The Most Prolific Female Director in History Took Feminism to the Masses

“I know you want me to tear my clothes off so you can look your 50 cents worth," the cabaret dancer says, scolding her audience from the edge of a stage. "Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wives won’t let you. What do you suppose we think of you up here? With your silly smirks your mothers would be ashamed of. What’s it for? So’s you can go home when the show’s over and strut before your wives...? I am sure they see through you just like we do.”

It's a scene so unerringly feminist, it's hard to believe it was filmed in 1940. Dance, Girl, Dance, a movie that presented dancers as smart and complex at a time when they were more commonly used on screen as little more than background color, was extremely bold. And its landmark scene was par for the course for rebel director Dorothy Arzner.

Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner spent most of her life in Southern California. What's clear about the mark she left on the world, however, is that the rebellious spirit of San Francisco stayed with her long after she left. That fearlessness is visible in her film choices, as well as how she conducted her personal life—she was an out and unabashedly butch lesbian at a time when homosexuality was widely condemned.

Unshakeable in her commitment to elevating female figures on screen, Arzner's movies pulled no punches in presenting women as they'd never really been seen before. Both 1931's Working Girls and 1933's Christopher Strong featured plots in which unmarried women got pregnant—an extremely taboo subject at the time—and highlighted the damage wrought by stigmatizing women in trouble. In Christopher Strong, even Katherine Hepburn's go-getting pilot chooses to commit suicide rather than face the public shame of the world finding out.

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Arzner never held back when it came to her views on marriage, either. Instead of the Hollywood romance usually associated with the institution, she presented it as a trap women were forced into for social and financial security. Working Girls, Craig’s Wife (1936) and Merrily We Go To A Hell (1932) were all critical of the institution. The latter even featured a wife proposing an open marriage after finding out her husband has cheated.

While not the first female director in the world, Arzner was the only one working in Hollywood for the entirety of her movie directing career (1927-1943). She was also the first woman to be accepted into the Director's Guild of America. Not for nothing. Her moviemaking knowledge was built on sturdy foundations of experience, starting in 1919 with her first job as a silent film stenographer. From there, she graduated onto scriptwriting, and then onto film editing. Her directorial debut came in the form of 1927's Fashions for Women, and three other silent films followed.

In 1929, Arzner was given the great distinction of directing Paramount's first talkie, The Wild Party, and she took the challenge on with great innovation and aplomb. When the star of the film, Clara Bow, began struggling to adjust to non-silent set conditions (she was awkwardly checking the positions of microphones mid-scene), Arzner solved the issue by dangling a mic from a fishing line above. Just like that, the boom mic was born.

After directing her final movie (1943's First Comes Courage, about a female member of the WWII resistance), Arzner directed training videos for the wartime Women's Army Corps and made dozens of Pepsi-Cola commercials before going on to teach. Arzner's first classes were at the Pasadena Playhouse, and in 1961, she began teaching at UCLA's film school. (Interestingly, Arzner's partner of over 40 years, Marion Morgan, made a similar transition, moving from life as a Hollywood choreographer to teaching dance at both UC Berkeley and UCLA.)

Arzner's time at UCLA left a lasting impression on a multitude of students, including Francis Ford Coppola, who moved to San Francisco shortly after graduating from her class. After lobbying Paramount to name a building on its Hollywood lot after Arzner in 2018, Coppola appeared before the new Dorothy Arzner office and talked fondly of his mentor, calling her “salty and sort of tough, but with a heart as big as the world.”

At the end of his touching speech, Coppola turned toward a large black-and-white photo of Arzner, showing her working diligently behind a camera, and said: “I can never thank you enough for what helped me for the next 58 years of my career.” In a separate interview, Coppola noted: "I think what meant so much, as I always had self-doubt, was that she would say: 'You are going to do fine.' She was very famous. I just had the good luck that I was her student."

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here