I have been interested in Dorothy Arzner’s life and work for a number of years now, so imagine my surprise when I came across the mention of an autobiography—albeit unfinished—,available for purchase online. The short document—it is less than 30 pages—unfortunately ends before Arzner begins her career as a film director. Despite this, the reader learns a number of important facts regarding the director’s early life in California. For instance, we learn of Arzner’s troubled family history: her parents separated and her father forbade any contact between Dorothy and her mother. Young Dorothy was transplanted a number of times during her early years, her father sending her to distant relatives after hearing that her mother might try to take her children away. Her mother’s mysterious absence left an undeniable mark on Arzner’s existence: “There may have been a reason for not letting her see me”, Arzner writes, “but it all seemed wrong and mysterious then and no one ever said anything against her and there were no explanations so the mystery grew” (118). Arzner tried locate and see her mother latter in life, but to no avail. What she found was her grave, indicating that her mother died some eight or ten years after the separation. “For many years”, Arzner continues, “I used to imagine that when I grew up I would romantically find my mother, very much like the storybook experiences of which I had been reading” (119). Arzner mentions Madame X—the play by Alexandre Bisson— as “a good example of the period”, but one immediately thinks of Sarah and Son (1930), Arzner’s own take on the maternal melodrama. Of the film, Arzner writes that, at the time of making it, she thought of herself as “sophisticated”, and was therefore “afraid the story might be too ‘corny’”. In the end, however, Arzner felt that her own experience of a similar situation gave the film “a living quality that was unique and fresh”.
Another interesting snippet from the biography is Arzner’s comments regarding Cecil B. DeMille. “De Mille”, Arzner writes of her encounter with the famous director, “was having a great time for himself, dressing and acting a part he reveled in” (131). The Cleopatra (1934) director “presented a formidable and unique character to the studio. He would drive up in a grey Pierce Arrow roadster, with red leather seats. There was nothing like it about. He was at the wheel and beside him was a uniformed Japanese chauffeur, who jumped out and opened the door for him and then followed just a few steps behind as DeMille strode through the gate speaking to no one, and dressed in a well-tailored gabardine Norfolk suit with leather puttees. It looked a little odd to me at that time”, Arzner remarks, “but now I realize it was showmanship” (129).
Arzner was a very keen observer, and a master at adapting to fit particular situations. This encounter with DeMille, and what she observed of the famous studio director, gives us some insight into how Arzner built her own image as a successful film director.