Backlots at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival

A few days ago, I received confirmation that Backlots will be covering the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, as a member of the press for the third year in a row.

Over the past 6 years of its existence, the TCM Classic Film Festival has become synonymous with class and sophistication, and has provided a haven and meeting place for classic film lovers from all over the world. Featuring a plethora of classic film related events to augment the film showings, and world-class guests from all areas of the entertainment world, the TCM Classic Film Festival is truly not to be missed.

Though the full schedule for this year is yet to be released, the theme of “History According to Hollywood” has yielded such exciting programming choices as Gunga Din, Dr. Zhivago, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and 1776.

Stay tuned, as I will be posting exciting updates to the schedule in these weeks leading up to the festival. In the meantime, if you are in the Los Angeles area, be sure to go to http://www.tcm.com/festival to learn more about the pass options and how to attend. I look forward to seeing you there!

The Coming of Sound and the First Academy Awards ceremony

Janet Gaynor receives the first Academy Award for Best Actress, for three roles: STREET ANGEL (1928), 7TH HEAVEN (1927), and SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927).

At this moment, the film world is busy preparing for its biggest event of the year, when Hollywood’s best and the brightest come together to honor the greatest work done over the past year. It is a tradition so ingrained into Hollywood culture that it is difficult to imagine a time without it, a time when there was no precedent against which to measure the best performance or director or screenplay of the year. Yet the film industry already had more than 30 years of history by the time of the first Academy Awards ceremony, and few could fathom the impact that it would have on the industry and how much one ceremony could change the way we look at film as a whole.

The first Academy Award ceremony, 1929.

The first Oscars ceremony was held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929. Tickets were $5 per person, and 15 awards (the winners of which had already been announced) were handed out in front of an audience of 270 people, in a ceremony that lasted 15 minutes. The award given out for Best Picture of the Year, to William Wellman’s Wings, proved to be a significant one–it would become the only film marketed as a silent to win Best Picture for 83 years.

At the time of the initial release of Wings in 1927, the film industry was on the brink of a massive transformation. The Jazz Singer, the first major film featuring synchronized dialogue, exploded onto the screen less than 6 months after the release of Wings, inciting wonder and fascination in the public, worry and fear in theater owners. Proprietors of small theaters wrung their hands over how to afford the transition to sound that seemed to be coming like a tidal wave. Construction of sound equipment would be expensive and prohibitive, and if sound films continued to be as popular as The Jazz Singer was, audiences would flock to the bigger, more lucrative theaters who could afford sound films, and the small theaters would go out of business. This simultaneously exciting and frightening time in the industry provided the backdrop for the years leading up to the first Academy Awards.

The first words of synchronized dialogue in a major feature film, spoken by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927).

In order to allow small theaters to adapt their theaters with minimal financial impact, most films to be released in sound between 1927 and 1929 had a silent counterpart to be shown in the silent theaters. Nonetheless, even in silent films, the influence of the coming of sound was palpable. Plots were tighter, intertitles appeared more frequently and featured more skillfully written dialogue. Some of the best silent films were released during the era between 1927 and 1929, due to the influence that sound films were having on the public and the response that silent filmmakers had to make to that influence.

By 1929, sound had become industry standard. The silent era had eroded under the pressure of sound, and most theaters had had enough time to renovate their theaters to accommodate sound pictures. Though silents continued in foreign markets and under certain filmmakers (Charlie Chaplin made his final silent, Modern Times, in 1936), sound had taken over as the default method in the United States. And at the dawn of this new epoch of filmmaking came the birth of the Academy Awards.

There was truly no better time for the tradition of the Academy Awards to start than the spring of 1929. The honored films and performances include some of the best in all the silent era–Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, one of three performances for which Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress, ranks as not only a giant of the silent era, but one of the most beautifully filmed movies in all film history. Wings, a war drama focusing on aerial combat, employs the magnificent feat of filming from the air, an almost unheard-of special effect in 1927, and the marvel of it holds up even today.

A scene from WINGS, shot from the air.

In 2012, the Academy Awards paid tribute to its past by awarding the Best Picture Oscar to The Artist, the French-American silent collaboration about Hollywood’s transition to sound. It seemed that the circle was complete–though The Artist bears little resemblance to silent films of the past, it was a nostalgic look at what was, and at the same time, a commentary on what is.

Don’t forget to watch the Oscars on ABC tomorrow, at 7 EST, 4 PST!

The Dueling Divas Entries

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The Dueling Divas are underway, readers! I will be updating this post throughout the day as the entries come in, so be sure to check back!

Here are the entries thus far:

Over at Movie Star Makeover, Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth claw it out over Pal Joey.

Silver Screenings gives us a rundown of two military divas, Gregory Peck and David Niven in The Guns of Navarone.

Barry Bradford shows us two ladies battling it out in the wrestling arena with a rundown of All the Marbles.

Meanwhile, at Sister Celluloid, Carole Lombard and Kay Francis compete for the same man in In Name Only (but they’re really friends in real life!)

Cary Grant Won’t Eat You spoons up some drama between Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick in Stage Door.

Silents, Please! recaps Asta Nielsen’s dual role in Die falsche Asta Nielsen.

Over at Wolffian Classic Movies Digest, Hayley Mills plays twins in…you guessed it…The Parent Trap!

I’m thrilled that Theresa, at the fantastic new blog CineMaven’s: Essays From the Couchis participating this year with a treatise on the divas in Libeled Lady versus those in its remake, Easy to Wed.

Marsha at A Person in the Dark tries to keep it civil between Jean Brodie and Sandy from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Critica Retro offers up a piece on Olivia de Havilland’s twins suspected of murder in The Dark Mirror. If you don’t speak Portuguese, be sure to make use of Le’s handy translate button on the right side of the page!

At Girls Do Film, we are treated to a fascinating look at the legendary relationship between two of the biggest divas of them all, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.

I See a Dark Theater takes on diva Rags Ragland and his dual role in Whistling in Dixie.

Meanwhile, at Vitaphone Dreamer, Lina Lamont and Kathy Selden take center stage as they duel over Don Lockwood in Singin’ In the Rain. So fabulous we “cahn’t steeeeand it!”

We travel to France for some Napoleonic dueling in Silver Screen Modes post about The Duellists.

Movies, Silently discusses Constance Talmadge and a wacky storyline involving identical twins in her piece on Her Sister From Paris.

Classic Reel Girl gets creative and tells us why Bob Hope and Bing Crosby really are dueling divas (no doubt on my end)!

The Wonderful World of Cinema delves into the rivalry between Bonnie Parker and Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde.

It’s a battle of the Barbras over at Moon in Gemini where we’re treated to a piece on Barbra Streisand’s dual roles (with a twist) in a On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Don’t Forget–The Dueling Divas Blogathon is this Saturday!

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Hear ye, hear ye, this serves as your reminder that the Dueling Divas Blogathon is happening this Saturday! Get ready for a fun day of rivalry and revelry, when Backlots’ readers get together to contribute posts about their favorite dueling divas. In case you’re new around these parts, here are the guidelines for this blogathon, now in its 4th year:

Your topic may be related to any of the following:

  • Classic film personalities who had a rivalry in real life, either over a particular film role or over a personality clash, ie Bette Davis and Joan Crawford
  • Classic film characters who had a rivalry on the screen, ie Mildred and Veda from Mildred Pierce
  • Any dual role played by an actor or actress in a classic film, ie Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap.

You don’t need to feel limited to a single duel between two personalities or characters. You can talk about various clashes a single actor had (ahem…Bette Davis) or duels within a group. In the past, I have written about the duels in The Women, which was a lot of fun.

Also, Backlots is a progressive and gender-eschewing blog, so your divas may be women or men, as you wish.

If you haven’t signed up yet, there’s still time! Email me or comment on this post, and I will know to expect your entry on Saturday.

I am very much looking forward to our 4th year of Dueling Divas, and know that this year is going to be a great one!

See you on Saturday!

 

 

Backlots at Noir City: THE THIN MAN (1934) and CLASH BY NIGHT (1950)

As a proud Barbara Stanwyck aficionado, I was thrilled when Noir City 13 reached its halfway point on Wednesday night with a screening of two Barbara Stanwyck dramas from the 1950s–Clash By Night (1950) and Crime of Passion (1957). As both are films that I have seen before (I’ve seen 67 Barbara Stanwyck films–yes, I’ve counted), and given that transportation home gets difficult after about 9:30, I only opted to see the former last night. Regardless, I have two films to write about today, because on Monday we were treated to a showing of one of the greatest and most charming detective stories on film, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. This is a movie I have written about several times in the past, and seen on the big screen multiple times, but viewing it at the Castro is an experience all its own.

San Francisco, in all its glory, is a town full of cinephiles. People here know their cinema, and they know how to tell the good from the bad. So when there is a packed house for a classic movie in San Francisco, you know it’s good. The theater was packed solid on Monday night.

Released right on the brink of the Production Code, The Thin Man tells the story of Nick and Nora Charles, a married detecting couple who drink their way through life and try (unsuccessfully) not to get involved in detective cases. But when a series of murders occurs and Nick knows people involved, he can’t keep himself away. Nora is just as essential to solving the murders as Nick is, and this is part of the timeless appeal of this movie.

The Thin Man is famous for its snappy dialogue and witty repartee, and for being one of the first movies to show that a husband and wife can be friends, and not just romantic partners. Nick and Nora spend the movie ribbing and joking with each other, just as good friends would do. Nora is an equal to Nick–she never once stoops below his level nor does Nick ever take the upper hand. Yet their love is never in doubt, and for its refreshing take on relationships and the position of women within marriage, The Thin Man may be considered a truly feminist movie.

On Wednesday evening, as Noir City reached its halfway point, I again ventured out to the Castro to view Clash By Night, a 1950 Barbara Stanwyck drama that again skirts the limits of the Production Code. Based on a Broadway stage play by Clifford Odets, Clash By Night tells the story of a woman who marries one man, but loves another. She is torn between love and duty, and ends up making decisions that she regrets. The two love interests are played by Paul Douglas (the man she marries) and Robert Ryan (the man she loves), and the film also stars a young Marilyn Monroe, playing Stanwyck’s brother’s girlfriend, also coming to terms with issues of love. The brilliance of the story, and also the aspect that comes into conflict with the Code, lies in the fact that there is no clear villain, and the audience struggles right along with Stanwyck in trying to determine which decision is the best. Does she leave her husband, with whom she has a child, in order to follow her heart with Robert Ryan? Or does she keep her marriage together for the sake of her husband and her child? We see her conflict, and we empathize with her.

It is interesting to note the offscreen rapport between Barbara Stanwyck, the consummate professional actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Marilyn Monroe, the up-and-coming starlet who was already showing signs of psychological problems and difficulties on the set. The director of Clash By Night, the great Fritz Lang, was not up to handling Monroe’s tardiness and personal problems, but Barbara Stanwyck stood up for the young actress and protected her. She gave Marilyn acting tips, shielded her from criticism, and seemed to take her under her wing as a sort of protege. The two had come from similar difficult childhoods–both had been foster children, abandoned by their parents and raised with little to no stability. Stanwyck seemed to understand what Marilyn had been through and was continuing to go through psychologically, and their positive chemistry shines through on the screen. Their scenes together are some of the tenderest in the movie, and Marilyn Monroe later said that Barbara Stanwyck was the only actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who ever showed her kindness.

I will be seeing the classic French thriller Les Diaboliques tomorrow evening (one of my all-time favorite films, and this will be my first time seeing it on the big screen), followed by The Honeymoon Killers on Sunday. Stay tuned for a report!

Opening Night of Noir City 13: WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950), BORN TO BE BAD (1950)

The 1407 seat Castro Theatre was packed solid last night for the opening night of what has become a veritable San Francisco tradition, the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City film festival.

For the past 13 years, film aficionados passionate about the dark side of classic cinema have flocked to San Francisco to experience this distinctly American genre on the big screen, with films spanning several decades introduced by none other than “the czar of Noir” himself, Eddie Muller. Muller, the head of the Film Noir Foundation and a legend in the cinematic world, is a native San Franciscan and the Film Noir Foundation itself is a San Francisco organization, fitting tokens for a city already deeply steeped in the noir tradition.

But what is film noir? It remains a genre difficult to describe in words, but for cinephiles, it is unique and unmistakable. Usually in black and white (with a few exceptions, Gene Tierney’s beautiful Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven is the obvious one), a noir film deals in the dark underbelly of society, riddled with crime, murder, and mystery. Often a beautiful and evil woman takes center stage, a woman who has become known as the famous “femme fatale,” manipulating the men around her and driving them to madness.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

 

Noir films are character-driven, born out of the gangster genre of the 1930s and developing into maturity alongside the United States’ involvement in World War II. The Production Code was solidly in place by the time film noir developed into a genre, and the plotlines often skate smoothly along the rules against sexuality on film, sometimes coming dangerously close to breaking them. Take a look at this scene from Double Indemnity (1944).

The coy and subtle games that the noir genre plays with the Production Code are integral to its makeup, and I question whether the genre could have developed, as we know it, without the implementation of the Production Code. But that’s another post all its own.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Unholy Matrimony,” and all films screened will have something to do with married life…noir style. Last night we were treated to two films set in San Francisco, a world premiere restoration of Woman on the Run, a 1950 Ann Sheridan film, and Born to be Bad, starring my beloved Joan Fontaine in an atypically nasty role. Woman on the Run was the opening film, and Eddie Muller prefaced the screening with a story about its unusual background. The original negative was lost in a fire at Universal many years ago, and the film was presumed lost. Then another copy was found, quite unexpectedly, but in dismal condition. It was restored by the Film Noir Foundation with a generous grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and this was the print we saw last night.

The story is one of intrigue and mistaken identity–a man witnesses a murder and then runs from the police to avoid going to protective custody and having to identify the killer, thereby risking his own life. To find him, the police go to his wife, who seems intent on helping her husband avoid them. In her effort to protect him, she befriends a man who she thinks will help her husband…who turns out to be the last person who would be helping him.

It is quite a suspenseful and well made movie, and I was pleasantly surprised with how entertaining it was to watch. I was struck by the beauty of Ann Sheridan who, as she aged, looked quite a lot like Rita Hayworth. In her heyday, she was known as “the Oomph Girl,” but never achieved the superstardom of some of her contemporaries, which is unfortunate, and her career declined prematurely. She has a pleasingly deep voice, and much of her acting is done with her eyes, the mark of a true artist.

The second film was Born to be Bad, a movie I’ve seen several times due to my connection with Joan Fontaine. In it, Joan plays Christabel Caine, a man-stealing usurper who destroys the engagement of a couple, then goes on to have affairs with several more men. It is a very unusual role for Joan Fontaine, who is known for playing doe-eyed, naive, well-behaved ladies. She never truly rises to the occasion of this character of the man-hungry snake and it’s not her greatest role, though she’s never looked more beautiful and she radiates charm. It’s a fun movie to watch and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen.

Also, the poster is one of my all-time favorites.

I will be attending Noir City screenings all this week. Stay tuned for further coverage!

 

Backlots at Noir City X-Mas–O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE

Hello, readers! I’m coming to you from Los Angeles International Airport, where I am off to France for a few weeks. But before I go, and given that it’s Christmas tomorrow, I want to give you my report of Noir City X-Mas, which I attended last week at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.

Noir City is a San Francisco tradition. The main festival attracts film fans nationwide, and has become an integral part of San Francisco film culture. San Francisco itself has a noir feel to it, and has been the setting for many key films of the genre, so it seems fitting that this city has the honor of hosting Noir City every year.

And for the past 5 years, film fans have enjoyed an extension on the main Noir City festival–Noir City X-Mas, in which Christmas-themed noir films (or Christmas-themed films with a noir connection) are shown at the Castro Theatre. This year I attended with a friend of mine, and we enjoyed a showing of a film I have been wanting to see for many years.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952) is not a noir per se (though one sequence certainly is), but, as Noir City founder Eddie Muller pointed out beforehand, the history of the author O. Henry is one right out of the noir playbook. Employed by the First National Bank of Austin in 1891, he was charged with embezzlement in the mid-1890s and spent three years in jail, where he wrote many of his stories. The movie consists of a series of short vignettes, all written by O. Henry and featuring a smattering of the brightest stars in Hollywood. A young Marilyn Monroe appears alongside Charles Laughton, Anne Baxter alongside Jean Peters, Jeanne Crain with Farley Granger, and Fred Allen with Oscar Levant, in a very funny sequence that was originally cut from the film called “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, perhaps two of the dryest comedians ever to exist, seem a match made in cinematic heaven. But for 1952 audiences, their comedic stylings were too much to handle. Described by Eddie Muller as “postmodern” comedians ahead of their time, many of the jokes in “The Ransom of Red Chief” went over the heads of 1952 audiences and hence the sketch was deemed a waste. But today, this sequence is uproariously funny and a supreme example of O. Henry’s legendary ironic wit. The story of two drifters who scheme to kidnap a child for ransom and their choosing of the most ill-behaved child in town, both Allen and Levant are at the top of their game and the little boy looks to be having a ball of a time playing the most obnoxious child on the planet.

The highlight of the movie is perhaps its best-known sequence, “The Gift of the Magi,” in which Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger are a poor couple very much in love with each other, but with little money for Christmas presents. Desperately wanting to give the other a gift, each of them makes a huge sacrifice–Jeanne Crain cuts and sells her hair while Farley Granger pawns his beloved watch. Their presents for each other? A watch holder and a barrette. Though initially rather materialistic in tone, the sketch ends on a humanistic tone, in which each of them realizes that their love is enough.

All sequences feature wonderful twist endings, and each one is introduced by none other than John Steinbeck, who is the perfect accidental curmudgeon with his pipe, raspy voice, and cranky expression. It’s great fun to see Steinbeck on film, in his only film appearance despite so many of his novels turned into movies.

Thank you to the Film Noir Foundation, for giving us Noir City X-Mas for these past few years. I very much look forward to next year!