In A Nutshell
She invented the boom mic when she directed one of Hollywood’s first talkies, cast Katharine Hepburn in her first movie, portrayed a host of strong female characters who were more than their relationships, and worked alongside some of the greatest names in early movie history. At the helm of some of Paramount’s most successful early films was director Dorothy Arzner, a visionary editor and director who openly lived in a long-term lesbian relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan at a time when women’s gender roles were still clearly defined.
The Whole Bushel
Early Hollywood—and, to a lesser extent, Hollywood today—is known as something of a boys’ club. While there were a handful of early and influential women in the movie industry, most of them made their mark in front of the camera while portraying the idealized standard of the day that we still associate with the Roaring Twenties.
There’s one prolific, cinema-changing woman who’s largely been forgotten today, though: Dorothy Arzner.
At a time when a film showing characters involved in relationships outside of their assigned class could destroy the careers of everyone involved (and almost did, with Arzner, Joan Crawford, and 1937’s The Bride Wore Red), Arzner went out of her way to make Hollywood accept her for who she was.
Specifically, she was an out-of-the-closet lesbian who lived with long-time lover Marion Morgan. She was a director who was determined to make movies that didn’t sugarcoat the idea of a woman’s place in a marriage and the home.
Born in 1897, Arzner made her connections in Hollywood through her family business. Her parents owned a local restaurant, giving her a foot in the door. That only got her so far, though, and she started her film career by typing up scripts for the company that would later become Paramount. Working her way up to cutter and editor, she worked on 52 films before getting a break on Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand.
Her work got the attention of other major studios, and an offer from Columbia forced Paramount’s hand. If they wanted to keep her, they needed to keep her happy—and that meant a director’s job.
When the first film she headed was a massive success—1927’s Fashion for Women—she went on to milestones that would change the face of the film industry then and today. When she directed 1929’s The Wild Party, it was the first talkie for Paramount. Talkies added a whole new dimension to film, and when actress Clara Bow had trouble with her microphone, Arzner created a solution that’s still in use today: the boom mic.
For 20 years, Arzner compiled a significant portfolio of work. She collaborated with Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, and Joan Crawford, and she even cast Katharine Hepburn in her first role.
She kept making movies after her departure from Hollywood in 1943, in part because of a bout of pneumonia and in part because of the strengthening insistence on conformation to gender roles after World War II. Then there were training films for the Women’s Army Corps, radio programs, and forays into live theater. Arzner was a teacher at UCLA and at the Pasadena Playhouse. She was also tempted back to more mainstream productions when Joan Crawford asked her to direct a set of 50 commercials she was appearing in for Pepsi.
At a glance, it’s easy to pigeonhole Arzner as a feminist director. Her movies explored the relationships women often found themselves trapped in, showing wives in loveless marriages taking their fate into their own hands and becoming themselves rather than only a partner and possession.
But modern-day feminists might be up in arms over her comments on her treatment as one of the only female directors of the time.
Arzner once said in an interview, “No one gave me any trouble because I was a woman. Men were more helpful than women.”