On Thursday afternoon Paramount dedicated its Dressing Room building on the Melrose Ave. lot to one of the industry’s pioneers: Dorothy Arzner who to this day continues to count the most directing credits at 20 for any female director.
Paramount reserves this honor for the most respected of its industry professionals, and Arzner is in excellent company on the lot with other edifices named after such female legends as Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Head, Sherry Lansing, Carole Lombard, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Mae West.
The Dressing Room building housed Paramount’s contract players including West, W.C. Fields, William Holden, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Alan Ladd, as well as notable occupants Julie Andrews, Barbara Streisand, Rock Hudson, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, John Wayne, Olivia Newton-John, and Meg Ryan. It’s a fitting location to be named after Arzner given her relationships with actors. Currently the building houses a number of producers’ offices.
Originally Arzner intended to be a doctor, but after returning from World War I, and visiting a film studio, she decided to pursue a career as a director and worked her way up in the studio system. First, she was a stenographer with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (which became Paramount), then a script writer, followed by her role as a film editor on 50 titles including 1922’s Blood and Sand starring Rudolph Valentino in which she directed a few bull fight scenes. Her talents weren’t overlooked and just when Columbia was about to make a deal for her to write and direct her own films, Paramount made her an offer just as she was about to walk out the door. Her first movie Fashions for Women was a huge success, but it was her 1929 college girl pic The Wild Party that would become one of several benchmarks in her career as it was Bow’s first talkie. Arzner enabled Bow to make the segue from silents to talkies given the director’s invention of the first boom microphone. In 1938, Arzner became the first woman to join the DGA. Arzner never hid the fact that she was gay, and her cinematic canon was one known for its free-spirited, independent female protagonists.
“Today we are doing our small part to honor her and to leave our own mark for the next generation rather than be the ones who failed to advance what she gave us,” said Paramount Pictures CEO and Chairman Jim Gianopulos at a lawn ceremony alongside five-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola who was a student of Arzner’s when she taught at the UCLA Film School.
“All of us at Paramount feel very honored to walk onto this lot every day, in the footsteps of such pioneers as Dorothy Arzner, who aspired to achieve their fullest potential, often in the face of debilitating odds. Theirs are stories of advances made because they were unafraid to explore new territory, to defy the constraints of their present day and stake claims to the future. During her career on this lot and beyond, Dorothy Arzner made astonishing, even revolutionary, creative contributions on a daily basis. We are the custodians of her work and it’s our obligation to pay tribute to her artistry and protect her legacy,” said Gianopulos.
Coppola was instructed by Arzner when “I was broke, forlorn, romantically frustrated and confessed on the phone to my father that maybe I should leave film school if he could get me a job as a second assistant stage manager on a road show musical.”
One of the big takeaways for Coppola from Arzner’s class was her insistence that the director always sit to the right of the camera. “Not only because it’s the best place to see the performance, but more importantly, the actors can see you. Because they’re doing it (the performance) for you, and not anyone else. If they see you smile or nod, they have a way to gauge what they’re doing.” It’s a technique that Coppola has emphasized to his children Sofia and Roman Coppola even in the era of video assist.
It was through Arzner that Coppola became familiar with the old means of editing during the silent era, when the editor would cut film by measuring it out against their arm’s length. “An arm was a certain amount of time,” said Coppola about her instructions to him, “When there’s a kiss, if it’s one arm, that’s a nice kiss. Two arms, that’s a really romantic kiss, and if you give it three arms, that’s a really sexy kiss.”
“She was salty and sort of tough, but had a heart as big as the world. Every time she came to class, she’d bring a big box of cookies or crackers because she knew we were starving to death. We had no money, but she had stuff so we could eat,” said the director.
But it was because of Arzner’s encouragement at UCLA that Coppola powered through those trying times to ultimately become the award-winning director of 25-plus titles.
He recalled one day when she found him sitting on the steps of building 4 at UCLA.
“She stopped, handed me a half box of Zwieback crackers, winked her eye and she said to me, ‘You’ll make it, I know. I’ve been around’,” said Coppola, “Then she disappeared into the shadows like the endings of one of her movies.”
Guests at the ceremony included Eleanor Coppola, Betty Thomas, Mimi Leder, Paramount execs Wyck Godfrey, Liz Raposo, Kyle Davies, DGA National Executive Director Russell Hollander, and Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences President John Bailey.
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