BOOK REVIEW: My First Time in Hollywood

The first time Lillian Gish saw Hollywood was after a five day train journey from a blustery New York. She describes Los Angeles as warm and inviting, a city that “smelled like a vast orange grove, and the abundance of roses offered a cheery welcome.”

This was the Hollywood of the early days, before tourist-clogged Hollywood Boulevard, seedy shops and tourist traps kept locals at bay. In these early days, those wishing to make a name for themselves in the budding film industry ventured to an oasis called Hollywood, where orange trees blossomed and the rural landscape was dotted with farmhouses. It is difficult for us to imagine a Hollywood like this, but in My First Time in Hollywood, writer and historian Cari Beauchamp has immortalized the Hollywood of the past by compiling and annotating the words of those who lived it.

Beauchamp, the author of the beautiful Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, has created a portrait of early Hollywood that is at once nostalgic and poignant. These are the people who built the movie business as we know it, their work and commitment setting the stage for the writers, actors, and directors who would come after them. In reading their words about their Hollywood, we see just how much these men and women were responsible for building the town, and also how the Hollywood of this book has largely disappeared due to the exponential growth and explosion of the entertainment industry, causing a web of traffic, corporate buildings, and overpriced houses.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland, 1907.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland today.

The book includes stories from familiar names like Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, as well as lesser-known Hollywood figures such as secretary Valeria Belletti and Evelyn Scott, daughter of Beulah Marie Dix. Many of the stories are from the perspectives of women, a refreshing realization in an industry comprised of a mostly male-dominated Hollywood narrative.

My First Time in Hollywood is an ode to a Hollywood gone by, but also a testament to the lineage of the town, how it came to be, and the characters who made it. It is a wonderful and enlightening read, and a must for anyone interested in Hollywood history. One of my favorite lines from the book comes from Colleen Moore:

“For years I had believed, if not in the Never Land of Peter Pan, in the Never Land of Hollywood. Had believed, had thought lovely, wonderful thoughts, and for all that my Never Land was a continent away, it might as well have been second to the right and then straight on till morning.

Until now. Now at last I had found it. I was right here in it, this place of enchanting make-believe. And I was going to stay here and become a star.

How could I possibly go home?

I was home.”

A young Colleen Moore, shortly after she arrived in Hollywood.

If you would like to purchase the book, here is the link to the Amazon site. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

See you next time, and happy reading!

Highlights From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Another marvelous festival has come to a close, and these five days were certainly ones to remember. With world-class guests such as Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg and some of the greatest silent film accompanists in the business, festival attendees experienced the very best that silent film has to offer.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of my favorite festivals to cover. The films are carefully chosen to provide a beautifully diverse program, with silent films from international markets, newly-restored gems, and hits from other silent film festivals such as Pordenone and Bologna. A survey of the schedule reveals 7 different countries represented in a program of 21 features, and several newly discovered movies that have been buried deep in the archives for decades.

Highlights included a beautiful showing of the Greta Garbo and John Gilbert classic Flesh and the Devil, one of the most stunningly photographed and erotic movies of the silent era. Introduced by Kevin Brownlow and accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, a Swedish silent film orchestra that makes an appearance at the festival every year, I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to witness it on the big screen. This has long been one of my favorite movies to watch, both for the exquisite cinematography and the alluring character of Felicitas, who lives her life her way.

Serge Bromberg presented an uproariously funny selection of Charley Bowers shorts, showcasing the absurd and surreal filmmaking that swept the underground cinematic landscape in the early 1920s. Following World War I, the surrealist movement known as Dadaism began to grow in Europe and extended to the United States, and though Charley Bowers was not Dadaist in the true sense of the word, aspects of the genre can be seen in some of his best work.

Here is one of the funniest movies we saw. Ignore the video’s soundtrack if you can.

And here is some classic Dadaism:

Serge Bromberg presented the movie, and also played the score on the piano. It was a truly impressive program!

One of the most highly anticipated events of the festival was a newly found film that continues to be a work-in-progress in terms of editing. The movie is called Lime Kiln Field Day, a 1913 all-black comedy starring Bert Williams. Williams is often compared to Charlie Chaplin in his physicality and comedic style, and the similarity was evident in the movie. We heard a fascinating presentation beforehand that detailed the painstaking research that went into identifying the actors and directors, and gave the audience a sense of how the movie was made, and how it was found and restored. We saw a movie that was about 90 minutes long, which included multiple takes and outtakes. It will be exciting to see how the project progresses in the coming years, and it was a real treat to see an all-black movie from so early in the history of film.

Perhaps my favorite screening of the festival was another presentation by Serge Bromberg, of a beautiful family drama called Visages d’enfants. It tells the story of a young boy in rural France who experiences the death of his doting mother, and tries to come to terms with his father’s remarriage. Visages d’enfants is a startlingly modern tale, and feels as though it could have been made in the modern day instead of 90 years ago. Jean Forest, whom we also saw a few years ago at the festival in Gribiche, gave an immensely emotive and tender performance as the troubled boy, cementing my inclination to say that he was one of the most talented child actors to come out of the silent era. I would love to see Visages d’enfants released widely on DVD, as I think it has the potential to become a beloved classic.

Visages d’enfants.

The festival went out with a beautiful screening of the 1925 Ben-Hur, presented again by Kevin Brownlow and featuring Carl Davis’ magnificent score. This is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen, and anything less doesn’t do it justice.  I have seen this movie several times, but when I saw it at the Castro on Monday evening, I felt like I had never seen it before. The Technicolor sequences shone, and the score elevated the chariot race to thrilling heights unable to be reached on the small screen. It is moments like watching Ben-Hur at the Castro Theatre when I swell with pride as a Bay Area native, being mere steps away from some of the best festivals and screenings in the world of classic film. Thank you to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for another great year, and I can’t wait for next time!

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is taking place the week of Memorial Day this year, and a fitting film opened the festival this evening. A packed crowd filled the Castro Theatre at the corner of Market and Castro to see All Quiet on the Western Front, a beautiful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic World War I novel and a powerful anti-war epic. The movie stars Lew Ayres and a cast of  dozens of character actors, and is set in a bleak and devastatingly real German World War I trench.

Paul Baumer (Ayres) is a young boy in school in Germany, who is taught the glories of war by his teacher and decides to go into the German army to fight in World War I. Along with his schoolmates, he joins a battalion and is immediately sent to the western front to fight the Allied forces who are quickly advancing. There are gruesome scenes of war, death, and blood, showing the audiences the horrors of war in no uncertain terms. But at the same time, this is a story about brotherhood, friendship, and caring in the most hellacious place on earth.

By 1930, silent film production in the United States had essentially ceased. 1929 saw sound becoming industry standard, and the public began to accept and expect sound film as normal instead of a novelty. For the theaters that could not yet afford the expensive sound equipment that sound film required, many films through 1929 were filmed twice, once as a silent and once as a sound film. This was the case with All Quiet on the Western Front. By 1930 sound was a universal standard and it was unusual to film a movie twice, but the starkness, the power, and the gravity of All Quiet on the Western Front renders it ideal for the silent screen. Words are often superfluous in describing the horrors of war, and are unable to capture the pure terror and trauma experienced by soldiers in active combat. A simple glance, a look in the eyes or a wrinkle of an eyebrow can express more than a whole page of dialogue, and that is exactly what Lew Ayres accomplishes in this movie. There is no unimportant scene, nothing goes to waste in this beautiful, tightly woven, heartwrenching drama.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of the greatest festivals around in terms of programming. Festivalgoers can always count on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to deliver the best that silent film has to offer, and I very much look forward to the entire schedule this year.

See you tomorrow!

The Great Colorization Debate

Tonight, CBS airs newly colorized episodes of “I Love Lucy,” a long-anticipated event that has reignited the debate over whether or not colorization of historical film sources is an acceptable alternative to the black-and-white original. As time removes us further and further from the era from which many of these sources come, the inevitable question must now be considered: how do we interest this new generation of viewers, for whom a night of entertainment often consists of alcohol, smartphones, and an episode of the Kardashians, in entertainment like “I Love Lucy” or My Man Godfrey?

My Man Godfrey (1936), colorized.

The question is a valid one, and colorization of a few episodes of “I Love Lucy” might draw new audience members who may not have otherwise tuned in, but to many it seems like putting a band-aid on the problem. In my generation, there is a distinct lack of interest in educating the public about history. Instead, distributors like to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and all too often this means a previously uninterested one. I applaud efforts to get Generation Y back on track by trying to make black-and-white material appealing. But as a member of Generation Y myself (albeit a bit of an anomaly), the proposed solutions are all too often off-target. Colorizing a movie to appeal to a mass audience might be a quick fix, but in order to capture and retain interest, it is necessary to educate the public about the where, the when, and the why of a black-and-white movie. The color of the film stock isn’t the problem. The lack of historical understanding is.

hqdefault

The colorized version of The Miracle on 34th Street (1947) airs on television every year, presumably to attract viewers of a younger generation.

With that said, colorization of film stock is nothing new. Starting in the earliest days of film, the public wanted color and experimental hand-tinting of footage occurred often, probably most notably in scenes of The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Le Voyage dans la Lune  (1902).

Le Voyage dans la Lune, diligently hand-colored in the Meliès lab.

One of my favorite hand-colored tints is “Annabelle Serpentine Dance,” from the Edison studio in 1895. It is considered the earliest hand-tinted movie, and shows a young woman dancing in a long flowing skirt, and each time the skirt billows, a new color appears. It is a beautiful idea, beautifully executed by the Edison studio.

The advent of Technicolor in the late 1920s was a wonder, but by no means eradicated the use of black-and-white film. It wasn’t even truly until the 1980s that color film became standard industry-wide standard, but by the 1970s black-and-white film was a novelty and rarely used. The public expected color, and now, 40 years hence, anything black-and-white is considered “old” by the current generation and is therefore expendable. In that sense, colorization serves its purpose, to make the print appear newer, and therefore accentuate the immortality of the material.

But by its very colorization, we are perpetuating the idea that black-and-white is lesser and must be updated in order to be appealing. Is this what we want to be telling this generation? It’s a complex question and a complex situation to work out, a burden that we have inherited due to lack of desire or motivation to inform and educate the public. I would love to hear your input. What is your opinion of colorization? Leave your comments below, and I look forward to hearing from you!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2015!

Hello dear readers, my goodness, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ve been so busy with various projects that I feel that Backlots has been relegated to the back burner. I still owe you the post about my final day at the TCMFF, but I’m here to announce another festival–the San Francisco Silent Film Festival that Backlots has attended for the past several years will return at the end of this month, and I will be there covering all the action!

SHERLOCK.3WEB

This year’s lineup is spectacular. Featuring such films as Flesh and the Devil, All Quiet on the Western Front, Speedy, and their signature smorgasbord of silent films from around the globe, the 2015 festival promises to be one to remember. Join me the last weekend in May as we go to the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco to celebrate the silents once more.

Greta-in-Flesh-and-the-Devil-greta-garbo-4319289-720-544

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert smolder in Flesh and the Devil.

If you are in the San Francisco area, you may get the details about this year’s festival by visiting the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website and downloading the full schedule. This festival remains one of my favorites due to its perfect combination of quality films, world-class speakers, and cozy local atmosphere. If you’ve never been before, it’s a true experience.

I will get that final TCM post up shortly, but be sure to check back between May 28 and June 1 for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3: WHY BE GOOD? 42nd STREET, EARTHQUAKE!

Day 3 was one filled with favorites and laughs. I started off the day with Why Be Good? (1929), a movie I had seen a few months ago when a new restoration was screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This same restoration was shown here, and I loved the movie so much the first time that I had to see it again.

 

The plot of the movie centers around a young girl who falls in love with a wealthy banker’s son, but has to prove that she’s a “good girl” before his father will allow him to date her. The premise sounds contrived, but in reality the film is unique and refreshingly feminist in many spots, with lines that resonate with much of feminist thought today. Colleen Moore is as cute as can be, with big, expressive eyes and movements that radiate the jazz age. It was great fun to see it screened at the festival, and I’m happy that this sweet film is getting the attention it deserves.

Next up was 42nd Street (1933), a personal favorite. Featuring much of the same cast as the seminal Golddiggers of 1933, what this movie lacks in originality it makes up for tenfold with a spectacular cast and Busby Berkeley’s creative musical numbers. Ruby Keeler is a delight as always, and the title number is one of the first real ballet sequences within a film that tells its own story within the film. The famous ballet sequences in An American in Paris and Singin’ In the Rain followed 42nd Street‘s lead in creating a veritable “show within a show,” but 42nd Street takes it one step further–the title number is indeed a story within a story within a story. Take a look:

42nd Street and Golddiggers of 1933 are hallmarks of the pre-Code era, and are extremely popular with the TCM Festival crowd, yet pre-Codes are often put in the smaller theaters and easily sell out. My dream is to one day see a pre-Code programmed at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where it will not only look beautiful but also bring a lot of excitement to the festival-going crowd. I would have loved to have seen Ruby Keeler on that giant screen!

I had a large break in my schedule on Day 3, during which I relaxed with friends and got ready for the evening screening, Earthquake!, poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel. A Q&A with Richard Roundtree preceded the film, and then we were treated to one of the most fabulously low-budget movies I have ever seen. The inspiration for future disaster films such as the Airport movies and the spoof Airplane!Earthquake! stars Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner (who hilariously insisted on doing her own stunts) and focuses on a disastrous earthquake in Los Angeles, ultimately destroying the city. Its low-budget special effects left the audience in stitches, and satisfied my frequent craving for camp film. I left with a pain in my stomach from laughing so hard. Thanks, Earthquake!

Day 4 tomorrow. See you then!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: The Dawn of Technicolor, STEAMBOAT BILL JR., REBECCA, BOOM!

Dear readers, I’m usually so good about posting right after festival events, but after several late nights, I needed some sleep. The festival is now over, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. I apologize for the delay!

Day 2 was a jam-packed one at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the first day of the festival with a full docket of programming. I started off the day with a beautiful presentation called The Dawn of Technicolor, based on the new book by David Pierce and James Layton. Pierce and Layton were there discussing the facets of early Technicolor, and the differences between the two-strip Technicolor process and the much better-known three-strip process, as seen in movies like The Wizard of Oz. It was a fascinating discussion, touching on such concepts as lighting techniques for early Technicolor and difficulties in getting certain colors to register (blue was especially difficult), and Pierce and Layton showed the audience clips of very early Technicolor musicals that were a delight.

Since many of the early Technicolor clips that the audience saw yesterday are extremely rare, I will instead post here two clips that demonstrate the two-strip process and the three-strip process, respectively.

This is the “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” number from The Florodora Girl. Pierce and Layton noted that, in addition to the difficulty in photographing blue tints, yellow tints were next to non-existent in the two-strip Technicolor process. The focus was on reds and greens, which came out in beautiful shades and this lends itself to the signature look of two-strip Technicolor.

You can see the difference between two-strip and three-strip Technicolor by looking at this beautiful clip, in which all the colors of the rainbow are represented as Dorothy goes over it. By 1939, three-strip Technicolor had all but replaced two-strip as the color standard in film, though color wouldn’t become industry standard until several decades later.

A wonderful and informative presentation, that I would recommend to anyone interested in film!

Next I went to Club TCM to hear legendary film historian Jeanine Basinger speak about portrayals of history in the movies. Professor Basinger is the head of the film department at Wesleyan University, and founder of the renowned film library there, as well as one of the most respected figures in the world of film studies. She discussed the way history has been portrayed in Hollywood and what devices filmmakers use when trying to depict events for which we may not have all the information, or when trying to make history interesting and screen-worthy. One thing she talked about was what she calls the “letters of transit” device, referring to the plot of Casablanca that hinges on Victor Laszlo getting letters of transit out of Morocco when letters of transit did not exist in reality. The filmmakers used this device to add spice to the story, and it worked brilliantly. No one seems to care that letters of transit did not exist in reality, they existed in Casablanca and that seems to be enough. It was a great discussion, and hearing Professor Basinger speak is something that all students and scholars of film should be able to do.

A scene about “letters of transit” in Casablanca (1942).

Next up was the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill, Jr., complete with a new score by silent composer Carl Davis, who also conducted the orchestra. It was a brilliant score and great fun to watch. Buster Keaton is typically hilarious and, naturally, gets into some real shenanigans. This is the movie with what is probably Buster Keaton’s most famous scene:

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was made in 1928, when Buster Keaton was at the peak of his career. Unfortunately, it was also right before his downfall, with contract switches and the coming of sound essentially putting a halt to what was one of the most glorious careers of the silent era. It was interesting to watch it in this context, as one of the great silent comedians was at the top of the world…only to fall off shortly thereafter.

A personal favorite, Rebecca, came next. I have written about this movie many times before, but it’s such a masterpiece of lighting, cinematography, and acting that I see something new every time. This time, I noticed that director Alfred Hitchcock uses very long lines in his camerawork, perhaps to emphasize the tallness of the estate Manderley. Nearly all the doorways and windows are structured to draw the eyes upward, and even the furniture and shadows are designed to guide the eyes up. Take a look at this scene, and notice the narrow, vertical light on the wall from the window, as well as the narrow structure of the window itself:

It is said that nothing in Hitchcock is accidental. If that adage holds true, this is a genius work of subtlety on his part.

The festival this year features an unusually high number of films that one can read through a queer lens–and Rebecca is certainly one of them. The relationship between the evil Mrs. Danvers and the late Rebecca de Winter can be inferred very clearly in this movie, as evidenced by this scene. Though filmmakers were kept from stating the relationship explicitly, the eerie scenes with Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s room do more for a queer reading of the film than anything that could have been stated explicitly.

The next movie, Boom!, is one that I have seen before on the big screen and it is a movie so bad that it’s a lot of fun to watch. I can barely tell you the plot, except that it takes place on a Greek island and Elizabeth Taylor is a drug addict who is visited by death, played by Richard Burton. It features monstrously terrible and nonsensical dialogue, and my friends and I were laughing the whole time. It’s the perfect midnight screening.

I’ll update about Day 3 tomorrow!