“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.” — Dorothy Arzner

It’s her birthday today.

I have written quite a bit about her films here, mainly one of my favorites, Merrily We Go to Hell, a superb drama about a marriage gone terribly wrong, starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March in phenomenal performances. And Cary Grant shows up in a small role! It was pre-superstardom! Merrily We Go to Hell is a straight-talking pre-Code film about alcoholism, infidelity, and shattered dreams.

Dorothy Arzner was the only female director under contract during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age. (Not so golden if women are barred from the director’s chair, amirite.)

She got her start in silents as an editor, and then a director. She directed her final film in 1943. When she was offered a directing gig at Paramount, legend has it she said she’d like to do it, but only if she was given A-pictures. None of this B-picture malarkey. She was the first female member of the Directors’ Guild. A lot of firsts. I highly recommend seeing as many of her films as you can (sadly, some are lost to time and lack of film preservation.) Short list of titles I recommend:

Get Your Man (1927) – starring Clara Bow
Christopher Strong (1933) – starring Katharine Hepburn. It is her second film.
Craig’s Wife (1936) – starring Rosalind Russell
The Bride Wore Red (1937) – starring Joan Crawford
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) – starring Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball


Rosalind Russell in “Craig’s Wife”

Arzner was a star-maker, a director who saw the potential of soon-to-be-important stars like Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, Maureen O’Hara. These people already had careers, yes. But they were all so unique, and sometimes hard to place. Directors sometimes didn’t know quite what to do with them. Arzner saw what was unique about them, and highlighted it. She underlined their strangeness, their difference from other actors.


Arzner and Clara Bow


Arzner and Joan Crawford

I wrote about all of this and more in my booklet essay for the first Criterion release of an Arzner film, the excellent Dance, Girl, Dance, starring Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara.

A pioneering career. She was very good at what she did. She lived a long life. She taught at USC. Francis Ford Coppola remembers fondly the class he took with her, and her encouragement of him.

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4 Responses to “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.” — Dorothy Arzner

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    I got to see Dance, Girls, Dance decades ago at the late great Regency Theater in Manhattan. I still remember Maureen O’Hara’s performance. I recall a scene where she reads the riot act to the men who’ve been bossing her around. If I ever get a chance to see Merrily We Go to Hell, I’ll be glad to see it.

    • sheila says:

      // recall a scene where she reads the riot act to the men who’ve been bossing her around. //

      Yes! she turns the tables on the leering audience! radical!

      Merrily We Go to Hell is included in one of those pre-Code box sets – which I still buy because I can’t trust streaming platforms to keep this old stuff up there and available – I highly recommend those box sets! Besides the pre-Codes everyone knows, like Public Enemy – there’s so much more to discover.

      Merrily We Go to Hell is an amazing drama of marriage. Painful. Amazing performances!

      • Bill Wolfe says:

        I own a couple of those pre-Code sets. I love those movies! I often wonder how different American culture might have been over the ensuing decades if the Code hadn’t, to some extent, infantilized American movies when it came to sex.

        • sheila says:

          // if the Code hadn’t, to some extent, infantilized American movies when it came to sex. //

          I know. But it is amazing what the post-Code directors got away with, in terms of innuendo!

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