Are female directors moving, up, down, or sideways?

As I read two articles in the past few days addressing the presence of women directors in the New York theatre scene, I recalled the research I did when writing Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present.  More specifically, I wrote about Dorothy Arzner, an early film director and the first director of “talkie” films for Paramount Studios.

In the film industry today, women are slowly making progress and becoming directors as evidenced by the increasing number of women directors at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival held in Park City Utah this past January. Half of the sixteen films entered in the dramatic competition were directed by women. As the number of female directors grow, we also get an increase in the number of female roles on the screen.

However, as much as we are making headway, it is slow considering the enormous influence women played in the early history of filmmaking and in the growth of Hollywood. The reality is that women in film are up against a “celluloid ceiling”. Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film tracks and studies women working in the movie industry and produces the annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report. As noted in the most recent report, women accounted for 9% of directors working on the top 250 films of 2012, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2011 but even with the percentage of women directors working in 1998. In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Lauzen, while praising Sundance for giving more women opportunities, was not particularly encouraging. Having analyzed the statistics for 20 years, “the numbers for women filmmakers have been remarkably stable and reflect that this is an entrenched industry,” Dr. Lauzen said.

Since women have entered the workforce in droves, the norm is that they have to work harder and longer hours to try to reach parity on pay and positions with men. It may feel we are moving at a snail’s pace in particular industries, but we are making progress. In Hollywood in particular, there are many successes we can point to in all facets of the industry. This did not just happen; many women in the early 1900’s paved the way to make it easier for generations following them to succeed.  One of my favorites is Dorothy Arzner, a noted film director during the Golden Age of Hollywood, whose work had been ignored and forgotten for many years, but who demonstrated how women had to struggle to succeed in a male dominated profession.

Arzner got her break working as a stenographer in 1919 for $20.00 per week typing scripts for William DeMille at Paramount Studio. Recognizing see was not a very good typist, she quickly managed to get another position to write synopses for current productions.  She excelled at writing and moved quickly to film cutter, scriptwriter, and editor within three years. Arzner was the first Hollywood editor to be given a screen credit, and by 1922, as chief editor, she had edited 52 films.

By the mid-20’s Arzner was ready to become a director.  Paramount partially obliged by promoting her to assistant director, which she realized was a way to keep her quiet, but would not vault her into the director’s chair.  Determined and shrewd, she threatened to jump to Columbia pictures where she had already been offered a director’s position.  Acknowledging she was a gifted and sought after talent, Paramount executives ceded to her demands and let her direct Fashions for Women, an extremely profitable hit. Arzner noted, “My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn’t get my way, but no one ever let me walk out.”

She made history by directing Paramount’s first sound movie, Manhattan Cocktail, and then launched Frederick March as a screen star in The Wild Party, starring Clara Bow. During this filming, Arzner made a significant contribution to sound technology. It was Bow’s first foray into the “talkies”, and she was extremely anxious, in great part, because of her deep Brooklyn accent. Arzner solved this problem by rigging a microphone onto a fishing rod, essentially creating the first boom mike.

It was no secret that Arzner was a lesbian and lived for more than four decades with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan who appeared in some of her movies. Her appearance was masculine in every sense of the word.  Dressed in suits, ties, and short hair combed tightly back, she emitted an authoritarian demeanor. This may have been her way to portray herself as “the man in charge” and to fit into the Hollywood boy’s club.

Most of Arzner’s films featured strong women characters, and though she was recognized as a director of “women’s films”, she actually succeeded in challenging the accepted tenets of Hollywood from within, posing viewpoints that challenged the prevailing order. Arzner focused on social borders and the dynamics of capitalism: she was not hesitant to articulate class rivalries, focus on relationships and institutions, and critically examine forms of solidarity.

Arzner directed eleven feature films for Paramount between 1927-1932, after which she left the studio to work on her own. Although most of her films were box office successes and the studios profited, the culture of the industry was changing. Arzner was on the politically incorrect side of the transformation, and most likely, the more conservative studio executives were responsible for ending her directing career. Arzner reportedly commented that twenty-five years in the business (with business partners like that) were simply enough.

In spite of this environment, she became the only female director during the post silent boom of Hollywood filmmaking and the first female member of the Directors Guide of America. Although she established the largest oeuvre by a woman director, her work has been practically excluded in accounts of film history. Not until the 1970’s and the rediscovery of her work in a project of feminist film studies, did she finally receive the critical acclaim she deserved.

Arnzer received several important honors in her lifetime including the First International Festival of Women’s Films in 1972. The Directors Guild in 1975 honored her with a “Tribute to Dorothy Arzner”. Katharine Hepburn sent a telegram which read: It is wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all.” Arzner’s noted quote is “When I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.” This quote perfectly described Arzner and how she became an acclaimed director in a predominantly male industry.

I hope our current and future female directors know about and acknowledge women like Dorothy Arzner who have made their career paths easier, even if sometimes it is only a little easier.

Hannah Cohen