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What Happened to the Female Directors of Hollywood?

Dorothy Arzner takes charge on the set of “Merrily We Go to Hell” in this 1932 photo. (AP)

Editor’s note: In October 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating Hollywood’s gender gap. Before it concludes its mediation process, Truthdig contributor Carrie Rickey considers the historic accomplishments of women behind the camera, how they got marginalized and how they are fighting for equal employment.

This five-part Truthdig series is published in partnership with Women and Hollywood and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Click here to read Part 1, here for Part 3, here for Part 4 and here for Part 5.

Where did the female directors go? Never mind that pioneer directors Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber were towering figures of cinema’s first two decades. By 1920, each found it harder and harder to get projects off the ground. Just about the time that American women earned the right to vote, these two directors found it increasingly difficult to find financing. Given recent studio consolidations, executives wanted filmmakers they could control, not those accustomed to calling the shots.

Although in the early 1920s, many screenwriters from the previous decade—including Lenore Coffee, Anita Loos, Frances Marion, Bess Meredyth, Jeanie MacPherson and Jane Murfin—continued to thrive and flourish, that was not the case for their sisters behind the camera. As counterintuitive as this may seem, more women won Oscars for their screenplays in the 1930s (three) than in the 1980s (zero). For the most part, women behind the camera disappeared.

There was an exception.

At Paramount in 1919, Dorothy Arzner, a young woman who had studied medicine and worked briefly as a studio stenographer, was promoted to continuity supervisor on a film titled “Stronger Than Death.” Its star was stage actress Alla Nazimova, as legendary for her talent as she was for her lesbian sexuality. Herbert Blaché, husband of Guy-Blaché and mentor of Weber, was the film’s co-director. There is evidence, says Arzner biographer Judith Mayne, that she benefited from the casting couch: At the time of her promotion, Arzner was among Nazimova’s lovers.

Arzner apprenticed with assistant film editor Nan Heron. After cutting some 32 pictures in her first year, the novice soon surpassed her teacher. The studio tapped Arzner to edit Fred Niblo’s 1922 film “Blood and Sand,” Rudolph Valentino’s first starring role, the tale of a toreador torn between his loving wife and a teasing vamp. Arzner shot the bullfight scenes, invisibly integrating them with stock footage of Spanish corridas, highlighting close-ups of Valentino that catapulted him to stardom. When director James Cruze saw her work, he promptly hired her to edit his 1923 epic “The Covered Wagon.” They worked together on other films, including “Old Ironsides” in 1926, on which she also had a screenwriting credit. Of Cruze Arzner said, “He always treated me as though I were his son.”

Having worked as an editor and as a screenwriter on a handful of films, Arzner wanted to direct. She was about to leave Paramount for the opportunity when, in order to keep her, the studio hired her to direct “Fashions for Women” in 1927, a cheerful, mistaken-identity farce set in Paris. Paramount was testing both Arzner and promising actress Esther Ralston, hoping the rookie director, like Lois Weber before her, could make a star out of a relative unknown. Both missions were accomplished, and the film was a commercial success.

At about the time Arzner made her studio filmmaking debut, Zora Neale Hurston, later celebrated for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” directed the ethnographic films “Children’s Games” and “Logging” in 1928 and “Baptism” in 1929.

Back in Hollywood, Paramount entrusted Arzner with making its first sound film, “The Wild Party,” in 1929. When star Clara Bow had trouble adjusting to the microphone affixed to her, Arzner came up with the idea to attach it to a fishing rod that could dangle overhead, allowing Bow to move freely. This was the prototype of the “boom mic,” which Arzner neglected to patent, although it became a vital tool for filmmakers.

In a directorial career spanning 16 films (11 of them for Paramount) over 15 years, Arzner worked for almost every studio on movies with female leads. Samuel Goldwyn asked her to direct “Nana” in 1934 because he hoped she would make a star of Anna Sten. That didn’t happen. But Arzner was instrumental in advancing the screen careers of Katharine Hepburn, the Earhart-like aviatrix in the 1933 film “Christopher Strong”; Rosalind Russell, the domineering Harriet Craig in “Craig’s Wife” in 1936; and eternal chorus girl Lucille Ball, whose first screen starring role was as a burlesque queen in the 1940 film “Dance, Girl, Dance.” Actresses in Arzner movies drove the narratives. For example, 35 years before film scholar Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze,” the character played by actress Maureen O’Hara delivered a critique of it in “Dance, Girl, Dance.Arzner almost always worked with female editors, including Viola Lawrence and Adrienne Fazan, ensuring that the editing branch was hospitable to women.

The director’s value to her employers may have been as a star-maker, but she is of interest to contemporary viewers for her subversive portraits of powerful and sensual women far from the Hollywood norm. Not for Arzner were women who fit the convenient pigeonholes of madonna and whore. Film historian Molly Haskell approvingly notes how Arzner bridged the gaps between Hollywood romantic conventions and her own feminist sensibility. Her movies remain bracing examples of how different the world within a movie looks when a woman is behind the camera: Male characters are allowed to be emotional; female characters to be strong. Marriage is rarely the object of Arzner women, who are aviatrixes, aspiring ballet dancers and resistance fighters.

After a bout with pneumonia, Arzner left Hollywood in 1943. In her study of the director, Mayne notes, “Arzner always said that, even though she made the decision to leave Hollywood, she also felt that Hollywood had left her.”

Arzner contributed to the World War II effort by making training shorts for the Women’s Army Corps—“How to Groom Oneself,” for example—and mentored four women who cut and edited the WAC films. In recognition of her work, the government offered her the military rank of major, which she refused. From the 1930s until her death in 1979, Arzner shared her life with longtime companion Marion Morgan, a choreographer and dancer.

During the 1950s, Arzner directed Pepsi-Cola ads for Joan Crawford, star of Arzner’s “The Bride Wore Red” and wife of PepsiCo CEO Alfred Steele. In the 1960s, Arzner taught at UCLA, where her most famous student was Francis Coppola.

About the time Arzner decamped Hollywood, avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren directed 1943’s “Meshes of the Afternoon,” a dreamlike, independent film that suggests visual correlatives for the unconscious. This enormously influential film would inspire generations of filmmakers, among them David Lynch.

* * *

Arzner was the first member of that seemingly impregnable Hollywood men’s club, the Director’s Guild of America. In 1950, another female filmmaker was admitted. That silk skirt among the gray flannel trousers was Ida Lupino.

The British-born daughter of entertainers, Lupino reluctantly enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 14. In 1933, her parents pushed her before the cameras. In both England and the United States she played love-struck nymphets, ingénues and artist’s models in mostly forgettable films.

After arriving in California in 1934, she bounced among Hollywood studios for seven years—perhaps she and Arzner crossed paths at Paramount or RKO?—contracted polio (the subject of her 1950 film “Never Fear”) and wrote whenever she had time. Like every female under 30 in the greater Los Angeles area, she auditioned to play Scarlett O’Hara. In 1939, she played a vindictive cockney wench in “The Light That Failed,” a role she demanded from the surprised director, William Wellman.

That role earned her a contract at Warner Brothers, where she was fourth in line—after Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Ann Sheridan—for female roles. Lupino was electric as unloved, unfulfilled women in “They Drive By Night,” “High Sierra,” “The Hard Way” and many other films. For refusing parts she didn’t think were good enough, Lupino was frequently on suspension. She spent those days at the studio, on the sets, observing how the directors set up shots and worked with crews.

“She was a woman working in Hollywood at a time when both the cultural climate and the incipient sexism of the industry mitigated against her efforts,” wrote Martin Scorsese, an admirer of Lupino both as an actress and a filmmaker.

If, as her actions suggest, Lupino felt unfulfilled as an actress, she did something about it, becoming an independent filmmaker long before that was a thing. When her Warner’s contract was not renewed in 1948, she and Collier Young, her second husband, founded Emerald Films, later known as The Filmakers. Between 1949 and 1953, Lupino directed six films, five of which she also wrote and one in which she co-stars. During this busy time she also acted in six films directed by others.Like Weber, one of the first actors-turned-filmmakers, Lupino was interested in telling stories that weren’t being told.

On a shoestring, Lupino made populist potboilers without liberal pieties. Most are social-problem movies about rape (“The Outrage”), bigamy (“The Bigamist”) and unwed motherhood (“Not Wanted”), where she aligns the audiences with her female protagonists. Others are about professional women forced to rethink their professions: a dancer who gets polio (“Never Fear”) and a tennis player pushed by her mother into “shamateurism” so that she can compete and get endorsement money (“Hard, Fast and Beautiful”). Lupino is the first female filmmaker to make a film noir: In the tense film “The Hitch-Hiker,” the antagonist is not a femme fatale but an homme fatale.

As social-problem film migrated to television, so did Lupino. While continuing to act, she directed more than 100 television episodes between 1955 and 1968. (Until 1989, she was the most prolific female director in TV.) She was the only woman to direct an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and her work on the popular Western “Have Gun—Will Travel” inspired a young actor working on the adjacent set on a show called “Rawhide.” Until he watched Lupino tell the cameraman to mount a horse in order to capture action, it didn’t occur to Clint Eastwood that an actor could also direct.

In 1966, Lupino directed her last film feature, “The Trouble With Angels,” an unexpectedly profound comedy set in the all-female community of a convent. Its central character, a teen troublemaker played by Hayley Mills, struggles to find her true vocation. In Mills’ character, Lupino may have recognized herself.

Carrie Rickey
In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has…
Carrie Rickey

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