Movie Making Madames Part Five: Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner

7 Dec

Cross posted to Sarah’s blog

The prevalence of women as content makers in the film industry, particularly in Hollywood, dropped dramatically after the advent of sound and the realisation that movies were big business. While women thrived in the avant-garde, at this point in Hollywood there were only two active female directors after the “talkies”, Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Arzer worked from the introduction of sound in the 1920s to the early 1940s while Lupino was only only female film director of the 1950s.

LA born Dorothy Arzner originally wanted to be a doctor but after visiting a movie studio shortly after the end of WWI she set her heart on becoming a director. She would go on to become one of the most formidable and respected women to work behind the camera.

Dorothy worked her way up from the bottom before being promoted to a role as a film editor, a highly specialised and intricate job in the days of celluloid. The movies she worked on were huge successes and Dorothy used her new found clout to land a directing job. But it couldn’t be any old flick, Dorothy (or Ms. Arzner as she would insist on being called on set) wouldn’t direct anything less than an A-picture. Back in those days films were often run in double bills with newsreels and shorts so you could spend a whole afternoon at a cinema. The two films were the A-picture, (higher budget and more prestigious) and the B-picture (a cheaper, quicker flick). The B-Movie just wasn’t an option for Arzner and her first film Fashions for Women in 1927, was a commercial success.

Alongside this Arzner was also an innovator. While directing Clara Bow’s first sound film, Arner told a sound operator to attach the microphone for the shoot to a fishing pole so she could follow the actress round the set who now had freedom of movement. This handy piece of equipment, the mike boom, is a staple of any filmmaker’s kit today.

Most of her films centred around strong women and Arzner flourished before the introduction of the Hay’s code, industry imposed measured to curb “risqué” content in Hollywood films. Arzner worked with some of the greatest actresses of her time and was well known for having affairs with many of them.  Her work led Arzner to be the first woman to be inducted into the Director’s Guild of America and it earned her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She retired from directing in the mid forties but spent the rest of her life passing on her skills as a writer and director by teaching at the UCLA film school.

Ida Lupino was a British born actress from a show business family.  While she was respected as an actress she was referred to as “the poor man’s Bette Davis” for accepting many parts that Davis turned down. She was still well known for defying the studios and raising hell and during suspension for refusing a role, Lupino became interested in the process behind the camera.  Her enthusiasm grew and Lupino and her husband started their own production company where Lupino wrote and produced some of her films. In 1949 Lupino directed her first film to great acclaim though she didn’t take credit having only slipped into the role when her predecessor suffered a heart attack.

Lupino’s films as a director were similar to her films as an actress: highly moralistic, low budget and concerned with the truth however unpleasant. Often her films looked at “women’s issues” offering a unique perspective that no one else in Hollywood could give at the time but she also became the first woman to direct film noir with The Hitch-hiker in 1953:

Interestingly the film features and all male cast and though the studio was keen to play up the success of the lone female director, it was at Lupino’s insistence that they also stress her femininity so she wouldn’t seem threatening to the men she worked with.  In later life she made the transition to the new medium of television and directed 50 separate episodes of various programmes. For her efforts her adopted country awarded her two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for services to film and the other to services to television.

Next week sees the final part of the series with the modern female filmmakers rising to prominence.

About the writer: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.


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