It isn’t often that Hollywood studios take the time and trouble to celebrate their history. That’s why Thursday’s event at Paramount Pictures was significant: following a company tradition dating back several decades, a building was named for pioneering director Dorothy Arzner. The most prominent female filmmaker in Hollywood during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, she went on to teach at the Pasadena Playhouse and then at UCLA. Her star pupil was Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola spoke from his heart about the woman he still refers to as Miss Arzner, out of profound respect. She could be tough but also kind. He and his fellow students were always hungry; knowing this, she regularly brought cookies and crackers to class. He says he has passed on to his filmmaking children her insistence that a director sit to the immediate right of the camera so the actors can see his or her reaction as they perform. (Many of today’s directors are off in a “video village,” far from the cast, which Coppola derides.)
Arzner’s most significant impact on her young student came through an act of spontaneous encouragement. One day, he was feeling downhearted and ready to quit school. She walked by as he was moping and told him that she sincerely believed he was going to make it. Having been in the movie business for many years, she saw something in this young man and urged him to stay the course. He credits her for inspiring him to do just that. It’s difficult to imagine a world without The Godfather, The Conversation, or Apocalypse Now.
Kudos to Paramount chairman Jim Gianopulos for lending his presence and approval to this ceremony, and Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas for leading the charge. Following the plaque dedication, Kalas and historian Cari Beauchamp discussed Arzner’s importance before introducing a screening of her 1929 talkie The Wild Party with Clara Bow. Vintage photos of Arzner at work were placed on easels in the lobby of the Paramount theater (including one on location for The Covered Wagon, which she edited…see my recent column about the Blu-ray release of this Western epic) along with a beautiful gown that Esther Ralston wore in Arzner’s first credited film as director, Fashions for Women (1927).
Paramount now employs a number of dedicated young men and women who are saving and salvaging vintage costumes and props. I wish they had been around when I worked at the studio for Entertainment Tonight; I would have been a constant visitor. I make a deep bow to all of them for rescuing these artifacts and keeping history alive on this grand studio lot.