August 5, 2020 The Newspaper Serving LGBT Los Angeles

GAY L.A. – How Lesbian Filmmaker Dorothy Arzner Transformed Filmmaking

During a time when filmmaking was all about grit, the all-but-out Arzner rose to the top.

Early Hollywood was full of ambitious women intent on putting their mark on the new, controversial filmic art. From film pioneer Lois Weber, to comedian Mable Normand, to Alice Guy-Blache, to young screenwriter (and eventual “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” author) Anita Loos, Hollywood was bursting with female talent in the 1910s and ‘20s. Of course, this was long before Hollywood was the tourist trap we know it to be. In the early days of film, almost anyone could do the job of directing, whether they’d had experience or not. With so many women finding important roles in front of the camera, it came as no surprise that many of them should find an even more fulfilling place behind it, at the true center of the action.

Sadly, however, the days of early feminist filmmaking gave way, rather quickly, to an atmosphere of men (and only men) behind the camera. As filmmaking because lucrative and even prestigious, men found themselves fighting for the job. Women, once more, found themselves in front of the lens, at the mercy of the newly-refined male gaze.

A young Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara in Arzner’s “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940)

For one woman, however, it was a much different story.

Dorothy Arzner wasn’t only one of the few female directors whose career survived past the ‘10s and into the 1940s. She was also a woman who led a pretty transparent lesbian existence in early Hollywood. Born in San Francisco in 1897, Arzner and her family relocated to Los Angeles when she was still a kid. Once there, she quickly found her way into the picture business, starting first as a stenographer, then a screenwriter, then a film editor on such masterpieces as 1919’s “Too Much Johnson” (yes, it’s real). Though movie mogul Louis B. DeMille made the assumption that Arzner’s gender meant that she was angling for an acting career, Arzner eventually made it clear that she wanted to direct. She got her chance with a 1927 film (now lost) called “Fashions for Women.” She would go on to direct Clara Bow in the early talkie “The Wild Party,” Lucille Ball in “Dance, Girl, Dance,” and Katherine Hepburn in the gender-bending, thinly-veiled Amelia Earhart biopic “Christopher Strong,” in which Hepburn takes on the role of a female pilot.

Katherine Hepburn in Arzner’s “Christopher Strong” (1933)

In between all this, Arzner stayed busy between the sheets. She managed to have affairs with some of the most notorious actresses of the day, including Alla Nazimova (who had staged an all-queer film production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” in 1923) and Billie Burke, who would later go onto play Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Arzner eventually settled down with the choreographer Marion Morgan. They lived together for 40 years, until Morgan’s death in 1971. Arnzer would outlive her by eight years. At the end of her life, Arnzer made training films for the military and taught filmmaking at her Alma Mater, UCLA. Though she’d stopped making films in the early ’40s – her last was the war film “First Comes Courage” in 1943 – she left on her own terms, retiring with her partner to live out their lives far from the noise and clamor of Hollywood.

Related Posts

Still Bisexual

July 21, 2020

July 21, 2020

Still Bisexual will be hosting an online event called Sacred Space: A Black Wellness Event on Saturday, August 1st at...

31st GLAAD “Virtual” Awards

July 15, 2020

July 15, 2020

GLAAD the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) media advocacy organization, today announced that it will host...

North Hollywood Gay Latino Bar ‘Cobra’ Closed for Business

June 12, 2020

June 12, 2020

Instead adopts virtual entertainment method By Toi Creel The effect of COVID -19 has not only taken a toll on...

MIKA, Lil Nas X and More at GLAAD Awards

March 6, 2020

March 6, 2020

GLAAD, the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) media advocacy organization, today announced that recording artist and...

“Pose” Actress and Transgender Rights Advocate Angelica Ross Among the Honorees Truth Awards

March 3, 2020

March 3, 2020

The Annual Awards Show to Honor and Recognize LGBTQ + African Americans and Their Allies By Staff Writer Better Brothers...

Santa Monica Honors LGBTQ Politician and Heal The Bay CEO on 100th Anniversary of U.S. Women’s Right to Vote

February 28, 2020

February 28, 2020

Honorees Include Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Heal The Bay CEO Dr. Shelley Luce Amidst an election year...

Los Angeles Premiere of Latinx LGBTQ Film at Outfest Fusion

February 26, 2020

February 26, 2020

“Acuitzeramo” screening March 9 By Staff Writer Outfest Fusion presents the Los Angeles premiere of Cabaldana Alchemy’s short film “Acuitzeramo”...

Douglas: What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting

February 26, 2020

February 26, 2020

By Chole Marie Rivera The theater is dark and light casts a purple glow on the outline of a cartoon...

Honoring National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day at the ONE Archive

February 4, 2020

February 4, 2020

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is on Friday, February 7. In the LGBTQ+ community, HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects gay black men...

Q&A: Being Openly Gay at LA Opera

February 3, 2020

February 3, 2020

The scene: Eurydice always imagined that her wedding day would be a day she’d never forget. But after a tragic...

USC One Archives to Host Screening of Film on Black Trans Woman to Honor Black History Month

February 1, 2020

February 1, 2020

Meet Mary Jones, a black transgender woman born in New York in 1803. Described as a “man-monster” in the press. ...

Trans Flag Emoji Unveiled for More Cyber-Inclusion

January 31, 2020

January 31, 2020

Transgender texters, rejoice! For there is finally an emoji there for you!  Unicode Consortium, the company that sets industry standard...

LGBT Center to Host Groundbreaking Conference for LGBT Widows and Widowers in L.A.

January 30, 2020

January 30, 2020

Renowned Designer, Author, Advocate Nate Berkus to Give Keynote Address On Saturday, February 29, the Los Angeles LGBT Center will host...

LGBTQ Center of LB Announces 2020 Executive Team for Board of Directors

January 29, 2020

January 29, 2020

The LGBTQ Center Long Beach recently announced its new executive team to lead the organization’s 2020 Board of Directors.  Stella...

Public Outcry Temporarily Saves Los Angeles LGBT Center’s STD, HIV Services

January 28, 2020

January 28, 2020

The temporary agreement restores funding through the end of March. The Los Angeles LGBT Center announced today that it has...