In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dorothy Arzner

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Film Career
  • Lesbian and Gay Film Studies/Queer Theory
  • Feminist Film Theory
  • Creative Works

Cinema and Media Studies Dorothy Arzner
Theresa Geller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0025


In 1936, Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897–d. 1979) was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America; it would be seventy-four more years before a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, would win an Academy Award for directing. To date, women remain profoundly underrepresented in the DGA, constituting about 7 percent of the guild. Within the context of such pronounced and continuing discrimination against women in this field, Arzer’s success in the industry is all the more compelling. Although other women directors predated Arzner, her productive and successful career as a Hollywood film director in the studio system remains unparalleled. Between 1927 and 1943, she made seventeen features, most of them critically well received and profitable. Her extensive body of work, along with inventing the prototype for the boom mike (by attaching a microphone to a fishing pole), certainly makes her an important figure in American film history. That she was a woman in this field, however, is often the first and most salient detail commented on in biographies and other literatures, despite the fact that Arzner herself resisted the importance others placed on her gender. Because of her unique career as a prolific female film director—indeed, only a handful of women have comparable careers to this day—she figured centrally in the recovery projects of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminist film historians looked to Arzner as a forerunner of the women’s film movement, spearheaded by filmmakers Laura Mulvey, Chantal Ackerman, and Yvonne Rainer. Accordingly, Arzner’s films were rediscovered, screened at women’s film festivals, and interpreted in terms of a female aesthetic—an aesthetic demonstrated across various forms of cultural production. Although the gender essentialism that informed the claims to a female aesthetic waned, interest in Arzner remained. Her films—mostly women’s melodramas—provide a counterpoint to the ways Hollywood cinema represents women as spectacle. More recently, Arzner has figured centrally in discussions of lesbian and gay film history and queer cinema broadly defined. Her “masculine” appearance and lesbianism—including a life-long relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan—continue to be of interest to many, including director Todd Haynes, who has spoken of filming a biopic of Arzner’s life. Subject of documentaries, creative work, and several scholarly book-length studies and essays, Dorothy Arzner, her life and her films, continues to fascinate spectators and scholars alike.


Conventional biographies of Dorothy Arzner are few in number. The most thoroughgoing work on Arzner to date is Mayne 1994. Still, Mayne’s often-cited work is a study of representation as opposed to a typical biographical work. As Mahar 2006 details, although she received a good deal of public attention while she was making films, Arzner receded from the public eye when she retired from filmmaking in 1943. Thirty years later, her films were rediscovered and circulated at women’s film festivals, particularly in the United States and Great Britain, which, in turn, generated a great deal of interest in the director herself—an interest sated, in part, by the extensive interview recorded in Kay and Peary 1974. With the rise of second-wave feminism, Arzner became a central figure in feminist film criticism; Parker 1973 reads Arzner and her films within a feminist framework. Biographical work on Arzner usually falls into these two camps—as an exemplary figure for feminist film criticism or in larger historical works on women filmmakers, as in Hurd 2007, Mahar 2006, Foster 1995, and Wakeman 1987. Mayne 1994 provides the most extensive biography of Arzner, beginning with her indeterminate date of birth in San Francisco (most likely in 1897, but Arzner claims 1900) and Arzner’s family’s subsequent move to Los Angeles after the devastation of the earthquake. Mayne 1994, Slide 1996, and other biographies tell a very similar story about Arzner’s early years; despite meeting famous stars and directors like Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett at her father’s business, Hoffman Café, Arzner had little early ambition to enter the world of film. She was a very good student with ambitions in medicine; however, an internship at a doctor’s office quickly dissuaded her from a life in medicine, and she subsequently turned to filmmaking. Slide 1996 and Hurd 2007 detail her early career, starting as a typist and quickly making her way up to editor. Parker 1973 details many of Arzner’s collaborators in the film industry. Dorothy Arzner, Film provides some details about her career after her retirement from Hollywood in 1943, stressing that she continued to be active, directing Women’s Army Corps training films throughout World War II and Pepsi-Cola commercials for Joan Crawford in the 1950s; as the website states, she eventually landed at UCLA, where she taught filmmaking from 1959 to 1963.

  • Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

    The author provides a brief overview of Arzner’s directorial career in a three-page entry. She discusses Arzner’s entry into the film industry and the trials she faced as a woman filmmaker as well as discussing several of Arzner’s notable films in some detail. Following Judith Mayne, she argues that Arzner’s films focus on the difficulties posed by heterosexual relations, and they emphasize female community.

  • Hurd, Mary G. Women Directors and Their Films. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    The author discusses Arzner in her first chapter, titled “Pioneers.” The chapter provides a brief biography and discussion of Arzner’s work, concentrating specifically on the fact that Arzner’s films survived Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound cinema.

  • Kay, Karyn, and Gerald Peary. “Dorothy Arzner Interview.” Cinema 34 (1974): 10–20.

    A detailed interview with Arzner conducted by the authors over several months, with Arzner adding final comments and corrections to the final version. Arzner talks about how she got into filmmaking, her work as an editor on a Valentino film, and her early collaboration with James Cruze.

  • Mahar, Karen Ward. Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Studies in Industry and Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

    Details how the emergent film industry was open to women in film-related careers from about 1896 to 1916, but then shut them out when it solidified as a big business. Because of Mahar’s time frame, Arzner is addressed as an exception, enjoying a measure of success when most women’s film careers had ended.

  • Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Women Artists in Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    The only book-length study focusing solely on Arzner—her public and private life—with particular attention given to her relationships with women and the ways her lesbianism continues to impact the discourses that surround her. Provides one of the few discussions of Arzner’s life after Hollywood. The second part of Mayne’s book examines Arzner’s films in accessible, detailed discussions.

  • Parker, Francine. “Approaching the Art of Arzner.” Action 8.4 (July–August 1973): 9–14.

    This is an exceptionally informative and comprehensive essay on Arzner’s career, including nuanced readings of her films and rarely discussed information about her many collaborators, including renowned cinematographers Gregg Toland and Harry Fischbeck.

  • Slide, Anthony. The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors. Rev. ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996.

    An excellent overview of early women filmmakers who worked (mostly) in silent films. The chapter dedicated to Arzner, both biographical and focused on her early films, provides solid historical research on Arzner’s career. Notably, unlike other works focused on women filmmakers, Slide does not eschew Arzner’s lesbianism but rather foregrounds it at several points throughout the chapter. See pp. 103–115 in particular.

  • UCLA Spotlight: Dorothy Arzner, Film.

    This website focuses on Arzner’s time as a teacher at the University of California at Los Angeles. It features an interview with her colleague at the school, Howard Suber, who speaks to her role as a mentor for young filmmakers.

  • Wakeman, John, ed. World Film Directors. Vol. 1, 1890–1945. New York: Wilson, 1987.

    A frequently cited reference work; Wakeman provides an overview of Arzner’s career and the films she worked on and directed. See pp. 3–8 in particular.

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