Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Women You Should Know - Dorothy Arzner by Melissa Hacker

Women You Should Know:
Dorothy Arzner 

January 3, 1897 – October 1, 1979
by Melissa Hacker

I dropped out of college, moved to Seattle, and was waiting tables, dishwashing, and working in childcare. The University of Washington ran a fantastic film series, complete with detailed printed handouts, and I began to get an education in film. One rainy, dark winter it was all Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk. Films featuring extravagant madmen and trapped women.

Soon after, I went back to school and was in a film production class using obsolete cameras donated by the local TV news station, and the professor, who was also obsolete, showed the class a cartoon of a woman holding a camera while jumping up on a chair, cowering. There was a mouse on the floor in front of the chair. I no longer remember the context – what technical or aesthetic lesson he was ostensibly teaching at the time, but I do remember his point; that women do not belong behind the camera. 

It was perhaps in this context that I found Dorothy Arzner. 

She was a very welcome discovery.

Dorothy Arzner was a woman director in the heart of the Hollywood studio system. After starting out as a stenographer, she quickly became a scriptwriter, editor (she edited the Rudolph Valentino vehicle, Blood and Sand), and then directed 16 feature films. 

She launched the careers of Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and other actresses. She directed Clara Bow's first talkie, in 1929, and is credited with developing the first boom mike when, to allow Clara Bow greater freedom of movement on set, she had technicians attach a microphone to a fishing pole.

I just watched Dance, Girl, Dance again. Made in 1940, it passes the Bechdel test:
  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man
Judy (Maureen O'Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball) are in a dance troupe that falls on hard times. Judy wants to be a ballerina, but when Bubbles becomes a burlesque queen – Tiger Lilly -- and offers her a job at $25/week, Judy dances as a “stooge” or joke, a ballet between the bump and grind. 

After a powerful moment when Judy turns on the audience (the burlesque and the film audience), challenging the male gaze, they do have one big brawl, onstage, between the curtains, but all ends well. 

Bubbles gives her rich, new husband (married when he was drunk) back to his ex-wife: "Just call it Tiger Lilly throws playboy back to mate…for $50,000," she instructs the paparazzi. Judy joins the ballet company of her dreams. She was on her way to an interview there early in the film, which did not happen because Madame, the troupe’s elderly manager, a former Russian ballerina, too excited by the prospect of helping Judy to pay attention, met a tragic end while crossing the street. 

Ah, melodrama!

Finding Arzner opened the door to a world of inspiration. She was among a handful of women directors in early movie history including Alice Guy-Blaché, Germaine Dulac, Lois Weber, and Thea von Harbou. You can learn more at the Women Film Pioneers Project and an Arzner bio pic is finally in the works!

Melissa Hacker is a filmmaker born and raised in New York City. Her first film, My Knees Were Jumping; Remembering The Kindertransports was short-listed for Academy Award nomination and screened in film festivals , universities, and broadcast worldwide. Venus, an experimental video, was included in the group exhibition “Objects of Devotion and Desire: Medieval Relic to Contemporary Art” at The Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery, and received special accolades in The New York Times' review of the show. Venus also screened at the Josephinum Medical History Museum in Vienna. Honors received for Ex Libris, her current work-in-progress, include a Fulbright Artist-in-Residence award, production grants from the New York State Council for the Arts and the Austrian National Fund, and residencies at Yaddo, VCCA, Playa, and Saltonstall. Melissa has an MFA from Hunter College, and works as a wandering adjunct professor and film editor.

Editor's Note:  Check out all the posts in this series, starting with Siofra McSherry's on Olivia Robertson! You can find additional posts in the Women You Should Know series in the blog archives  from March 2012 and March 2013.  If you are interested in being a guest blogger on the Zestyverse, let us know!

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