Pioneers! Oh, Pioneers!

Largely forgotten today, Dorothy Arzner guided the transition from silents to talkies, a legend of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”

On The Town | Philip Ellison | April 2011

Back when Beverly Boulevard cut through bean fields and oil derricks were a common backyard sight, the Cahuenga Pass was a cattle trail, and Hollywood was still Hollywoodland. Movies were not yet "film" (though the French were perfectly within their rights to call it "cinema" from the get-go).

But back then, when the business was young, movies were made at Astoria Studios on Long Island, and Los Angeles was a pueblo better known for its oranges than its industry. Warmed by the sun, soothed by the sea, and not yet focused on the "stars" it would learn to cultivate,  L.A. amounted to little more than the gleam in a developer’s eye.

Barely a generation after the Gold Rush, ‘celluloid valley’ was becoming a magnet for talent, and the otherwise hopeful. Screens were popping up all over, and had to be filled. Using the canvas walls of circus tents and vaudeville stages, the fast-on-his-feet impresario helped stoke the flame of this new popular mania for the moving image at 5 cents a look.

Like their great grandchildren who would migrate to Silicon Valley, the film "colony" was a giddy bunch enjoying both a stock market bubble and the scramble to find their place in the new medium. In its infancy, the movie business spawned dozens of studios from Echo Park to Santa Monica and points in between, many short-lived and others little more than eager experiments, but no one could stop them, and no one knew the rules, because there weren’t any... yet.

Dorothy Arzner, daughter of German-American parents who ran a café in L.A. featuring German cuisine. was one such talented and ambitious craftsman, who saw her opportunity, knew she had talent, and made an indelible mark in the "wide open" town that was Hollywood. This was before the Production Codes and the "suits" (or for that matter the later "film school" orthodoxy) arrived to tame it. Rising through the ranks as screenwriter and film editor, Arzner directed 16 feature films over the course of her career. In the silent era, Arzner was the first person, gender notwithstanding, to receive screen credit as an editor.

Dorothy Arzner was "present at the creation," to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson,  as not only the first woman to direct a sound picture. Azner directed Paramount’s first talkie, "Manhattan Cocktail" (1928), and spanned the chasm from silent to sound. The new medium was not without its challenges. Clara Bow, the silent era’s "It" girl, and Paramount’s top star, struggled with her thick Brooklyn accent, and like every one else, hated working with the cumbersome microphones then used for synching dialogue.  To solve Bow’s problem in "The Wild Party" (1929), Arzner devised the first boom mike, attaching a microphone to a fishing pole to follow Bow as she moved around the set. Arzner turned Bow’s "less-than-dulcet" speech into an asset, "to underscore the vivaciousness of her character."

In the years to come, Arzner became something of a star-maker, providing successful vehicles for several powerful leading ladies, starting with Sylvia Sidney who played a key role in Fritz Lang’s early career, and continuing through work with Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Maureen O’Hara and Cary Grant, playing a bon vivant in Azner’s "Merrily We Go to Hell." But Arzners films are remarkable for putting strong, opinionated, and resolute women front and center. Despite the "morals" charges that would hound all of Hollywood with the Hays code in 1934, Depression era audiences found relief in Arzner’s films. She fought authority, and so did her films, she asserted strong values, as did her protagonists.

Frederic March in "Merrily We Go To Hell" prefigures Ray Milland’s "Lost Weekend" by a decade and a half, but affirms the power of commitment. Arzner’s "The Wild Party" sees Bow find herself, learning the value of a college education as a co-ed; Frederic March (again) as Winston College’s new Professor of Anthropology, soberly speaks of the woman who founded the school at great personal sacrifice so that her generation could learn by "hard work and scholarship", values she placed above all others.

While largely forgotten today, Arzner is ripe for re-discovery. The only woman director during Hollywood’s "Golden Age" of the 1920s, 30s and early 40s, and the first female member of the Director’s Guild, her body of works remains the largest of any woman in Hollywood to date.  Ironically, after a quarter of a century in the film business, Arzner ultimately found herself a quasi-godmother to the first Film School generation, working as a professor of film at UCLA from the early 1960s, fostering the dreams of Francis Ford Coppola, and colleagues. Interestingly, many of the films seen in this retrospective remain extant largely due both to the archival work done by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and financial support of, among others, Jodie Foster.

What comes around...yes, even in Hollywood!


For details and the full film program of the most comprehensive retrospective-to-date of works by Dorothy Arzner the see the following link to the Austrian Film Museum website:

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