Screen Studies - Spotlight

Spotlight on Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) is widely recognised as a pioneer of women’s filmmaking in early 20th century Hollywood. Starting as a stenographer for Paramount Pictures, she subsequently managed to secure a job as a film editor, marking her entry into the film industry. As Terri Murray highlights in this chapter of Studying Feminist Film Theory, ‘she was the first woman to direct a talkie, Manhattan Cocktail (1928)… and the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America.’

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979). Image courtesy of Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979). Image courtesy of Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo.

Arzner’s filmmaking is known for its formal and thematic sophistication; she employed inventive camera angles and tracking shots that were well ahead of her time, and her films often featured strong, independent female protagonists who challenged traditional gender roles. A key example of this was her 1940 musical romance Dance, Girl, Dance, which followed the story of two dancers in a struggling troupe, Judy O'Brien (played by Maureen O'Hara) and Bubbles (played by Lucille Ball), exploring their contrasting approaches to dance and their aspirations within the entertainment industry. Arzner’s direction highlighted the complexities of female identity and criticised prevailing gender dynamics. As Richard Dyer wrote in his 1981 essay, Why Dance?, included in The Richard Dyer Reader, ‘it is in the juxtaposition of the three dance forms [burlesque, classical ballet, and modern ballet] and the clear signalling of their gender meanings that much of the fascination of the film lies.’

While initially neglected in auteurist criticism, her significance to women’s filmmaking was (re)discovered by feminist film scholars in the 1970s, as evident in this 1976 statement by The London Women’s Film Group, anthologised in Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain 1945-90, celebrating Arzner’s films for showcasing ‘how women directors, working in Hollywood could, while using the stereotypes and icons of Hollywood itself, subvert the myths surrounding women, and to some extent break with the dominant patriarchal discourse’.

Arzner on set 1939. Image courtesy of Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
Arzner on set 1939. Image courtesy of Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo.

Arzner was particularly interested in exploring complex female characters beyond their relationships with men. As Sue Thornham writes in this chapter of ‘What If I Had Been The Hero?’, through Arzner’s narrative choices, ‘the male discourse is displaced from its position as the framing discourse within the film and rendered strange, open to scrutiny.’ Arzner’s commitment to advancing the ‘female discourse’ was inherent in her working practices, as Dana Polan discusses in his study of the director Jane Campion, ‘in her very work ethic, Arzner deeply felt the need for bonding and emotional connection, and this inspires the Arzner films themselves, which are often about communities of women.’

Her legacy as a ground-breaking filmmaker cannot be overstated, and she was one amongst few prominent figures in Hollywood who identified as a lesbian during an era when LGBTQ+ identities were not widely accepted or openly discussed. With a career spanning from the silent era to the early days of sound cinema, Arzner directed a diverse range of genres, showcasing her versatility. She collaborated with some of the biggest stars of her time, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball. She had a reputation for fostering strong working relationships with her actors and her legacy continues to inspire generations of filmmakers today.

Homepage banner: Dorothy Arzner in the director's chair. Image courtesy Album / Alamy Stock Photo.