“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.”
This shocking admission by Dorothy Arzner turned my understanding of her success upside down. Here was a legendary filmmaker, a trailblazing feminist voice in the early twentieth century, who admitted she had relinquished her power. Why would any intelligent woman do this?
The answer is quite simple and reflects what many women have always done – they make tough choices and find ways to overcome challenges. This was certainly true for Dorothy’s life and work in the film industry. While Dorothy may have swallowed her pride, she compensated with hard work and the strategic smarts to make herself indispensable to the studios.
In the late 1920’s, the invention of sound and the amalgamation of production studios was a death-knell for most female film directors. The so-called Golden Age of America was anything but golden for women. Big production studios gobbled-up smaller ones, leveraging deals with the banking industry.
Naturally, the sexist attitudes and stereotypical views of bankers spilled over and into the film industry. Women writers and directors were blackballed and considered too fragile to work in stressful jobs like film directing. Directing suddenly became a man’s job, ignoring the fact that women had been successful directors on equal footing with men for three decades.
But Dorothy was different and her strengths went well beyond her standout talent.
Having grown up in Hollywood, California, where her father owned a restaurant next to a movie theatre, she quickly graduated from stenographer to film cutter and script in just six months. Her progress garnered attention and praise.
Dorothy was also known to be a particularly good networker with both men and women. She was constantly honing her film skills but she was always looking for the next opportunity. When something was needed, a scenario change or new script, Dorothy was there.
This opened doors for a woman who was also considered cost-conscious and adept at negotiating and meeting the unique technical challenges of 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s.
In the 20’s when everyone was moving to sound film, Dorothy kept working in both sound and silent films. She never became too attached to any one project and was always willing to take on smaller segments which made her indispensable. It didn’t hurt either that Dorothy worked easily with men and women.
She noticed that men were never distracted by her and never seemed to pay much attention to the fact that she was a woman; perhaps this is explained by Dorothy’s generally masculine physicality or her rumored lesbian orientation. Whatever the case, Dorothy was good at forming close ties with female actresses and male producers.
Dorothy’s adaptability meant projects were completed on time and well executed. Studio heads at Paramount eventually offered her the chance to film small parts, including a 1922 film, Blood and Sand starring Rudolph Valentino.
This launched her career, and over the next twenty years, Dorothy had the opportunity to direct, going back and forth between Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
To protect her security, Dorothy was careful to pursue independent jobs, with independent companies like Dorothy Davenport Reid. They provided new experience, diverse skills and industry connections that she used to negotiate promotions when studios wanted to hire her back for more work.
Eventually Dorothy landed her first A-list opportunity in 1927 to direct the film, Fashions for Women. It was a commercial success for Paramount, and a string of more than a dozen films followed. Dorothy’s movie credits included Ten Modern Commandments (1927), Get Your Man (1927), Manhattan Cocktail (1928), and The Wild Party (1929) and emphasized her technical prowess and creativity.
Dorothy left Paramount in 1932 to work with other companies like United Artists and Columbia. And, when she finally decided to retire in 1943, she branched out into other commercial avenues by making films for Pepsi and the Women’s Army Corps.
Dorothy’s body of work is remarkable for so many reasons. But what I’m most impressed with is her fearless determination and expressed feminist views at a time when it was unpopular to speak out.
I no longer wonder about that pride Dorothy rolled up in a ball. I believe it landed with a giant splat on a larger more impactful, silver screen. Dorothy shared it with the world in the plucky and reprimanding voice of the 1940’s film “Dance, Girl, Dance”, starring Maureen O’Hara.
In it, the heroine unleashes years of pent up frustration in the character of Judy. When Judy makes her final farewell speech on stage, in front of a large group of men heckling her, the scene is completely transparent. It reads like Dorothy calling out the oppressive patriarchal system of injustices she and all women have suffered.
In the end, Dorothy certainly had the last word. I think you’ll agree.