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Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner

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As a young woman Dorothy Arzner studied medicine but became interested in filmmaking after visiting a movie studio.  She held jobs as a script typist, reader and script supervisor, film editor (for films including Blood and Sand and Ruggles of Redgap) and screenwriter.  She directed her first film, Fashions for Women, in 1927 and was the first woman to join the newly formed Directors' Guild of America.  Her commercially successful career spanned 25 years, ending in 1943 with First Comes Courage.  After her retirement, Arzner initiated the first filmmaking course at the Pasadena Playhouse, filmed numerous Pepsi Cola commercials at Joan Crawford's request and taught at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Although Arzner thought of herself as an ordinary working director rather than a pioneer, her status as one of the first women directors, and the only one at the time working within the Hollywood studio system, has attracted feminist attention.  By examining the critique of women as spectacle implicit in the Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and pointing out the self-determined, ambitious and independent women in films such as Working Girls (1932) and Christopher Strong (1933), critics have reassessed the content and structure of her films.  Although she was working within the constraints of the studio system, Arzner has stated that because she was not dependent on movies for her living, she was always willing to give a film to another director if she couldn't make it her way.

For an extended profile of Dorothy Arzner by professor Allyson Nadia Field, please visit the Women Film Pioneers Project.

Learn about UCLA Film & Television Archive's 2003 series, Directed By Dorothy Arzner, which toured more than 10 venues across the U.S. and England.  Arzner was also the focus of a retrospective in 2015.

To arrange onsite research viewing access, please contact the Archive Research and Study Center (ARSC).


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