Video: Feminist film pioneer Dorothy Arzner finally takes the spotlight

TIFF Cinematheque is showcasing six classics by the queer female director who helped launch the careers of Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn

WORKING GIRLS: THE FILMS OF DOROTHY ARZNER January 12-February 10 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West). Visit for showtimes.

Dorothy Arzner was a queer female director with about 18 studio films under her belt. If she were working today, we’d be making a big deal about her accomplishments.

The only female director working in the era when film transitioned from silent to talkies, Arzner is the subject of a TIFF Cinematheque’s program, Working Girls: The Films Of Dorothy Arzner, which kicks off on Saturday and runs for a month. It features six key films, including her first sound film, 1929’s The Wild Party (January 20, 1 pm) the 1933 Katharine Hepburn aviation comedy Christopher Strong (February 10, 1 pm) and her 1940 feminist masterpiece Dance, Girl, Dance (January 12, 1 pm), which will be introduced by film lecturer and programmer Alicia Fletcher.

Full disclosure: Fletcher is a good friend. We went to grad school together a dozen years ago and throughout our film education neither of us encountered Arzner, who died in 1979.

“Most histories left her out simply because it was men writing those histories,” says Fletcher, whose essay, The Passion of Dorothy Arzner, was my first introduction to the director.

In it, Fletcher recounts how Arzner started out as a stenographer a hundred years ago. She worked her way up to film cutter and then editor (she was the first person – man or woman – to get credit as an editor). After directing the bullfighting scenes as second unit director for the Rudolph Valentino’s 1922 film Blood And Sand, Arzner fought to direct her own films and threatened to quit when Paramount Pictures tried to appease her with paltry fare. That’s when they gave her Fashions For Women, a 1927 hit starring the cherubic Esther Ralston.

A few features later, Arzner directed The Wild Party, Paramount’s first talking picture starring the original “It Girl” Clara Bow.

“This is early sound days,” Fletcher recalls. “It’s very technical and very rigid. Directors are still figuring out how to combine movement with recording sound. Dorothy Arzner strung a microphone to a fishing pole to allow Clara Bow to have more freedom of movement. Instead of standing there, very pin-straight, trying to keep a microphone in place. Effectively, Dorothy Arzner invented the boom microphone even though she was never credited for it.”

Her films would go on to flaunt art deco designs and lovely choreography by the director’s lifelong partner Marion Morgan, while launching stars like Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert. And yes, the films were boldly feminist and anti-patriarchal.

In Dance, Girl, Dance, Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball star as cabaret dancers trying to carve out their own paths to success by embracing and manipulating the ways men turn them into commodities. Had a man directed this story, the competition between the women would have been reduced to cattiness. In Dance, Girl, Dance, the relationship between the two women is intense but also empathetic, graceful and inspiring.

For more on Dorothy Arzner’s enduring influence, check out a video interview with Fletcher above.


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