Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dorothy Arzner

"When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window."

Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco, California on January 3rd, 1897. Her father was Louis Arzner who owned and operated a restaurant that was right next to a theatre. This caused the restaurant to be frequented often by Hollywood actors who Dorothy would grow up around, Dorothy would not have a personal interest in them as they were too familiar to her. She would visit the theatre and see some incredible plays as she grew up.

"I made one box office hit after another. If I had a failure in the middle, I would have been finished."

Dorothy was always an extremely bright young woman. She would go to the University of Southern California where she would study to be a doctor with an A average in her courses. During World War 1, Dorothy would go overseas to work int he ambulance corps. However, she would realize that it wasn't what she truly wanted to do. She once said that she 'wanted to be like Jesus––”Heal the sick and raise the dead,” instantly, without surgery, pills, et cetera.' Wherever would she find a job where fantastical events could happen everyday, where a person can have such control over any situational event?

"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.’"

Through a connection to director, William C. DeMille, Dorothy would start her career working at Paramount Pictures. This was after the war ended and a flu epidemic had hit hard. They needed people to work and would hire those that should signs of ability or knowledge. William would ask her where she would like to start and she would reply with an interest in dressing sets. He went on to ask her about a piece of furniture in his office to which she had no idea. He said for her to take a look around the different departments and let him know. Dorothy would look around and take notice of the role of a director, it became her main interest but not where she would start.

By her own request, she would start at the bottom. Where did she suppose the bottom was? Typing scripts. That was how she would start at Paramount, then called Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. She would apply herself and work hard. Within six months, she would be given a new opportunity as a cutter and an editor. As chief editor, she would go on to cut and edit fifty two pictures while training and supervising negative cutters and splicers. Her first job would be on a film called BLOOD AND SAND starring Rudolph Valentino. Word about the quality of her work spread fast, director James Cruze hand picked her for several of his films.

"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.”"

Dorothy was still writing scripts at the time, not only for Paramount but also for Columbia, which was considered a 'poverty row' company at the time. She was excelling in all of her work, but it was directing that had real interest for her. Columbia was interested in having her direct, so she decided after completing her work on the film, IRONSIDES, that she would move on. After working for the company for seven years, Dorothy decided before she left that she would say good bye to someone important. That someone was Ben P. Schulberg - she had written a script for him earlier which at the time he was unable to pay her, but would pay her back when he could. He made good on his promise and had since made his way to become Production Head of Paramount.

He was in a meeting at the time and the secretary refused to let Dorothy wait to speak to him, his schedule was too full to see anyone. Just then Walter Wanger, the Head of Paramount's New York Studio came by to which Dorothy exclaimed, Oh, you'll do! She let him know that she was leaving to direct, within three minutes, Ben was also in the office. It was directing her own film or bust for her, and they gave her a film entitled FASHIONS FOR WOMEN. It was a huge financial success and a great beginning to her directing career.

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

In her view to be taken more seriously on set, Dorothy would adorn herself in men's suits and ties, but always a skirts in preference to pants. The masculine appearance was important to her. It worked for her because in the Golden Age of Hollywood in the thirties and forties - she was the only working female director. She would make twenty films, including Paramount's first ever talkie picture which would help launch the career of Clara Bow. To keep the actress's movement from becoming restricted, she had a microphone attached to a fishing pole, creating the earliest boom mic. Her films would also aid in launching the careers of Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Sylvia Sidney, and Lucille Ball.

"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."

THE WILD PARTY, the film with Clara Bow, was set in a college and had lesbian undertones throughout. At a time when there were little to no women working in the field, a lesbian who dressed in masculine attire , a woman who made films about free spirited and independent women would be the first woman to become a part of the newly formed Director's Guild of America. How was this possible? Dorothy said it best - because her movies made money, hence they were successful. All of her movies made money - she never fucked up. Not once.

In 1943, she would stop making feature length films and never give a reason as to why. She would direct television commercials - including over fifty Pepsi Cola spots - and army training videos as well as producing plays. She would begin teaching writing and directing int he 1960s at UCLA. All of her old ties to the film industry would be cut, sometimes in interviews or with friends she would look back at old photos and remark, "I was a famous Hollywood director then." Her time as a teacher would last until her death in 1979. She would die at the age of 82. For all her accomplishments and additions to the film industry she was awarded with a star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame which is located at 1500 Vine Street.

Dorothy Arzner was a perfect example of what a true artist is. She was herself, she never changed who she was or what her interests were for the sake of fitting in, she made more films than any other female director, she made them the way she wanted to, she worked hard and the work speaks for itself. A woman of horror, well her most horrific film would be MERRILY WE GO TO HELL - so, I'm going to say close e-fucking-nough considering her onslaught of contributions that paved the way for artists working today.


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