Dorothy Arzner, First Female Director in Hollywood Studio System
Directing films is still one of those mediums that women are trying to find their footing among notable male directors. You can probably name a few but the number is even less when considering those who
have been a part of big budget movies. The opportunities are scarce and with only one female director winning Best Director at the Oscars in its ninety-one years, it hasn’t been too promising. Film director, Ava Duverney has attempted to disrupt the continued cycle head-on by only recruiting female directors for her hit show on OWN, Queen Sugar. Gestures like this have to be the norm if we are going to see more women in this coveted role. So, this sets up the catalyst to the question, who trailblazed the way for current female directors in Hollywood?
In 1926, Dorothy Arzner became that trailblazer. She was the first woman to direct a film, Fashions for Women, in Hollywood. Her snagging the script was not an easy task, of course. She had been working with Paramount for quite some time as a film editor, which she worked her way up to. Her keen eye made her stand out, adding elements to the film that would enhance the storyline and visual integrity. Her talents were eventually noticed by director James Cruze, who brought her on board to work on the film Blood and Sand in 1922. After working as an editor for a while, Arzner decided that she was ready to direct. Her resume had built up to the point where it was no denying her impact on the film industry. There was obviously hesitation because she was a woman, but Paramount knew that they would be losing out on profits if they were to let her go. So, after she presented an ultimatum, “Paramount agreed, handing her the script for Fashions for Women. The film went on to be a financial success” (America Comes Alive). She went on to direct a number of other films that garnered success as well. As the years went on, film started to progress with the expansion of certain technologies, introducing the “talkie”. The talkie was a step up from silent films where you could hear the actor speaking. The sound wasn’t as advanced as it is now obviously, so it was difficult to capture the sound perfectly in order not to take away from the film. Most directors shied away from this because it was both expensive and time-consuming. But Arzner saw the potential and wanted to take advantage of the future of film. While working on her 1929 film Wild Party, she thought of an idea to rig a microphone in a certain way so that the actors will be able to be mobile while reciting their lines. “Arzner had one of her technicians rig a microphone to the end of a fishing rod…With this invention, Arzner was the first to use a ‘boom microphone’” (America Comes Alive). Along with having success in her own right, she also launched the careers of some major stars at the time. Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, and Claudette Colbert just to name a few. In the 1970s her work would re-emerge during the feminist movement. Her films were honored and studied by those after her in order to analyze feminism within film. Her legacy has been felt for many years after her first major film and has left a major impact on other female directors.
The film industry has done a huge disservice in not employing more female directors. Their ability is at the level and more often than not exceeds the capabilities of men, so if Dorothy Arzner’s career has any indication, female directors can change the course of the genre.