Celebrating Women in Classic Film: Claiming the Director’s Chair

Throughout the month of March, we’ll be celebrating the behind-the-scenes roles of women during the classic film era. Earlier this week, we took a look at some of the first women to step into the role of director during the silent film period. Today, we’ll look at a few of the women who claimed the director’s chair as movies moved into the age of sound and beyond.

Claiming the Director’s Chair: The 1930s and Beyond

In 1927, the release of the first full-length synchronized sound picture, The Jazz Singer, heralded a new era of filmmaking. At the same time, the studio system had taken control of the movie industry, marked by the advent of contract players, all-encompassing single-site film production, and controlled distribution. The Golden Age of Hollywood had begun.

The tighter, almost assembly-line-like efficiency of studio moviemaking presented a number of advantages for filmmakers, but it offered up one big disadvantage for females in the industry: with the growth and consolidation of the big movie studios, Hollywood had become almost exclusively a “boys’ club.” Gone were the days when directors like Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber could wear multiple hats during production–serving as de facto producers, writers, cinematographers, and even performers in addition to directing–thereby learning, by proxy, the ins and outs of the industry and the filmmaking process. Instead, jobs were now clearly defined and delineated–there was an individual (or a team of individuals) responsible for every aspect of a movie’s creation. And the most prestigious jobs, like that of the director, were reserved almost exclusively for men. But there was one woman who carved a place for herself amongst the predominantly male cadre of Hollywood elite.

Dorothy Arzner began her career in Hollywood as a stenographer and then a scriptwriter at Paramount. She also delved into film editing–one of her first big projects was the 1922 Rudolph Valentino drama Blood and Sand. And in 1927, Arzner moved into directing with her first silent, a minor drama called Fashions for Women.

Two years later, Arzner moved into the big leagues, as it were, when she directed Paramount’s first talking picture: The Wild Party, starring silent-screen “It Girl” Clara Bow and heartthrob Fredric March. The movie was Bow’s first talkie, and she was reportedly so petrified by the microphone that Arzner jerry-rigged an overhead microphone on a pole that could follow Bow around as she performed–the precursor to the modern-day boom mike.

Arzner left Paramount to become an independent director, working for several studios including RKO, MGM, and Columbia. She had a fifteen-year career as a director, compiling more than a dozen directing credits before retiring after the completion of First Comes Courage in 1943. Within that time, she worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Arzner directed Katharine Hepburn in the actress’s second film, Christopher Strong (1933), a potboiler about a female pilot’s relationship with a married man and the tragic results of their ill-fated love affair. She worked with actors March and William Powell in a number of films. Over the years, she also directed Ginger Rogers and Claudette Colbert in 1931’s Honor Among Lovers; Rosalind Russell in Craig’s Wife (1936); and Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), among others.

And in 1937, Arzner worked with Joan Crawford twice–first in The Last of Mrs. Cheney, for which she was uncredited after taking over the picture upon the sudden death of director Richard Boleslawski, and later in The Bride Wore Red. Crawford once claimed, “I think all my directors fell in love with me–I know Dorothy Arzner did!” And while Arzner was one of the few lesbians in Hollywood who wasn’t in the closet–though she didn’t exactly broadcast the fact in the gossip columns–Crawford’s belief in her own charms may be exaggerated. By some accounts, Arzner and Crawford–both strong-willed, independent woman in their own rights–clashed while working together. But the friendship that developed between them in the years following The Bride Wore Red suggests otherwise. In fact, when Joan Crawford married Alfred Steele, the president of the Pepsi Cola company, she enlisted Arzner to direct commercials for the soft-drink giant, and Arzner went on to make more than fifty commercials for Pepsi in the late 1950s.

When the Screen Directors Guild (now called the Directors Guild of America) was founded in 1936, Dorothy Arzner became the first female member of the group. She had more than earned her place among the elite of the Hollywood directing crew. Arzner’s directing style was described by one critic, Howard Barnes, as “always interesting,” and Frank S. Nugent marveled at her ability to adapt the stilted theatrical atmosphere of Craig’s Wife into something more mobile and fluid on the screen. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, in a review of Christopher Strong, commented on the “marked intelligence” demonstrated in her direction of the film. Her films were, by and large, staged beautifully, the artfulness of the presentation sometimes serving to disguise weaknesses in casting or the script. Nowadays, film critics and historians have begun revisiting Arzner’s work, and she has become a popular subject for LGBT scholars who examine her filmography for gay and lesbian themes.

By the time Arzner retired from directing feature-length films in the 1940s, another female director had stepped up to take over the reigns as “the” woman director in Hollywood. And just like Arzner, this woman had learned her craft through years of working in the industry, only stepping behind the camera after spending twenty years in front of it.

Ida Lupino got her start playing small roles in films throughout the 1930s, beginning with her debut in The Love Race (1931). After more than two dozen such roles, Lupino first gained major stardom in 1939 as Bessie in The Light That Failed. The following year, Lupino hit the big time with the drama They Drive by Night with George Raft, Ann Sheridan, and Humphrey Bogart.

Lupino made a series of well-received films throughout the 1940s, including High Sierra, The Sea Wolf, and Out of the Fog (1941), The Hard Way (1943), and Devotion (1946). She became a “free agent” in 1947, leaving Warner Bros. to work as an independent actress. In 1949, when Lupino and her then-husband Collier Young formed their own production company, she stepped into the director’s chair for the first time to complete the film Not Wanted after its director, Elmer Clifton, had to quit due to illness. She was the first woman to direct a Hollywood feature since Arzner had retired six years earlier.

When it came to making films, Lupino had an instinctive edge on other directors. Because she had been in front of the cameras for so long, she understood the ins and outs of the entire process. She knew how to frame a scene in the most efficient and beneficial way. She brought energy and life to the set, and her movies broached topics that were avoided by other filmmakers–most notably rape in 1950’s Outrage (a film co-written by the prolific Lupino). Another milestone: her 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker is the first American film noir to be directed by a woman.

Lupino was the second woman, after Arzner, to become a member of the Directors Guild of America. Much of her directing efforts throughout the 1960s and 70s were in television, though she did helm one last feature film, 1966’s The Trouble with Angels. And all the while, Lupino continued to act, making film and television appearances until she retired in the late 1970s. Overall, her credits include not only over 100 acting roles, but the direction of seven feature films and countless hours of television.

Lupino and Arzner were not the only female directors making films in the decades immediately following the advent of sound–but they were the only ones working out of Hollywood. They had several female contemporaries who were operating in other countries–although some of them were highly controversial. Austrian Leontine Sagan directed two films, the most notorious of which was Mädchen in Uniform, a 1931 feature about lesbian schoolgirls at a boarding school in Germany. The movie was heavily censored after its release and a copy of the original full-length, unedited production no longer exists. Leni Riefenstahl, a native German and a Nazi sympathizer, produced a series of pro-Nazi documentaries that, despite the controversial content, have been declared some of the most aesthetically pleasing and technologically progressive films made in the twentieth century. Her 1934 documentary Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) is still studied by filmmakers and scholars today for its innovative use of aerial photography and unrestricted camera movement. And Russian Maya Deren became one of the first participants in the avant-garde film movement with her 1943 self-shot, surrealistic short Meshes of the Afternoon.

It was not until 1976 that a woman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, when Italian Lina Wertmüller received a nomination for her film Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties). Two other nominees followed–New Zealander Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano, and American Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation. And in 2010, another American, Kathryn Bigelow, only the fourth woman to ever be nominated for the award, won the prize for her 2009 film The Hurt Locker.

Female directors have come a long way in the more than one hundred years since films started flickering on giant screens in darkened rooms. And there is still much further for them to go. But the women who paved the path are still influencing filmmakers today, and their films are just as important to the overall history of the movie industry as the features of their male counterparts. Their contributions should not be left moldering in the annals of history–they should be acknowledged, revered, and celebrated for their respective roles in the artistic and technological development of filmmaking over the past century.

Next week, we’ll look at some of the other roles women have filled behind the scenes, starting with a retrospective of the work of some of the great female screenwriters of classic cinema.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating Women in Classic Film: Claiming the Director’s Chair

    • Thank you for stopping by! I’ve always loved Ida’s performances, but I’m only starting to catch up on her directorial work. She’s an awe-inspiring woman.

  1. Brandie! Comrade! What a glorious post! I am ever so thrilled to have found this serious, thoughtful look back at the importance women had in the history film. The men, you see, were never alone as your post so aptly brings out. (I was at a work event the other night, a tribute to Kathryn Bigelow, and the opening speech mentioned Arzner’s invention of the boom mic which was greeted with a great round of applause!)

    • Thank you kindly, madam! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I didn’t even know about Arzner until last year, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

      I think I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again–I’m ever so envious of your job. 🙂

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