“When I went to work in the 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 broke new ground for women with hard work and the strategic smarts to make herself indispensable to the studios.
In the late 1920s, 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, sexist attitudes and stereotypical views of bankers spilled over and into the film industry. Men weren’t used to seeing women in positions of power in the U.S., especially in the film industry. Overseas, women like France’s Alice Guy had already started directing in 1896 but this would not happen in the U.S. until Dorothy took the reins.
In fact, female writers and directors were routinely blackballed and considered too fragile to work in stressful jobs like film directing regardless of their talent. With the growth of big studios and increased film budgets, directing suddenly became a man’s job.
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 editor in just six months. Her progress garnered attention and praise but there was something more.
Dorothy was particularly good at networking with both men and women. She was constantly honing her film skills but also on the lookout for the next opportunity. When something was needed, there was a scene change or a new script was needed, 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 the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.
In the ’20s when everyone was moving to sound film, Dorothy was smart and kept her options open, working in both sound and silent films. She never became too attached to any one project and was ever-willing to take on smaller segments which made her indispensable. It didn’t hurt either that Dorothy worked easily with men and women.
Dorothy also noticed that men were never distracted by her or seemed to pay much attention to the fact that she was a woman. Without appearing judgmental, perhaps this was explained by Dorothy’s generally masculine physicality for the time or her rumored lesbian orientation. Whatever the case, Dorothy was good at forming close ties with female actresses and male producers.
When studios started to worry about budgets, Dorothy’s adaptability was attractive. Her projects were completed on time and well-executed. Eventually, this helped her to make inroads and studio heads at Paramount offered her the chance to film small parts, including a 1922 film, Blood and Sand starring Rudolph Valentino.
This film launched her career and, over the next twenty years, Dorothy had the opportunity to direct several projects by going back and forth between Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
To protect her security, Dorothy was also on the lookout for bigger opportunities to direct with independent companies like Dorothy Davenport Reid. They provided new experiences, a chance to bolster her diverse skills and industry connections, and she could use these projects to negotiate promotions when studios wanted to hire her back for more work.
Eventually, Dorothy landed her first A-list opportunity in 1927, directing the film Fashions for Women. It was a commercial success for Paramount, and a dozen more 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 continued to evolve and took control of her career, eventually leaving Paramount in 1932 to work with other companies like United Artists and Columbia. When she finally decided to retire in 1943, she continued to work but branched out into other commercial avenues – making films for Pepsi and the Women’s Army Corps.
Dorothy’s body of work is remarkable for so many reasons. But I’m most impressed with her fearless determination and ability to identify new opportunities. Dorothy also expressed feminist views that spoke to the power of women to work within male-dominated power structures. She did so quite vocally at a time when it was unpopular to speak out.
After learning about Dorothy, her comment about rolling her pride up into a ball and throwing it away now meant something much different. Dorothy’s pride landed with a giant splat on a larger, more impactful, silver screen. What Dorothy shared with the world in her plucky and reprimanding voice of the 1940’s film “Dance, Girl, Dance”, starring Maureen O’Hara, was truly groundbreaking.
In the film, the heroine unleashes years of pent up frustration in a character named Judy. During Judy’s final farewell speech on stage, in front of a large group of men heckling her costume malfunction, the scene is an obvious commentary by Dorothy. Dorothy calls out the oppressive, patriarchal system of injustices she and all women have suffered in the film industry. Dorothy has the last word when Maureen O’Hara says, “Go ahead and stare. I’m not ashamed… what do you suppose we think of you… playing at being the stronger sex for a minute…we see through you.”