Saturday, January 08, 2011

Filmmaker Unearthed:

Who’s Got Gumption?

I curled up on the couch this weekend and watched The Holiday and have had one word stuck in my mind since then. Gumption. If you’ve seen the film you know that the retired screenwriter teaches one of the protagonists about what it means to have gumption. My handy dictionary describes gumption as initiative, resourcefulness, courage, spunk, or guts. It’s a strong word that, I think, is a good summary word to describe our next filmmaker star.

Hint: Today’s filmmaker invented the boom mike

(a device that’s like a pole with a mike attached to the end).

Dorothy Arzner


“My philosophy is that to be a director you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio. I threatened to quit each time I didn’t get my way, but no one ever let me walk out.”

–Dorothy Arzner

Gumption, don’t you think?

Dorothy was a Hollywood studio era film director in the 1920s and ‘30s and the only female director for some time. Arzner has one of, if not the, largest body of work in the studio system for a woman.

She started off her career by studying to be a doctor at University of Southern California (like all filmmakers do). During World War I, she worked in the ambulance corps. Once the war ended she forwent a medical career and, after a visit to a movie studio, decided to become a director (talk about an early life career change). Dorothy had a contact in Hollywood who helped her secure a job as a typist. She quickly was promoted to screenwriter and then to editor. As an editor she made a name for herself and worked on over 50 films before threatening to move to another studio if she wasn’t given a directorial position.

Paramount gave into her demand and she was made director of the silent film Fashions for Women. This became a hit and she went on to direct more films. (I don’t have enough time to delve into her work but you should explore for yourself…it involves films made before the Hayes Code and some more risqué, for the time, material. And she was also a lesbian, which accounts for some excellent film theory). She made eleven features for Paramount in five years and then became an independent director.

She stopped working for studios in 1943 for unrecorded reasons but continued to make some training videos, commercials and produced plays before settling in as a professor at the UCLA film school until she passed on in 1979.

Check out the trailer for one of her films Christopher Strong (1933)


Thoughts on Dorothy? Why do you think she was able to be so successful in the Hollywood studios of the 1930s?


Lamp photo by Boby Dimitrov

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