I’m going to step out of the box a little for this essay. Normally, Nice Girls focuses on television, but the woman in the spotlight today got her start before the days of TV, so she breaks the rules. This is pretty unusual for her, as it seemed like Dorothy Arzner knew exactly how to play by the rules—and how to make those rules work for her.
You probably haven’t heard of her, as film history mostly ignores her, but she’s pretty important. Dorothy Arzner can possibly take credit for being the first female film director. Not just a first female director: a female director in the days of the studio system, when this was unheard of.
She attended the University of Southern California to become a doctor, and served in the ambulance corps in WWI, but Arzner headed for showbiz instead. A connection in the business got her a job as a stenographer on her first film, 1922’s Blood And Sand. Within six months, she had moved up to editing and soon after became a sought-after commodity for the quality of her work.
Her first directing stint came in 1927 with Paramount’s Fashions for Women. It’s said that Arzner, who always wanted to be a director because the director got to tell people what to do, threatened to leave Paramount for Columbia, strong-arming Ben P. Schulberg into giving her the first directing gig.
Arzner was, of course, working in what was (and sometimes continues to be) a man’s world: Hollywood. In order to be taken seriously, she always wore men’s shirts and ties, though she preferred skirts to pants. It helped that Fashions for Women went on to be a big financial success for the studio, allowing Arzner to keep working until 1943.
In addition to her films launching several big name actresses (think Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball), Arzner could possibly be credited with something really neat: the invention of the first boom mic. She directed Paramount’s first talkie, starring Clara Bow. In order to give the actress movement, she suspended a microphone on a fishing pole and had the first boom operator follow the scene around, creating the first boom mic.
Overall, Arzner made twenty films and was the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America (and for many years was its only female member). Though her filmmaking career ended in 1943, she did continue on, directing TV commercials and Army training films. Eventually, she taught at the UCLA film school until her death in 1979. She now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
How’s that for female empowerment? Ladies, represent.