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DOROTHY ARZNER--THE ONLY WOMAN IN A MAN’S WORLD

Underrated director Dorothy Arzner was a joy to hear as she delicately ripped apart the male-dominated movie industry when I interviewed her for The New York Times in 1977. It's a pity she wasn't working at the time of "Thelma & Louise." She would have been the perfect director for the movie--though she might have changed the ending. --GUY FLATLEY

 

Dorothy Arzner is 76, but her memory is sharp and star-studded.

“Clara Bow was a darling child, and she was thrown to the wolves,” she recalls. “She was a vivacious, hair-trigger silent actress, with a marvelous variety of expressions, but when the talkies came in, they just threw her right in, and the poor child stuttered all the way through ‘The Wild Party.’ Oh, you wouldn’t believe what the studios did to young people in those days.”

Arzner believes it because she saw it, during the 1930’s and 40’s when she was Hollywood’s only woman director, the worried woman who steered the stammering “It Girl” through “The Wild Party.” In recent times, Miss Arzner’s career – cut short in 1943 because of poor health and a nagging disenchantment with the studio system – has been subjected to fresh scrutiny, and

four of her films – “Anybody’s Woman,” “Christopher Strong” (starring Katharine Hepburn, at left), “The Bride Wore Red” and “Dance, Girl, Dance” – will be shown at the Second International Festival of Women’s Films, to be held Sept. 13 through 26 at the Cinema Studio.

A few days ago, Arzner, who now lives in retirement near Palm Springs, reminisced about some of the movies and moviemakers from her prime. “Paramount was the best of all the studios because they gave me my start as a director in 1927 with ‘Fashions for Women.’ I also liked working for Sam Goldwyn. Oh, he would blow his top and the writers would be carted off to the hospital with ulcers, but I’d just wait for him to settle down and then I’d explain why things couldn’t be the way he wanted them. You have to learn how to handle producers. Goldwyn gave me everything I wanted in the way of sets, lighting, cameramen and costumes, but he also gave me the job of making Anna Sten look like a great actress. He had spent a year grooming her, telling everyone that she would be greater than Dietrich, greater than Garbo, and then when she opened her mouth, out came these monosyllables. The only thing I could do was not let her talk so much.”

In 1937, Louis B. Mayer, impressed with the way in which Miss Arzner had turned Rosalind Russell into a star in “Craig’s Wife,” talked her into an MGM contract in the hope that she could alter Joan Crawford’s no- longer-popular image. “Joan had been a hey-hey girl and the public didn’t seem to want that anymore. But I thought I was going to direct Luise Rainer in ‘The Girl from Trieste,’ Molnar’s intimate case history of a young girl who is forced to take to the streets. I was out scouting locations when I got the news that Miss Rainer had been suspended for marrying a communist and that Joan (above, with Robert Young and Franchot Tone) would replace her in the movie, which was now being called ‘The Bride Wore Red.’ Right away, I knew that would be synthetic, but Mayer knelt down, with those phony tears in his eyes, and said, 'We’ll be eternally grateful to the woman who brings Crawford back.’ I never liked that man; he wasn’t honest and he didn’t keep his promises. He used to duck out the back door of his office when he saw me coming.

“A director must realize what is inside of a person, bring it out, and eliminate the flaws. I took Freddie March out of a road company of ‘The Royal Family’ and put him into ‘The Wild Party,’ and he said to me, ‘I always know when I’m doing a scene right by looking out at your face. Your face is my barometer.’ The director is the only one who knows what it is all going to look like in the end. It’s pictures, after all – the actor’s faces, the composition, the movement, how the whole thing is orchestrated. And he’d better have a fairly good story to start with, too. I never had a great story, but I used to tell myself, ‘I’m the only woman director, so I’d better not complain.'”

Why was she the only woman director?

“I don’t honestly know,” she says. “Maybe producers felt safer with men; they could go to a bar and exchange ideas more freely. But I made one box-office movie after another, so they knew they could gamble a banker’s money on me. If I'd had a failure in the middle, I would have been finished. Today, of course, even the stars are all men. When men do put women in pictures, they make them so darned sappy, weeping all over the place, that it’s disgusting.”