UCLA Spotlight

 (spotlight.ucla.edu) UCLA Film and Television Archive
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Dorothy Arzner, Film

  • Published Jan 1, 2003 8:00 AM

UCLA film students in the early '60s lived in a different landscape. Literally. Melnitz Hall and its sound stages weren't finished until 1967. Neither was the Sculpture Garden. Instead of a North Campus Student Center, there was a battered trailer called the Gypsy Wagon, selling burgers and hot dogs.

But if the facilities were lacking, the company was great. Randy Newman (yes, the future songwriter) was working on his music degree. Jim Morrison (yes, the future rock legend) was writing poetry for the campus literary magazine. Francis Ford Coppola (yes, yes) was trying his hand at filmmaking.

And Dorothy Arzner was one of the teachers who encouraged Coppola. Howard Suber, now a faculty member of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, talks about her impact:

"Dorothy Arzner was a mentor and model who proved through her own life that there was no conflict between being a first-rate filmmaker and a dedicated teacher. She nurtured and inspired not just me, but an entire generation of film students," Suber says. And Arzner was a legend in her own right. Arguably, she remains the woman with the longest continuous career as a director in Hollywood. From early stints as a typist, editor and screenwriter, Arzner went on to direct 16 features in about as many years, a record still unrivalled by any female director in Hollywood.

[The UCLA Film and Television Archive, which has recently restored six of Dorothy Arzner's feature films, will be screening her work in late January and early February 2003. See the calendar at www.cinema.ucla.edu/public/publicprog_f.html for the complete schedule of the series, Directed by Dorothy Arzner.]

"That she was one of the few women able to make it to the first rank of directors in her time is to her credit - and the industry's shame," Suber says.

Arzner's first work was in silent film. But with The Wild Party she made the transition to sound, a technological change she embraced and reportedly even advanced. To put Clara Bow at ease and moving naturally in her first talkie, Arzner is said to have devised a microphone on a pole, the first "boom." Subsequently, she gained a reputation as a star-maker of up-and-coming actresses. Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, even stage actress Ruth Chatterton and the young (though hardly a film novice) Lucille Ball, all were cast by Arzner in breakout roles.

By the early '40s, professional setbacks had forced Arzner's retirement from Hollywood. Nevertheless, she continued to be active, directing Women's Army Corps training films during WWII and Pepsi-Cola commercials for Joan Crawford in the '50s. Eventually she landed at UCLA, where she taught filmmaking from 1959 to 1963.

In an echo of her career-long "exceptionalism," she still occupies a special niche at UCLA: She is the sole film school faculty member to be memorialized with a bronze sculpture, in the northwest corner of the lobby outside the James Bridges Theater.

Arzner's films were rediscovered in the '70s feminist reappraisal of Hollywood, and this rediscovery was given further life by Judith Mayne's 1994 book, Directed by Dorothy Arzner, which examines Arzner's career in light of her lesbianism. Arzner's works today appeal as much for their subversive questioning of women's communities and female behavior as for their drop-dead wit, sparkling double entendres and playful gusto.