Dorothy Arzner returns to Paris at Créteil Films de Femmes

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Dorothy Arzner – Archives AFIFF DR

Dorothy Arzner’s films were marginalized by male film historians until the advent of women’s film festivals in the mid 1970s. The first major and largely anecdotal accounts of American cinema by male film historians omitted or glossed over her career. In Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (1968), Arzner was completely omitted. In Kevin Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By (1968), and Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film (1939, reprinted 1967) the focus was on her work as an editor instead of director. Since the 1970s, however, her films have been the subject of scholarship and film retrospectives, richly documented in essays and books by feminist film theorists and historians.

Arzner’s work was re-introduced at women’s film festivals in the 1970s. British feminist film theorists and practitioners Claire Johnston and Pam Cook wrote about her and presented their work at one of the first women’s film festivals in Copenhagen in 1976: International Kvindefilm Festival – International Women’s Film Festival. They were part of the London Women’s Film Co-op with Laura Mulvey, who wrote the famous Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1973) about the male gaze in cinema. Arzner’s place in history was motivated by feminist film criticism, which examined her 16 films made in the Hollywood studio system between 1929 and 1943. Johnston and Cook wrote about how her characters challenged the fixed gender roles of women in Hollywood film and opened these films up to contradictions. Her female characters often transgressed their roles and sought fulfillment.

Dorothy Arzner is relatively unknown in France, especially at the university level, where feminist film theory and women’s studies are not studied . So it is with some alarm that feminists in France witnessed how poorly she was recently introduced in the program notes written for the Cinématèque Française Arzner retrospective, running from March 22 to April 9. The writeup by French journalist Philippe Garnier (Libération) was astonishingly inaccurate. When he reviewed six of Arzner’s films for Libération in 2003, during a retrospective in Los Angeles, he questioned why her films were being digitally restored at all, since they were “not particularly noteworthy.” The restoration of two of Arzner’s films, Working Girls (1931) and Sarah and Son (1930), was sponsored by Jodie Foster. The restorations were done by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as Foster, in cooperation with Universal Studios.

The Arzner retrospective was done in partnership with Créteil Films de Femmes (March 10-19), who asked that the Cinématèque Française not publish the notes. The institution refused and this is not surprising. Since 2005 the Cinématèque has dedicated only six retrospectives to women out of around 300.The Créteil festival organized a roundtable with myself representing the Cinema and Women’s Studies Department at City College of San Francisco and Cahiers du Cinema film critic Ariel Schweitzer, who has previously written about Arzner. The purpose was to critically discuss Arzner’s work, her historical importance, and provide information before the Cinématèque Française’s retrospective. Créteil has previously showcased Arzner’s work on two occasions since the inaugural festival of 1979 in Sceaux that later moved to Créteil.

Garnier’s program notes for the Arzner retrospective are superficial character analyses from her films that fragment her work, such as erotic pre-code scenes with Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton) in Anybody’s Woman (1930), in which she straddles a ukulele in a seductive pose (1930), and a hula dance with Bubbles (Lucille Ball) and Judy (Maureen O’Hara) who perform for a lecherous nightclub owner in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). There are problematic comments about Arzner’s appeal to “militant lesbians,” and Arzner and Zoë Akins (who wrote scripts for Arzner) for their “closeted” careers in the male dominated Hollywood studio system of the 1920s and 1930s. Points made about (lesbian) feminists that emulate Arzner or “recent attempts to make her a secret heroine of the feminist struggle” are also problematic. Garnier characterizes Arzner as a “butch” director who spent her time advancing the careers of actresses, while her male characters were either “pathetic or alcoholic.”

Dance, Girl, Dance, 1940

Why elevate a historical figure while vulgarizing the work? Why commodify a retrospective with revisionist history? These are real questions for the Cinématèque Française. Phillipe Garnier claims that Arzner was successful because she had “fuck you money” to play with, i.e., she was so wealthy she really didn’t need to work, and that Zoë Akins was successful for the same reason. Secondly, he claims that she became a director as a result of a network of women artisans in the 1920s film industry. However, it was Arzner’s competent efforts and the contacts she made at Paramount that made her a director. That Arzner directed in the emerging Hollywood studio system from the silent film era is remarkable.

Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco in 1897 and died in La Quinta California 1979. Her father, Louis Arzner, owned the Hoffman Café in Hollywood, next to a theater frequented by early movie and stage actors. His daughter worked there as a waitress and grew up comfortable in the company of Sarah Bernhardt, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mack Sennett. She saw many of the plays at the nearby theater. After studying to be a doctor at the University of Southern California, she dropped out due to lack of interest, although she noted she did well in the “History of Art and Architecture,” which lent itself to her future work in cinema.

In the burgeoning “picture studios” an appointment was made for Arzner with William C. deMille, where she was hired during a flu epidemic. deMille had his secretary show her around the different departments. Arzner wanted to be a director, but she agreed to start at the bottom typing scripts. After six months she became a cutter, then an editor and supervisor at Realart, a Paramount subsidiary. Recalled to Paramount, she cut and edited Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino and filmed some of the bullfights. Arzner credited Paramount director James Cruze with saving the studio from bankruptcy. He “told people I was his right arm,” she said (23).

In 1927 after she finished editing Ironsides, she was writing scripts for five hundred dollars apiece at Columbia while directors were making eight to ten thousand dollars a picture. Arzner decided it was time to move on and chose to say goodbye to someone important at Paramount before leaving. She called on director Ben Shulberg, who was once so broke he couldn’t afford to pay her. Finding him busy, she told director Walter Langer she was going to quit and direct at the “smaller studio” (Columbia). She would only stay if she could be on the set as a director of an “A” picture for Paramount. The studio agreed.

The Best Dressed Woman in Paris became her first directorial assignment. The next day, headlines read “Lasky [Paramount] Names Woman Director.” Arzner had only ever observed directors on set before making Best Dressed. She credited Ben Shulberg, Jim Cruze, and Walter Wanger at Paramount for championing her efforts at the studio, saying that “no one gave me trouble… [in fact] men were more helpful than women” (23). “Paramount departments”, she reported, “were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted” (23). (Citations come from an interview with Dorothy Arzner, previously published by agnès films.)

Arzner worked with many Hollywood actresses and helped to launch their careers. However, these decisions were made in accordance with the economic decisions of the studio system, rather than in her role as director. For example, in Arzner’s Nana, Anna Sten was a protégée of producer Sam Goldwyn, who hoped to make her a box office success like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Arzner was instead responsible for casting actors such as Frederic March and Clara Bow in The Wild Party. She also directed Ruth Chatterson’s first picture at Paramount, Sarah and Son, “known to the press as the ‘First Lady of the Screen’” (23). Arzner had her choice of technical crew – cameramen, assistants, costume and set designers – on the set. “Paramount gave me about everything I wanted after Sarah and Son. I had very little interference with my pictures. Sometimes there were differences in casting, sets or costumes, but usually I had my own way” (25). “You see,” she added, “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 – 20 years.”

The Wild Party, 1929

Dorothy’s Arzner’s work is historically important and her achievements remain in tact due to the groundbreaking work of Pam Cook, Professor Emerita in Film at the University of Southampton, and the late Claire Johnston . Their core essays are entitled Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema, edited by Claire Johnston.

Johnston and Cook supplied the theory and history of why Arzner’s work is important and explained that the insertion of women into film history can only become meaningful in terms of a theory. They claim that Arzner’s achievements were attributable to the “constraints” of the studio system, particularly economic and ideological factors, arguing that she was the first woman to “build up a coherent body of work within the Hollywood system” (2). Johnston and Cook argued that the insertion of Arzner in cinema history is based on her work opening up the contradictions of “the patriarchal ideology of classic Hollywood cinema” (2). They do not claim that Arzner would have supported the principles of feminist thought or that she be should be considered one of the best Hollywood directors.

Pam Cook argues that it is important to see Arzner’s films as “‘texts’ (complex products demanding an active reading in terms of the contradictions at work in them)” (9). In so doing, it then becomes possible to examine “the place of women within that system” (9). Cook analyses “the ways in which Dorothy Arzner’s films, through a displacement of identification through discontinuity and a process of play succeed in generating a set of contradictions so that a de-naturalization of patriarchal ideology is effected and the fixed relationship is disturbed” (2).

Johnston theorized that in Arzner’s films the woman determines her own identity through ‘transgression and desire’ in a search for an independent existence outside the discourse of the male. Arzner’s characters assert their own discourse in the face of the male one, by breaking it up, subverting it and in a sense rewriting it” (4).  She finds this rewriting the principle structuring of Arzner’s film texts. An example of this comes from Christopher Strong (1933), which, in Swedish, is translated as A Big Man’s Lover. This title gives a better sense of the chief protagonist, Lady Cynthia Darrington, played by Katharine Hepburn. In the mise-en-scène, Cynthia lights Christopher’s cigarette and often stands taller in relation to him. The French title proves to be the best translation: La Phalène d’argent – the silver butterfly. In a famous scene, she enters the room in a costume wearing a silver lamé body stocking and an insect-like gown that can be seen as a chrysalis – a blueprint for a modern woman yet to emerge, though one that, for 1933, takes great strides in self-achievement. For operating outside patriarchal law and bearing the child of a married man, Cynthia courageously breaks the aviation record by doing what she wants, though tragically, she dies. Zoë Akins wrote the script.

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington in Christopher Strong

The articulation of a subtext makes Dorothy Arzner’s films especially important to feminist film criticism for creating sufficient contradiction to studio films with fixed relationships for men and women. Subversion of the dominant discourse of the classic Hollywood film text is obvious in close readings of many of her films, and her female characters question their fixed roles through “transgression,” breaking explicit patriarchal rules and going against the grain. Lady Darrington flies a record-breaking aircraft, though Christopher Strong forbids it. Judy O’Brien (Maureen O’Hara) is forced to play the “stooge” of exotic dancer Bubbles (Lucille Ball) and defiantly walks out and addresses the male audience on their demeaning treatment of women, all within the context of a “theater” where the audience claps afterwards. These subtexts are crafted through filmic elements: cinematography, editing, mise-en-scène, and sound. In Tis Herself: An Autobiography (2005), O’Hara credits Arzner for rescuing Dance Girl Dance from an incompetent male director and breathing life into the narrative. O’Hara was glad that the film was important for feminists (‘Tis Herself: An Autobiography, Maureen O’Hara, 2005).

Arzner did not publically discuss her personal life as a lesbian or as a public figure in a male-dominated profession in the 1920s to 1940s Hollywood. However, it is important we remember that she was a lesbian, because her life and work was impacted by it. It is important to know that she lived with the same woman, Marion Morgan, for 30 years. Morgan worked on her films as a choreographer. Arzner’s smart manner of dress has served as a role model for lesbian film spectators. Judith Mayne’s Directed by Dorothy Arzner (1994) takes this into account. Photographs are used to historically legitimize an important director of the time, and affirm Arzner’s wardrobe and appearance as a powerful woman working in Hollywood. Mayne’s biography affirms Arzner’s life with Morgan during and after the years she worked in Hollywood and removes it from invisibility.

There are many “reel” women in film history that were major players in the early film industry. At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival – Cannes Classic division, Julia and Klara Kuperberg presented a 52-minute documentary, Et La Femme Créa Hollywood (2016 – “And Women Created Hollywood,” a more appropriate English translation). The extraordinary revelation of the film was the hundreds of women working in Hollywood before 1925 with an artisanal dedication and creativity unknown to male historians such as Jacobs, Brownlow and Sarris, and even historians today. The documentary reveals how Eastern European men and women worked in Hollywood before 1925 and that 50% of the films of that time were directed by women such as Mary Pickford and Lois Weber. One of the first studios was United Artists, founded in 1919, by D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, who decided against working for commercial studios.

When it was clear that money could be made from film, men established the major studio systems, such as the Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Wonskolaser from Poland), and Hungarian born Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount. The women were pushed out.

This information was documented by Ally Acker in books and CD-ROMS in the 1990’s. This work “corrects the notion that women behind the scenes held adjunct or peripheral careers, and restores them rightfully to their pioneering status.” Her most recent work is her book Reel Women: The First Hundred Years (2012) and her film Reel Herstory: The Real Story of Reel Women (2014), with Jodie Foster as narrator. In a 1991 article in Interview, photographs of Foster strike “Arzner poses” where she is dressed in a beret often worn by Arzner.

Jodie Foster on the cover of Interview, 1991

Créteil Films de Femmes honors Dorothy Arzner for new and veteran film spectators this year, a vital testimony to one of the heroines of early Hollywood cinema. As in the past, this unique edition of the 39th festival honors the achievements of women in film, the largest ongoing panorama of women behind the camera in the world. Each year there is a memorable retrospective of filmmakers from different parts of the world. A positive ending to this story is due to the polemics raised by the Cinématèque program notes. The Créteil Films de Femmes roundtable on March 17 addressed this – an action that contributed to the success of the Arzner retrospective. On opening night, the Cinématèque director, Frédéric Bonnaud invited Créteil Films de Femmes director Jackie Buet on stage to acknowledge their successful partnership in a sold out event.

View Moira Sullivan’s profile. 


Johnston, Claire, and Cook, Pam. The Work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema. British Film Institute, 2000.