Thoroughly modern Dorothy was a pioneer

Times Staff Writer

Racy plots replete with snappy dialogue and strong-willed female characters were hallmarks of the films directed by Dorothy Arzner. That might not seem remarkable today, but Arzner’s films were made from the late 1920s through the early ‘40s when she was the only major female director working in Hollywood, creating a body of work with a distinctly modern sensibility.

Arzner was also known as a star-maker due to the edgy, poignant and unsparing performances she elicited from her actresses. She was the first to put Katharine Hepburn in a pair of pants and turn her into an icon for female independence in the actress’ second film, “Christopher Strong,” in 1933. Arzner took another up-and-comer by the name of Rosalind Russell and transformed her into a Hollywood player as a cold, manipulative Harriet Craig, who married not for love but freedom in the 1936 drama “Craig’s Wife.” Such actresses as Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Sylvia Sidney, Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara did some of their best work under Arzner’s guidance in films that dealt with illicit love, unwanted pregnancy and alcoholism.

But save for “Christopher Strong,” very few of Arzner’s films are screened these days. “Dorothy Arzner is somebody who everybody knows but no one has seen,” says Andrea Alsberg, head of programming at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The archive, though, is shining the spotlight on the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America with a 12-film series, “Directed by Dorothy Arzner,” which begins tonight at the James Bridges Theatre with the 1929 comedy-drama “The Wild Party,” with Bow and Fredric March, and 1931’s “Working Girls,” with Judith Wood and Dorothy Hall (Arzner’s frequent collaborator Zoe Akins wrote the latter). Both films have been restored by the archive; the retrospective includes six Arzner films that have been restored by UCLA. The half-dozen features will go on tour after the festival to various archives and colleges.


Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster, who is also a director, funded the restoration of “Working Girls,” a saucy comedy about two sisters who come from the Midwest to seek fame, fortune and love in New York City, as well as the tour.

“It’s wonderful to see such an old film where the women are central,” says Foster. “There’s lots of humor. One sister is slyly seductive and the other kind of naive.”

Foster says she feels indebted to pioneers such as Arzner. “You want to look at the roots of what women have done in film history,” says Foster. “It’s a very short list of directors. You sort of show who you are by what you do and what you are interested in and how you portray your characters and round them out. It’s clear that she does have a female point of view.”

The impetus for the festival was the archive’s restoration of “Wild Party,” Paramount’s first talkie, in 1986 and “Working Girls” in 1997. Robert Gitt, the head of the preservation department, had the nitrate prints and copies to restore four more of Arzner’s films that she did for Paramount in the early ‘30s.


“I suggested we cooperatively turn in a grant to the National Endowment for the Arts to work on this together to preserve more of her films and to be able to have the public have access to them,” says Alsberg.

Besides having a longtime career as director, Arzner also taught film production at UCLA from 1959-63, where she mentored a young Francis Ford Coppola. “The kind of image of what a director was in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was certainly a very macho one,” noted UCLA film professor Howard Suber, who was mentored by Arzner. “It was based partly on Cecil B. DeMille, who used to walk around the set in jodhpurs and a riding whip, or John Ford, who was a crusty old [guy]. Certainly it was not just a boy’s club, it was a tough guy’s club. The image of director as dictator was certainly the model that people assumed they were supposed to emulate. Dorothy Arzner was one of the gentlest people I have ever known. I don’t remember ever hearing her raise her voice.”

However, during her heyday in Hollywood, Arzner dressed like her male counterparts, wearing her hair short and donning a man’s suit. “She developed a look for herself that worked,” says Alsberg. “But my favorite picture of her was taken later on when she let her hair down and she’s in the house and she’s either painting or gardening and she’s messy. She looks much happier than in the studio portraits of her.”

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner was an ambulance driver, waitress and stenographer who began in the script department of Famous Players in 1919. Arzner had the good fortune to enter the film world at a time when women were still prominent in film production as directors, screenwriters, producers and editors.


Arzner was soon promoted to script girl and made her way into the editing bay, where she received notice for her inspired cutting of Rudolph Valentino’s 1922 bullfighter epic, “Blood and Sand,” and the landmark 1923 western “The Covered Wagon.” Arzner segued into scriptwriting, then got a chance to direct the 1927 silent “Fashions for Women.”

First under contract to Paramount in the early ‘30s, she left and freelanced at various studios, including Goldwyn and RKO. She directed her last feature in 1943 and spent World War II directing Women Army Corps training films and Joan Crawford Pepsi commercials in the 1950s. Arzner, who had a 40-year relationship with choreographer Marian Morgan, died in 1979.

“My favorite [film of Arzner’s] is ‘Craig’s Wife,’ ” says Alsberg. “Rosalind Russell’s character is an incredibly complicated person. What’s so interesting about Arzner’s direction is she doesn’t vilify her. I think you hate [Harriet Craig’s] priorities but she’s not a villain. She’s a woman with a lot of emotional trouble.”

Most of Arzner’s female characters are similarly complex. In “The Wild Party,” for example, Bow seems to be just a mindless college flapper drinking and smoking too much and not paying attention to her college studies. But she’s willing to risk her future at the school and the man she loves to save the reputation of her quiet, studious roommate.


Alsberg points out that a lot of feminists have “latched on” to the scene in “Dance, Girl, Dance” from 1940 in which O’Hara, playing a struggling ballet dancer forced to work as a stooge at a burlesque house, stops her routine to tell off the leering men in the audience.

“She says all you want me to do is take off my clothes,” Alsberg relates. “I think it’s really interesting at the time for a character -- for a woman -- to get up and say those kind of things.” And even more interesting that the crowd, which initially boos O’Hara’s exasperated dancer, ends up supporting her.

“The familiar tag line with Arzner is that she was a star-maker,” Alsberg says. " ... Maybe it’s because she was a woman and with these women there was a certain naturalism to their performances that they wouldn’t have with male directors.”



‘Directed by Dorothy Arzner’

Where: James Bridges Theater, UCLA

Admission: $7 for general admission; $5 for students, seniors and UCLA Alumni Assn. members. For information, call (310) 206-8013 or go to



Tonight: “The Wild Party, " “Working Girls” (both restored by UCLA), 7:30

Sunday: “Dance, Girl, Dance” and “The Bride Wore Red,” 7 p.m.

Feb. 1: “Merrily We Go to Hell,” “Honor Among Lovers” (both preserved by UCLA), 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 2: “Sarah and Son” and “Anybody’s Woman” (both preserved by UCLA), 7 p.m.


Feb. 8: “Christopher Strong” and “First Comes Courage,” 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 9: “Craig’s Wife” and “Nana,” 7 p.m.