Written by Colette Finkbiner, blogger/writer
Three Horizons Productions
The emerging Hollywood film industry of the early 20th century offered few substantial opportunities for women behind the camera. This inequity did not stop Dorothy Arzner, who became one of the first female feature film directors. She had grown up in Los Angeles and knew how to leverage her intelligence and talent to break into filmmaking.
Born in 1897, Arzner had become familiar with film’s celebrities and dealmakers who visited her father’s restaurant. After a stint at the University of Southern California, she was determined to break into the nascent film industry as a director. She managed to get an appointment with Paramount’s William de Mille. In a 1974 interview, Arzner said of De Mille and getting her first film industry job: “He was told I was an intelligent girl. There had been a serious flu epidemic, so workers were needed. It was possible for even inexperienced people to have an opportunity if they showed signs of ability or knowledge.” Arzner proceeded to observe the studio for about a week and decided to try typing scripts. She was hired.
Within six months, Arzner became a film cutter; this gave her editing experience, which at that time was accomplished by hand. In that capacity, she worked on at least fifty films. In 1922, she was asked to cut and edit Blood and Sand, which starred Rudolph Valentino. During this period as a cutter and editor, Arzner worked on several films with James Cruze, who was impressed by the bullfighting scene edit from Blood and Sand.
By 1927, Columbia Pictures offered her a chance to write and direct. As she was ready to walk off the Paramount lot for the last time, she decided to say “good-bye” to at least one important Paramount figure. She stopped Walter Wanger, head of the company’s New York studio, and told him she was leaving for Columbia. With that, Paramount offered her the chance to write the script for and direct Fashions for Women.
Arzner went on to make several more pictures before making her first talking film in 1929. The Wild Party starred Clara Bow as Stella Ames and Fredric March as Professor James Gilmore. The Wild Party centers on Stella and her friends, who are students at a women’s college. They live a stereotypical, hedonistic flapper lifestyle with parties and flirting. The film is full of innuendo and features a great deal of physicality among the mostly female cast. Clara Bow was the darling of pre-code Hollywood, and Arzner used Bow’s status to propel the story. Stella and her friends frequently show off their legs and attend wild parties. Yet, Stella is a very independent-minded young woman, who is unafraid even when she is kidnapped by drunken men at a roadhouse. The film also shows another side of women. Stella’s roommate Helen [Shirley O’Hara] is studious and works hard to win a scholarship. At one point, Helen says to Stella, “I haven’t any time for men.” This attitude is in contrast to movies post-code. In fact, James Gilmore falls in love with Stella because he sees her potential as a strong and intelligent woman.
Strong women would become a hallmark of Arzner’s films. She went on to work with women such as Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Chatterton, Merle Oberon, Anna Sten, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. Additionally, while directing Clara Bow in The Wild Party, Arzner is believed to have come up with the concept of the first boom mic. Bow was accustomed to a wide range of movement during the silent era. With the advent of talking pictures, it was difficult to keep actors within range of the sound recording equipment. In order to free her actress from this frustration, Arzner ordered the microphone to be attached to the end of a fishing pole, thus giving Bow a chance to exercise her physicality.
Over time, Arzner would work for Samuel Goldwyn. She met Joan Crawford when she directed her in The Bride Wore Red. (The two women would remain friends. When Crawford became the wife of PepsiCo’s chairman, she would help Arzner get hired to direct commercials for the company throughout the 1950s.) While at Goldwyn, Arzner also directed Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in Dance, Girls, Dance, which unabashedly examined the virulent sexism endemic to burlesque in that era.
Throughout World War II, Arzner made several U.S. Army training films. However, following the end of the war, many women, who had taken up jobs, as men served in the armed forces, were expected to return to an idealized life at home. Society shifted from embracing women in the workforce to a male-dominated work place. Hollywood studios were no different in this change. By the 1950s, Arzner had weathered a year-long illness and left Hollywood behind. She occasionally took up projects. In the 1960s, she applied her filmmaking knowledge and taught at the Pasadena Playhouse and then at University of California—Los Angeles. Arzner passed away in 1979 in La Quinta, California.
“My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio.” –Dorothy Arzner
Today, women work behind the camera in many capacities. Still, female directors in Hollywood face a battle. According to a recent study conducted by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles, independent film appears to be more amenable to women behind the camera than Hollywood. Independent film companies like Three Horizons Productions (THP) seek to inspire and empower emerging filmmakers through ongoing projects and events such as the upcoming Supernatural Film Fest and THP’s own Remi Vaughn’s feature film The Kiss.
Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.