Unfortunately film directing is one of the least equal professions for women. Here are nine women who helped to make it more equal. Since nine is so few in a profession filled with ground breaking heroes please comment with more women!
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873 -1968
) First female director. One of the first (by a matter of months) fictional film directors.
Bodil Ipsen(1889 -1964)
Danish director whom the Danish Oscar called the “Bodil” is named after. First and only woman to win the Grand Prix at Cannes, a prize that was later retired and replaced by the Palme d’or.
Dorothy Arzner (1897 - 1979) American director who to this day remains the only woman to have directed 17 films for Hollywood. Inventor of the boom mike.
Esther Eng (1914 -1970) Openly lesbian Chinese American director who was the first woman to direct Chinese language films in the US.
French director credited with started the French New Wave movement. Honorary Palme d’or winner.
Lina Wertmüller(1928)Italian director who was the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director in 1977.
Kathryn Bigelow(1951)American director who was the first (and so far only) woman to win an Oscar for Best Director.
Jane Campion(1954)New Zealand director and first woman to win the Palme d’or at Cannes. Second woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.
Ava DuVernay (1972) American director and first black woman to direct a film nominated for Best Picture, first black woman to win Best Director at Sundance.
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979; left, portrayed here with actress Clara Bow) was an influential Hollywood director, with a career spanning from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. To this day, her body of work is the largest ever by a female director.
Her films often featured strong-willed independent women, and she was essential in launching the careers of screen legends such as Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn. In 1936, she was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.
Here are some cool gals looking mighty dapper! You can click on each photo for names and here’s some info on each fabulous woman:
Lily Elsie: English actress during Edwardian era, famous for being in many musicals and operettas
Josephine Baker: French bisexual actress, singer, and dancer who rose to prominence in the 1920s, refused to perform for segregated audiences, active with the French Resistance during WWII and the Civil Rights movement in the 50s
Dorothy Arzner: American lesbian film director who was the only female director in Hollywood during the 1930s, created the first boom mike for the Clara Bow film “The Wild Party” (1929)
Dorothy Mackaill: British-American actress who was involved in the Ziegfeld Follies, also notable for her silent-film roles
Daphne du Maurier: English bisexual author and playwright, famous for her works like Rebecca and “The Birds”
Frida Kahlo: Mexican bisexual painter, known for the feminist and nationalist themes in her paintings, created 55 self-portraits and once stated “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”
Hannah Gluckstein, known as “Gluck”: British lesbian artist known for her evocative Modernist paintings, adopted the name “Gluck” because she thought the sex of a painter is irrelevant
Olive Thomas: American silent-film actress, involved in the Ziegfeld Follies, possibly the first “Vargas Girl” after posing for pinup artist Alberto Vargas
Jessie Matthews: English actress, singer, and dancer who rose to prominence in the 1920s and 30s
Katharine Hepburn: American actress who helped to create the “modern woman” image in Classic Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s, wore trousers before it was fashionable for women to do so, won four Academy Awards for Best Actress
Director Dorothy Arzner and choreographer Marion Morgan on the set of ‘Manhattan Cocktail’ (1928). Arzner met Morgan while directing her first film, 'Fashions for Women’ in 1927 and they were romantically involved until Morgan’s death in 1971.
For you, who are the most remarkable women film directors at the 30s decade?
Great question! There weren’t a lot of women directing in the 1930s and it’s important to look at the historical context to see why. In the 30s American Hollywood was a powerhouse and Germany had the biggest production resources in all of Europe. And what was happening during this time? The Great Depression and the rise of fascism. So the women who had managed to make inroads and become directors in the 1920s (and yes, they actually existed in greater numbers than their 30s counterparts) were mostly pushed out of the director’s chair into jobs like screenwriting and editing which were considered women’s work.
Probably the most famous woman to be directing in the 1930s was Leni Riefenstahl who I don’t talk about much on this blog because the films she made were Nazi propaganda for Hitler. She’s not someone whose films are really watched outside of a scholarly context (I’ve never seen them and I don’t want to either). However her films are still taught in cinema schools, with proper historical context, because two of her films, Triumph of the Will, and Olympia, are considered among the greatest films of all time, not because of their content, but because Riefenstahl pioneered many inventive camera techniques and the films themselves have influenced many classic films (including the original Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Great Dictator). There are some pretty interesting articles on her and herfilms on Wikipedia if you want to know more.
There is alsoLotte Reiniger, another German. She’s best known for her 1926 masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (the oldest surviving animated feature film) and she specialized in elaborate handcut cardboard figures that she painstakingly photographed to give them the appearance of movement. Reiniger and her husband were liberal politically and with the rise of fascism they fled Germany and spent most of the 30s in exile running illegally from country to country in Europe since they couldn’t obtain permanent visas. What’s most remarkable is that Reiniger continued to work very consistently during this time. You can find some of her 1930s shorts on youtube.
Leontine Sagan was a Jewish-Austrian theatre director who is notable for her 1931 debut Girls in Uniform, which is considered a classic of LGBT cinema and one of the earliest films depicting lesbians. It was banned under Nazi rule and by U.S. censorship but I’m happy to say it is now available to watch and is truly an incredible film, especially given the historical context of what was to come. Sagan managed to flee to England where she made another film that is now lost.
And finally on the Hollywood side of things there is Dorothy Arzner. Incredibly Arzner was the ONLY woman working as a director in Hollywood for the entirety of the 1930s. She had an incredible career that remains unmatched by any woman to this day. She worked as a director in three consecutive decades (20s, 30s, 40s), she invented the boom mic during the filming of her first “talkie” 1929′s The Wild Party. She worked entirely within the studio system making a total of 17 films where she is credited as a director (and no woman since has come close to making this many studio films). She worked with major Hollywood superstars like Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Clara Bow. She was a lesbian who allegedly had an affair with Billie Burke (that’s Glinda the Good Witch) and once she retired from filmmaking she became a teacher who was a mentor to Francis Ford Coppola.
I find all four of these women remarkable, even the morally repugnant Reifenstahl, for the contributions they made to cinema and the fact that their movies have endured for so long.
Dorothy Arzner was born in San Fransisco but would spent her childhood in Los Angeles. There her father would run a restaurant popular with actors and filmmakers from Hollywood. Although Arzner originally had dreams of being a doctor, by the end of the first world war she would switch her goals to filmmaking. By 1919 she would get her first job in Hollywood as a stenographer at Famous Players but would quickly move up the ranks; being promoted to screenwriter and then editor. She quickly become skilled at editing and director James Cruz would use her for many of his films. After working on almost 50 films, Arzner would threaten to move studios if she wasn’t given a chance to direct. By 1927, her studio allowed her to direct her first film, Fashions for Women. The film would financially do well and after this, she held a reputation within hollywood as a talented filmmaker. During the filming of the Clara Bow talkie The Wild Party, Arzner would be credited with inventing the boom mike by attaching a microphone to a fishing rod. But she would not patent the design and Edmund H. Hansen would get the credit with inventing a similar deceive a year later. With this film, she would also become the first woman to direct a sound film. Many of her films would do very well commercially including The Wild Party. She would leave Paramount (Famous player was bought out by Paramount) after The Wild Party and make a number of films independently for different studios. Some of these films would be The Bride Wore Red (1937), Christopher Strong (1933), and Dance Girl Dance (1940). By 1943, Arzner would grow disillusioned with Hollywood and leave the studio system for good. She would direct a number of short films for the war effort during WWII, direct Pepsi commercials, and teach filmmaking at UCLA and the Pasadena Playhouse.
Due to her own personal sexuality and relationships (Arzner has been rumored to have affairs with numerous actresses such as Alla Nazimova and Billie Burke and held a lifetime relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan) her films often held
lesbian undertones and themes of female empowerment. She was one of the few female directors of 1930s that was able to work successfully within the studio system and her films have had a lasting impact on the art of film.
“From my informal interviews of lesbians and gays who have seen Christopher Strong, it appears lesbians remember the film most vividly in terms of Hepburn running around and flying in those pilot’s outfits…[they] became so deeply invested in the fetishized spectacle of a butch Hepburn in her uniform that most lesbians I talked to completely forgot the moth costume, or felt it represented Cynthia/Hepburn compromising her identity by heterosexually feminizing it.
“Not so most gay men (including George Cukor), who eagerly describe the sparkle of the lamé, the cling of the fabric, the long slit that reveals Hepburn’s leg as she sits, the cape, and particularly the silver helmet with antennae that covers Hepburn’s hair, allowing a certain boyish androgyny to surface in closeups. Of course, shots of Hepburn in the cockpit with her leather flyer’s helmet can also have the same erotically androgynizing impact for any queerly positioned spectator.”
-Dr. Alex Doty on Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933)