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What Happened to the Female Directors of Hollywood?

Posted on Mar 3, 2017

By Carrie Rickey

  Dorothy Arzner takes charge on the set of “Merrily We Go to Hell” in this 1932 photo. (AP)

Editor’s note: In October 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating Hollywood’s gender gap. Before it concludes its mediation process, Truthdig contributor Carrie Rickey considers the historic accomplishments of women behind the camera, how they got marginalized and how they are fighting for equal employment.

This five-part Truthdig series is published in partnership with Women and Hollywood and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Upcoming installments will run every Friday through March 24; click here to read Part 1.

Part 2: The First Females to Crack the Directors Guild

Where did the female directors go? Never mind that pioneer directors Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber were towering figures of cinema’s first two decades. By 1920, each found it harder and harder to get projects off the ground. Just about the time that American women earned the right to vote, these two directors found it increasingly difficult to find financing. Given recent studio consolidations, executives wanted filmmakers they could control, not those accustomed to calling the shots.

Although in the early 1920s, many screenwriters from the previous decade—including Lenore Coffee, Anita Loos, Frances Marion, Bess Meredyth, Jeanie MacPherson and Jane Murfin—continued to thrive and flourish, that was not the case for their sisters behind the camera. As counterintuitive as this may seem, more women won Oscars for their screenplays in the 1930s (three) than in the 1980s (zero). For the most part, women behind the camera disappeared.

There was an exception.

At Paramount in 1919, Dorothy Arzner, a young woman who had studied medicine and worked briefly as a studio stenographer, was promoted to continuity supervisor on a film titled “Stronger Than Death.” Its star was stage actress Alla Nazimova, as legendary for her talent as she was for her lesbian sexuality. Herbert Blaché, husband of Guy-Blaché and mentor of Weber, was the film’s co-director. There is evidence, says Arzner biographer Judith Mayne, that she benefited from the casting couch: At the time of her promotion, Arzner was among Nazimova’s lovers.

Arzner apprenticed with assistant film editor Nan Heron. After cutting some 32 pictures in her first year, the novice soon surpassed her teacher. The studio tapped Arzner to edit Fred Niblo’s 1922 film “Blood and Sand,” Rudolph Valentino’s first starring role, the tale of a toreador torn between his loving wife and a teasing vamp. Arzner shot the bullfight scenes, invisibly integrating them with stock footage of Spanish corridas, highlighting close-ups of Valentino that catapulted him to stardom. When director James Cruze saw her work, he promptly hired her to edit his 1923 epic “The Covered Wagon.” They worked together on other films, including “Old Ironsides” in 1926, on which she also had a screenwriting credit. Of Cruze Arzner said, “He always treated me as though I were his son.”

Having worked as an editor and as a screenwriter on a handful of films, Arzner wanted to direct. She was about to leave Paramount for the opportunity when, in order to keep her, the studio hired her to direct “Fashions for Women” in 1927, a cheerful, mistaken-identity farce set in Paris. Paramount was testing both Arzner and promising actress Esther Ralston, hoping the rookie director, like Lois Weber before her, could make a star out of a relative unknown. Both missions were accomplished, and the film was a commercial success.

At about the time Arzner made her studio filmmaking debut, Zora Neale Hurston, later celebrated for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” directed the ethnographic films “Children’s Games” and “Logging” in 1928 and “Baptism” in 1929.

Back in Hollywood, Paramount entrusted Arzner with making its first sound film, “The Wild Party,” in 1929. When star Clara Bow had trouble adjusting to the microphone affixed to her, Arzner came up with the idea to attach it to a fishing rod that could dangle overhead, allowing Bow to move freely. This was the prototype of the “boom mic,” which Arzner neglected to patent, although it became a vital tool for filmmakers.

In a directorial career spanning 16 films (11 of them for Paramount) over 15 years, Arzner worked for almost every studio on movies with female leads. Samuel Goldwyn asked her to direct “Nana” in 1934 because he hoped she would make a star of Anna Sten. That didn’t happen. But Arzner was instrumental in advancing the screen careers of Katharine Hepburn, the Earhart-like aviatrix in the 1933 film “Christopher Strong”; Rosalind Russell, the domineering Harriet Craig in “Craig’s Wife” in 1936; and eternal chorus girl Lucille Ball, whose first screen starring role was as a burlesque queen in the 1940 film “Dance, Girl, Dance.” Actresses in Arzner movies drove the narratives. For example, 35 years before film scholar Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze,” the character played by actress Maureen O’Hara delivered a critique of it in “Dance, Girl, Dance.

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