If you know anything about the history of American film, you know the name Dorothy Arzner. And no wonder.
Called by one scholar “the most prolific woman studio director in the history of American cinema,” Arzner directed 16 Hollywood features in a career that lasted from 1920s silent films through 1940s World War II dramas. But that’s not all.
Arzner was the first female member of the Directors Guild of America, is often credited with the invention of the boom microphone, shot 50 Pepsi commercials with Joan Crawford and even had Francis Ford Coppola as one of her graduate students when she taught filmmaking at UCLA (she died in 1979).
But despite all this, more people likely know Arzner’s name than have actually seen her rarely revived work. So it’s welcome news that, fittingly, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is presenting “Dorothy Arzner: A Retrospective,” starting Friday at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater with a double bill of “The Wild Party” and “Anybody’s Woman.”
The series features 12 of Arzner’s directorial efforts (including six that the UCLA archive restored) as well as two silent films she only wrote — “The Red Kimono” and the energetic naval drama “Old Ironsides,” the latter for which she also was script supervisor and edited.
Those films show one reason for her longevity as a studio director: She knew the craft of film inside out. As Judith Mayne, author of “Directed by Dorothy Arzner,” wrote, “competence was far more important than brilliance or originality in making her career possible.”
But, obviously, there was more to Arzner as a director than that, as she herself was not shy about expressing in sentiments that ring as provocatively true today as they did then.
“Try as a man may, he will never be able to get the woman’s viewpoint in telling certain stories,” Arzner told the Washington Post in 1930. “Many stories demand treatment at the hands of a woman, not only from the script side but also in the direction, and here a woman should be allowed to direct in all cases.”
What this viewpoint, Arzner’s empathetic sense of the complicity, support and sometimes rivalry between women meant in practice is well illustrated by the series’ opening-night double bill of 1929’s “The Wild Party” and 1930’s “Anybody’s Woman.”
“Party” was the first sound film for star Clara Bow, whose nervousness about the new technology reportedly led Arzner to improvise a boom mike setup by putting a microphone on a fishing rod.
The film is set at all-women’s Winston College, where Bow plays Stella Ames, the school’s most popular “anything for a thrill” student, a setup that allows for both competition and sisterhood as well as a slow-burning romance between Stella and Fredric March’s handsome young anthropology professor.
“Anybody’s Woman,” written by Arzner’s frequent collaborator, Zoe Akins, shows what happens when a lawyer (Clive Brook), distraught at being left by his deceptive wife, gets drunk and marries a hard-boiled chorus girl (Ruth Chatterton) because he likes the fact that “she never looked up to men.” Arzner makes the most of the issues of double standards for male and female, as well as rich and poor.
Another unmistakable aspect of Arzner’s work is that the women are uniformly stronger and more interesting than the men even if, as is often the case, the men went to Yale or Harvard and the women are struggling to get by.
This is definitely the case in “Working Girls,” perhaps the most affably entertaining film in the series. It depicts the romantic peregrinations of sisters Mae and June Thorp (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood), recently transplanted to Manhattan from Rockville, Ind., who soon become involved with upper-crust types like Charles “Buddy” Rogers as Harvard man Boyd Wheeler.
In Arzner’s last film, 1943’s World War II action adventure drama “First Comes Courage,” it’s the woman (Merle Oberon playing a Norwegian double agent) who takes all the risks and gets the highest marks for courage and self-sacrifice.
Even though its named after its male protagonist, “Christopher Strong” best exemplifies this trait. It’s not Colin Clive as married politician Strong who makes the most impact, it’s Katharine Hepburn in one of her signature roles as daring, incandescent aviatrix Lady Cynthia Darrington, a woman who believes “courage can conquer even love.”
Arzner was also able to create sympathetic portrayals of women who could at first glance seem difficult, even troublesome, like Joan Crawford’s Anni Pavlovitch in “The Bride Wore Red,” a cracked fairy tale about a surly chanteuse who is given enough money to pretend to be wealthy for two weeks at a ritzy European spa.
The clearest example of this is “Craig’s Wife,” starring Rosalind Russell as the original ice queen Harriet Craig, who believes love is a liability in a marriage but is shown to be vulnerable underneath it all.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Arzner’s work are the films where she goes her own way in what could have been standard boy-meets-girl programmers and instead offers a different, somewhat skeptical perspective on conventional morality.
In “Dance, Girl, Dance,” for instance, she stars Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball as wary frenemies, an aspiring ballerina and an ambitious burlesque dancer who help and hinder each other as they pursue both men and their chosen career paths.
And then there is the intriguing “Honor Among Lovers,” which stars Claudette Colbert as a savvy private secretary who has to choose between a handsome boss (Fredric March again) who wants her for his mistress and an upwardly mobile boyfriend who wants to marry her. What she chooses, and what results, will surprise you. For the films of Dorothy Arzner, that’s par for the course.
‘Dorothy Arzner: A Retrospective’
Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire, Westwood
When: Screenings at 7:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted.
July 31: “The Wild Party,” “Anybody’s Woman”
Aug. 1: “Working Girls,” “Sarah and Son”
Aug. 9 at 7 p.m.: “First Comes Courage”
Aug. 15: :"Craig’s Wife,” “Christopher Strong”
Aug. 22: “Nana”
Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. “The Red Kimono,” “Old Ironsides”
Sept. 11: “Honor Among Lovers,” “Merrily We Go to Hell”
Sept. 18: “Dance, Girl, Dance,” “The Bride Wore Red”
Info: www.cinema.ucla.edu or (310) 206-8013
SIGN UP FOR OUR ENTERTAINMENT NEWSLETTERS: