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For Dorothy Arzner, the word “first” comes up frequently.
She was the first woman admitted to the Directors Guild of America and the first woman to direct a sound picture (1928’s Manhattan Cocktail). She also directed Paramount’s first talking feature, 1929 box-office hit The Wild Party with Clara Bow. She’s credited with inventing the first boom mic when she attached a microphone to a fishing pole. She was the first film editor to receive a screen credit. And when she began teaching at UCLA in 1965, her first student to achieve major success was 1967 Master of Fine Arts recipient Francis Ford Coppola, who calls “Miss Arzner” the “consummate professional film director.”
He recalls the best advice she gave him: “Sit in the same place right next to the camera. Not only because this is the best place to see the action, but mainly so the actors can always see you. Remember, the actors are doing it for you, and need to see and feel you close to them.”
Arzner never made any secret of being a lesbian, and her personal style favored slicked-back hair and well-tailored power suits. (One of Arzner’s lovers was Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who was Nancy Reagan’s godmother.) After directing 16 films, she retired from filmmaking in 1943. To earn income, she directed 50-plus Pepsi commercials thanks to her friend Joan Crawford, who was married to the company’s chairman.
Arzner lived her last 40 years with choreographer Marion Morgan and died at age 82 in La Quinta, California, in 1979.
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