Dorothy Arzner — pioneering lesbian film director — honored at Paramount

Dorothy Arzner was a pioneering film director. During her 15-year career (1928-1943), Arzner — who identified as a lesbian — helmed 20 features, including silents and “talkies,” which is still a record in Hollywood. She made 11 of those movies at Paramount. Arzner also was the first female member of the Director’s Guild of America. Photo: UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Frances Ford Coppola was on hand to help Paramount Studios dedicate its Dressing Room building on the Melrose Avenue lot to Hollywood’s most prolific female film director and his former teacher —  Dorothy Arzner.

During her 15-year career (1928-1943), Arzner — who identified as a lesbian and had a long-term relationship with dancer Marion Morgan — directed 20 movies, including silents and “talkies,” which is still a record in Hollywood. She directed 11 of those movies at Paramount. Arzner also was the first female member of the Director’s Guild of America.

In the 1960s, Arzner taught at UCLA’s film school, where Coppola was a student.

“She was salty and sort of tough, but had a heart as big as the world,” Coppola said Thursday during the dedication, Deadline reported. “Every time she came to class, she’d bring a big box of cookies or crackers because she knew we were starving to death. We had no money, but she had stuff so we could eat.”

PROLIFIC CAREER

Arzner began her career typing up scripts for the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which would later change its name to Paramount.

In 1927, Arzner began her career as a film director with the silent movie “Fashions for Women.”

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When the film industry made the switch from silent movies to those with sound, Arzner took the helm of the studio’s first ever talkie, “The Wild Party.”  She went on to direct 11 of her 20 films for the studio.

Arzner directed movie stars of the day including Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Lucille Ball. In 1938, Arzner became the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.

In 1943, Arzner walked away from Hollywood, but continued working, directing television commercials and producing plays. She was a professor at the UCLA film school, teaching screenwriting and directing from 1959 to 1965.

Arzner died in 1979 at the age of 82.

In 2013, UCLA Film & Television Archive presented a retrospective on Arzner’s work, spotlighting 14 of her films; six of them had been restored by the UCLA archive.

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‘INDISPENSABLE FILMMAKER’

“Dorothy Arzner was an indispensable filmmaker who told a different kind of story. a story of someone swimming in a world of violence and contradictory forces run by men who is trying to navigate that world,” Shannon Kelley, head of public programs at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, told Out in the 562.

“Arzner was uniquely focused on stories about about female bonding and the female journey that had not been mapped in other cinema,” Kelley said. “The woman is not objectified. She is the story. Many face epic challenges, but she is not the victim. She is a voyager and a fighter.”

Arzner’s films also were influenced by her sexuality, Kelley said.

“When we understand her as a lesbian, there seems to be a strong line with her stories. We are fortunate to not only enjoy the perspective of a woman, but also a lesbian,” Kelley said “Dorothy reveals what interested her most – woman bonding with each other and sometimes to the exclusion of men, which is part of a women’s lived experience, not just lesbians.”

Paramount reserves the honor of dedicating a building for the most respected of its industry professionals, and Arzner is in excellent company on the lot with other edifices named after such female legends as Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Head, Sherry Lansing, Carole Lombard, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, and Mae West.

About the author

Beatriz E. Valenzuela

Beatriz E. Valenzuela is an award-winning journalist who’s covered breaking news in Southern California since 2006 and has been on the front lines of national and international news events. She also covers all things nerd, including comic book culture and video games. She’s an amateur obstacle course racer, constant fact-checker, mother of three, and lover of all things geek.

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