woman, Wanda Tuchock, co-directed a movie called Finishing School, at RKO in 1933. Were you aware of this? Did you know her?
I vaguely remember Wanda Tuchock was publicized as a woman director, but I paid so little attention to what anyone else was doing. I never was interested in anyone else’s personal life. I was focused on my own work, and my own life.

How did you become involved with Nana at the Goldwyn Studio? How was Anna Sten picked to play the lead? Were you satisfied with the completed film?
Goldwyn chose me to do Nana because when he returned from a trip to Europe he saw Christopher Strong and thought it the best picture of the year. He picked Anna Sten, wanting a star to vie with Dietrich and Garbo. It wasn’t that I would like to have shot Nana differently; I wanted a more important script. But Goldwyn wouldn’t accept any script at all until he finally handed me about the fiftieth attempt.

Why did you choose Rosalind Russell for the lead in Craig’s Wife (1936)?
I did not want an actress the audience loved. They would hate me for making her Mrs. Craig. Rosalind Russell was a bit player at M-G-M, brilliant, clipped, and unknown to movie audiences. She was what I wanted.

Was Craig’s Wife an expensive picture to produce? Was it profitable for Columbia?
No, Craig’s Wife was not a high-budget picture to make. I told Harry Cohn I would give him an A picture for B picture money. He fell for that. It was not one of the biggest successes when it was released. But it got such fine press that, over the long run, it was released several times and stood high on Columbia’s box-office list.

Were you also producer of Craig’s Wife?
I was not the producer, although the whole production was designed by me. Outside of the development of the script, enormously protected from Harry Cohn’s interference, Eddie Chodorov was the supervising producer.

Did the playwright, George Kelly, involve himself in the production? Didn’t you differ with him on interpretation?
George Kelly had nothing to do with making the picture. I did try to be as faithful to his play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees because Mrs. Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, “That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB.” He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.

Dorothy Arzner on the set of M-G-M’s The Bride Wore Red (1937) with star Joan Crawford. (Courtesy Dorothy Arzner)

Dorothy Arzner2 journeyed to M-G-M after Craig’s Wife, excited about making a film from an unpublished Ferenc Molnar play called The Girl from Trieste. It was about a former prostitute—a victim of “economic exploitation,” to quote Arzner—trying to go straight. The movie was to star Luise Rainer. M-G-M, however, replaced Rainer with Joan Crawford, and The Girl from Trieste was rewritten as the lighter, frothier The Bride Wore Red (1937). (It seems that Crawford had requested M-G-M to put her into the Arzner picture at this time. She admired Craig’s Wife enormously, so much so that she starred in Harriet Craig, another remake of the project, at Columbia in 1950.) Despite making a lifetime friend of Joan Crawford, Arzner was disappointed by the rewrite and uncomfortable working in the M-G-M factory. Mammoth sets were constructed for The Bride Wore Red, which Arzner was ordered to use. She remembers Joan Crawford decked out in a lavish red gown, even though the picture was shot in black and white. Altogether, Arzner considers The Bride Wore Red rather synthetic, not a favorite of her movies.

Arzner was nowhere in sight when Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) was begun by another RKO director. This was a personal project of Erich Pommer, the former head of Germany’s famed UFA Studio, then in exile in Hollywood. As producer, Pommer had conceived, cast, and started shooting of Dance, Girl, Dance, but everyone involved was unhappy and confused. After a week Pommer removed the original director and brought in Dorothy Arzner to take charge. She reworked the script and sharply defined the central conflict as a clash between the artistic, spiritual aspirations of Maureen O’Hara and the commercial, huckster, gold-digging of Lucille Ball. She decided to base Ball’s character of Bubbles on the real-life “Texas” Guinan, whom Arzner had spotted waving out of her taxi window to everyone New York, “Hi, I’m ‘Texas’ Guinan!”

Arzner’s contributions to the war effort were a series of short films for the WAC‘s, and also the training of four women to cut and edit these movies. Arzner had great fun making these shorts, for her actors were the Samuel Goldwyn stock company, including some of her old Nana cast. These documentaries were never shown in theatres or in general release, but were restricted to WAC training situations—How to Groom Oneself, etc. Apparently they were successful, for the government offered Dorothy Arzner an appointment as a major. She turned it down, because, as she says, “I never wanted to be in the Army.”

She returned to Columbia after seven years’ absence for First Comes Courage, the story of anti-Nazi resistance and the Norwegian underground. The screenplay was based on The Commandos by Elliott Arnold, and, unlike many directors, Arzner read the novel before beginning the movie. She employed a favorite editor on the project, Viola Lawrence, who was also responsible for Craig’s Wife, and she cast several German expatriates in the major roles. Reinhold Schunzel was reunited with Carl Esmond nine years after they had made a movie together in prewar Germany, English Wedding, with Esmond as star and Schunzel as director. There was no second unit work on First Comes Courage, or on any movie that Arzner can remember except in a bit of Sarah and Son. Arzner herself directed all the location photography, the army maneuvers, the scene inside a submarine, the frightening fistfight in which the battling actors fall between a terrified horse and a potentially lethal pitchfork. (She still shudders to remember the danger in shooting this last sequence.) The final scenes of the movie were filmed by another director when Arzner contracted pneumonia with a week to go, and remained terribly sick for almost a year. Upon recovery, Arzner made a brave decision; one that she has stuck out for thirty years. She told herself that she had had it directing movies, and she left Hollywood forever in 1943.

Occasionally, in the ensuing years, Arzner has become involved in some kind of project. She began the first filmmaking course at the Pasadena Playhouse on a nonexistent budget, instructing her students with a single camera and tape recorder. She made over fifty Pepsi-Cola commercials for her old friend Joan Crawford; and she taught filmmaking at UCLA for four years in the 1960s.

The few movies that Dorothy Arzner sees today are old pictures on television or at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, near her home. Her ties with the industry are absolutely cut. When she shows old photographs of her swank Hollywood estate, sold long ago, she laughs to herself about her youthful affectations. “I was a famous Hollywood director then.” There is no doubt that she is totally content with her desert anonymity, the fresh air, and her fifty beautiful rosebushes, in place of the subterranean growth of Los Angeles living.

Endnotes

  1. Arzner’s title is not listed in any of the standard texts. Herbert Blaché directed two films starring Alla Nazimova, The Brat (1919) and Stronger than Death (1920). Perhaps Arzner means one of these––Eds. return
  2. This final portion of the interview comes from our unrecorded conversations with Arzner and our own research. return

Click here to visit Karyn’s profile and here to visit Gerald’s profile.