Merry Christmas from Backlots!

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From beautiful, unseasonably warm New York City, where I have spent the past week engulfed in research, I wish you a very happy holiday! Here are some photos of classic Hollywood stars celebrating.

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The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic, 1954

Marion Davies founded her children’s clinic in 1926, and every year she sponsored a party for the patients and their families, which included entertainment for the children and a Christmas turkey and groceries for the parents. Here in 1954, she celebrates with the children and Santa Claus, played by her husband, Horace Brown.

During the war, many celebrities participated in fundraising activities for the war effort. In this scene, Bette Davis plays a mother teaching her onscreen children the value of war bonds.

Judy Garland sings “Silent Night,” 1937.

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Claudette Colbert with her Christmas wreath, 1932.

Angela Lansbury sings “We Need a Little Christmas,” from the original Broadway cast recording of Mame.

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Colleen Moore sings Christmas carols.

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Lucille Ball with a wreath in the late 1930s.

Here’s to a wonderful day today, and see you next time!

Book review: THE FIRST KING OF HOLLYWOOD: THE LIFE OF DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS

Douglas Fairbanks

With his swashbuckling persona, jaw-dropping acrobatics and million dollar smile, Douglas Fairbanks was the definition of what it means to be a movie star. Known equally well for being half of the most influential celebrity power couple of the 1920s, and for his lavish estate known as Pickfair that he owned with wife Mary Pickford, Fairbanks was the personification of Hollywood fame combined with silent-era high living.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920).

In her new book, The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, longtime Fairbanks expert and historian Tracey Goessel writes in exquisite and meticulous detail of the star’s life, rise to fame and his sometimes difficult marriage to Mary Pickford. It is a book written with obvious love, and crafted to give the reader a full and accurate picture of a complex character.

There is truly no one better to write this book than Tracey Goessel. A Fairbanks devotee for decades, she is on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and has contributed enormously to the visibility of both Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in the world of silent film for many years. When I heard that a Douglas Fairbanks biography by Tracey Goessel was coming out, I knew immediately that it was going to be definitive.

Right from the beginning, Goessel gives us the reasons why the man known as “Doug” in the industry (though Mary Pickford always called him “Douglas”) remains important 76 years after his death. Goessel notes the fact that we have Fairbanks to thank for the Oscars (he co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), for Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (he gave Victor Fleming his start), and for the latest releases from United Artists (he co-founded the company). Her assertions are thought-provoking and accurate. There are very few silent stars who remain as relevant and modern as Douglas Fairbanks, both in his legacy and his onscreen persona.

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D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks signing the contract that established United Artists.

Goessel’s level of detail about Fairbanks’ early life is nothing short of astounding. She has traced his family tree and stories connected with it back several generations, and provides several wonderful stories regarding the early life of the man who would become Douglas Fairbanks. She shows how his early aptitude for mischief, drama and acrobatics affected his rise to fame and shaped who he became onscreen. My favorite story from his early years in film deals with an early role in a film called The Habit of Happiness. Goessel relates that in order to make the blue-collar extras laugh in a scene where they were supposed to be entertained, Doug told the smuttiest jokes he could think of–so smutty, that the lip-readers in the preview audience were offended.

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Before his film stardom, Fairbanks was in a Broadway play in New York when a group of Biograph players, including Mary Pickford, came to see the show. D.W. Griffith said to Mary regarding Doug: “Now there’s a fellow who will someday make a great impression in pictures.” He made a great impression on Mary as well, and they began a relationship, marrying in 1920 very shortly after Mary procured a divorce from her then-husband Owen Moore. As husband and wife they lived at Pickfair, a monumental estate at 1143 Summit Drive in Los Angeles that was host to countless industry parties and get-togethers.

Again, the level of detail in Goessel’s account is marvelous. We are shown the inner workings of the most powerful couple in Hollywood, including all its difficulties when they both stray from fidelity–Mary with Buddy Rogers and Douglas with Lady Sylvia Ashley–and despite trying to make their marriage work, they simply couldn’t.

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Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

Another triumph of this book is the interweaving of what was going on in Hollywood with the events of Fairbanks’ life. A prime example is the attention that is given to the advent of sound in the mid-1920s, during which all of Hollywood was waiting on baited breath to see what would become of this new technology. Pickford and Fairbanks were in the audience when John Barrymore’s Don Juan premiered, the first full-length film to feature a Vitaphone score, and from the beginning he wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of sound on film. Indeed, Douglas Fairbanks was one of sound’s victims–his second-to-last film, ironically, was The Private Life of Don Juan.

This is highly recommended reading for anyone with an interest in Hollywood of any era. The modern film aficionado will see countless links to the modern era, while the classics fan will see the rise and fall of one of the all-time great film stars. Tracey Goessel has written a book fit for Douglas Fairbanks. And that’s saying a great deal.

If you would like to order it, here is the link to the book on Amazon.

See you next time!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival DAY OF SILENTS

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Yesterday afternoon at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosted its annual Day of Silents, featuring a magnificent lineup of silent films from around the world that whet the festivalgoer’s appetite for the larger festival taking place in June. This year’s Day of Silents included a diverse offering of films that seemed to have something for everybody.

The day started with a screening of The Black Pirate (1926), a Douglas Fairbanks mainstay and one of the first films to be shot in two-strip Technicolor. We were lucky enough to have Tracey Goessel, the author of the new Douglas Fairbanks biography The First King of Hollywood (a very solid and informative read, expect a review on the blog very soon) on hand to introduce the film, and Tracey related a few interesting anecdotes about the filming. Fairbanks’ beard made photography with primitive two-strip Technicolor a bit difficult, and they often had to stop and apply more makeup so that his face wouldn’t turn green in the Technicolor process. But sometimes they couldn’t get to his beard before the Technicolor affected his coloring, so every now and then in the film, Fairbanks’ face turns a slight shade of green.

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Doug looking a bit green.

The movie stars a remarkably beautiful Billie Dove as Fairbanks’ love interest, at the height of her fame and beauty. The plot involves Doug trying to rescue her from a terrible fate, and, of course, he succeeds in the end. The final kiss between Fairbanks and Billie Dove is not between Fairbanks and Billie Dove at all–in fact, for the kissing scene, Mary Pickford was brought in and what we see is a kiss between the biggest Hollywood power couple of the 1920s.

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Doug and Mary at the end of The Black Pirate.

The Black Pirate is a typical Douglas Fairbanks movie, which is to say that it thrills, delights, and incites countless moments of awe at Fairbanks’ swashbuckling acrobatics. Watching a Douglas Fairbanks movie is one of life’s particular cinematic joys, as his brand of daring stunts, achieved without a double, combined with his million-dollar smile and exuberant personality, have scarcely been matched by anyone else in all of film history. He created the prototype, and though many have tried to replicate what he does, few have succeeded. As far as I can think, the person who came closest to replicating what Douglas Fairbanks did was Errol Flynn, with his damsel-in-distress, swordfighting onscreen persona. But even he, with his slight build and boyish face, lacks the unique charisma of the suavely charming, almost sassy Fairbanks.

If you haven’t seen The Black Pirate, the complete film is available to watch on youtube. I highly recommend it.

Some other highlights of the festival included a beautiful series of home movies filmed in China between 1900 and 1948, and a showing of Houdini’s 1919 film The Grim Game. The Grim Game feels almost like a filmed magic show, as the entire plot of the film didn’t matter so much–it was a show piece for Houdini’s talents. The audience laughed with delight when Houdini’s character was in jail and locked up in chains–replicating the famous photo of the magician.

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There was also a subplot that led up to the inevitable famous trick of Houdini escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a building. Again, the audience knew exactly what was coming, and muttered among themselves knowingly when Houdini had his straitjacket put on.

The Grim Game was recently restored and shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, and since then has been making the rounds at several festivals around the country. It is a must-see for Houdini fans and anyone interested in magic, as there are some truly remarkable feats accomplished by Houdini in the film.

The home movies around China were simply breathtaking. Shot by a wide variety of amateur filmmakers, they showed the different provinces of China over a nearly 50-year span, marking the significant historical and social changes that the country went through. In the movies filmed around 1900, we saw nearly everyone in traditional Chinese dress, surrounded by wooden buildings and shops bearing names written only in Chinese characters. By 1915, we were beginning to see evidence of American and European trade and influence, with European men and women riding bicycles through the streets and shop signs transliterated into Latin lettering. By 1930, people had begun to adopt western-style clothing in the cities, and you see the roots of industrialization that were beginning to take shape. It was a beautiful and enlightening history lesson, through the most informative lens we have–the home movie.

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Beijing, 1910.

As always, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival delivers the highest quality silent film experience I have ever had the pleasure to have. I am so fortunate to be able to take part in it every year, and I hope that, if you have never been, you will be able to make it out to the larger festival in late May/early June. Stay tuned for details as it gets closer.

See you next time!

The Classic Movie Theaters of the 6ème Arrondissement

In light of the terrifying events in Paris yesterday, like the rest of the world I have been struggling with how to respond. I have deep ties to Paris, both personal and familial, and 2015 has been one of the city’s most terror-filled years in recent memory. Though all of my friends and relatives have responded to my inquiries and are, thankfully, unhurt, there are 127 families today who cannot say the same. The best way I can think of to fight the fear and shock of yesterday is to reiterate the love I have for Paris, and to tell of some of the wonderful cinematic moments that the city has given me.

In 2011, I spent 6 months in Paris as a student at the Institut Catholique de Paris. I was very excited to be there, but I wondered how I was going to get through 6 months with only the classic movies I had brought with me. I had managed to find a French version of Hold Back the Dawn (of all movies) at the DVD store in the Carrousel du Louvre, but other than that I was operating with the slim pickings that I could fit in my suitcase.

On my first day of class, my keen classic movie ear overheard a student talking about Casablanca across the room. I went over to contribute to the conversation, and the student mentioned that he had seen it in a theater in the 6th arrondissement and that this theater shows classic movies every night. Every night! He happened to have a flyer with him, and he gave it to me and told me I should check it out.

Well, check it out I did. That evening. Upon my arrival, I discovered that the theater in question was the Action Christine, tucked away on the tiny rue Christine near the Odéon metro stop. It has been a theater specializing in classic Hollywood since 1973, and is located inside a historic building with a carriage entrance from the 1600s. I was in love.

The movie they were playing that night was My Man Godfrey, and when I went to the ticket window, the woman on duty asked my age. I was 25 at the time, and the woman told me that guests under 26 get in for only 3 euros. So I filled out an application with some ID proving my age, and I got a discount card that let me in the theater for only 3 euros, each time I decided to come to the movies.

Needless to say, with a 3 euro price tag, I went nearly every evening. At the rue Christine I saw All About Eve, Tobacco Road, Leave Her to Heaven, It Happened One Night, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, A Star is Born, Mildred Pierce, and countless others. It became my ritual after school to head east on the metro and get off at Odéon, sometimes get a frozen yogurt up the street and then go to the Action Christine.

Shortly thereafter, I saw a flyer at the Action Christine advertising a movie theater on the rue de l’École de Medecine, just up the street. The next day, I went to check it out and it was another Action theater, also playing Hollywood classics! This one was called the Action Desperado, located just a few blocks from the school of medicine, after which the street was named.

For the rest of my time in Paris, I kept schedules for both the Action Christine and the Action Desperado displayed prominently in my apartment. Sitting in those tiny, darkened theaters, watching “my people” on the screen, I felt so happy and joy-filled that I couldn’t stay away. I started to get homesick around month 4, and I credit the classic movies at the Action Christine and Action Desperado for giving me that dose of home that I so desperately needed.

Today, the theaters still run the classics. Glancing at the schedule for the Action Christine (now called Christine 21, as the owners have changed), there seems to be a Marilyn Monroe theme today, with The Misfits, All About Eve, The Seven Year Itch, and Bus Stop playing in those two tiny theaters that I know so well. They’re also having showings of Bringing Up Baby, The Scarlet Empress, Duck Soup, and The Informer.

On some of the darkest days of our history, movies have had the power to lift us up and carry us to a different, more decent world. So if you’re in Paris today, on a day when you can expect to be overwhelmed with grief, sadness, and tragedy, go to one of these theaters and be transported, while at the same time giving love and support to one of the hidden cinematic treasures of the beautiful city that is Paris.

Maureen O’Hara, 1920-2015

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Maureen O’Hara, whose subtle Irish beauty and fiery red hair made her a favorite of director John Ford, died yesterday in her sleep at 95. In recent years she had moved from her home in the south of Ireland to Boise, Idaho, to be with her family, and was continuing to make appearances as late as 2014, when she appeared at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Born Maureen FitzSimons in the Dublin neighborhood of Ranelagh on August 17, 1920, Maureen had a few bit parts in 1938 before making her formal debut with her mentor Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn in 1939, which was followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). In 1941, she played Angharad in How Green Was My Valley directed by John Ford, with whom she would go on to make 5 feature films and whom she would always name him as her favorite director.

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With Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley (1941).

She became an American citizen in 1946, and raised issues with the naturalization documents that listed her as English instead of Irish. She successfully lobbied to have the documents changed, and it marked the first time in American history that an Irish person was declared a citizen of Ireland, independent of Great Britain. “It was one hell of a victory for me,” she later wrote, “because otherwise I would have had to turn down my American citizenship. I could not have accepted it with my former nationality being anything other than Irish, because no other nationality in the world was my own.”

Her bright red hair made Maureen a natural for Technicolor, and with John Ford directing, she made The Quiet Man with frequent co-star and long time friend John Wayne in 1952. In The Quiet Man, set in Ireland and filmed in Cong, County Mayo, Maureen was able to show the national pride for which she had fought so hard 6 years earlier, and was able to speak a bit of Irish Gaelic while the beautifully photographed Technicolor accentuated the Irish landscape.

In an interesting side note, the dialogue in this clip translates to a situation in which she had “sent her husband from her bed,” and was written in Irish Gaelic in order to avoid the censors.

She married several times, but the love of her life was Charles Blair, a pilot who died in a plane crash in 1978. She had one daughter, Bronwyn, with William Price, and in her last years lived with her grandson, Conor.

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With daughter Bronwyn.

I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with Maureen O’Hara in 2011, while I was studying abroad in France and had the opportunity to travel to Ireland for the Maureen O’Hara Classic Film Festival, organized by several friends of mine and taking place near her home in Glengarriff, County Cork. The festival included showings of several Maureen O’Hara movies on the big screen, as well as a signing event where Maureen signed my copy of her book, ‘Tis Herself.

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Because my friends organized the event, I had the great privilege to be invited to join Maureen for a chat in the hotel pub on the last night of the festival, where she joked, told stories, and was just as fiery and wonderful as I had hoped she would be.

This is a video made by my friend Sara, who helped to organize the festival and who showed this movie on the big screen with Maureen there. It moved Maureen to tears at the festival, and it now moves me to tears remembering her.

A Reminder: TRAILBLAZING WOMEN, Starting October 1 on TCM

Starting tomorrow and continuing through the month of October, TCM will partner with Women in Film Los Angeles to focus on the women behind the camera with their much-anticipated Trailblazing Women programming. Spanning from the earliest days of cinema to the present day, TCM and WIF will present a diverse array of viewing choices that highlight some of the most noteworthy films honoring women’s role in the shaping the history of Hollywood.

Co-hosted by film historian Cari Beauchamp (be sure to read her fascinating essay on Trailblazing Women here), actress Illeana Douglas, director Amy Heckerling and several other notable women in Hollywood, the series will kick off with early films of Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché and Frances Marion, including a showing of the first film ever directed by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché’s La Fée aux choux (1896).

La Fée aux choux (1896).

The full schedule can be found here. If you’re unsure what to look for, please be sure to read the editorial by my good friend, employee of Rotten Tomatoes and expert on women in film, Marya E. Gates. Marya has spent the past year watching solely films directed by women, and has written a thorough rundown of all the highlights of TCM’s programming.

The programming will air on Tuesdays and Thursdays in TCM’s prime time spots. In this era when women are still shockingly underpaid and undervalued in the industry, it is a key time to bring these issues to the forefront in a meaningful way, and this programming is the perfect way to do just that.

Frances Marion and Mary Pickford.

Research in France, Classic Movie Events and Upcoming TCM Programming

I am back in the United States after a wonderful August researching Marion Davies in France. The research is going well, and I did have some downtime to enjoy the country with a good friend, including several days in beautiful, rugged Corsica and tranquil northern Provence. I came back in late August, and am happy to be returning to blogging!

There are several classic movie events going on right now that I would like to touch on, and I would also like to give an update on what will be happening on TCM soon, an important special programming note for the month of October.

Cinecon, the oldest classic film festival in the country, wraps up today in Hollywood. This was its 51st year of showing rare movies from the archives, alongside a magnificent memorabilia dealer room that is worth the price of admission in itself.  Cinecon prides itself in the obscure and the unknown, so if you go to this festival, do not expect to celebrate your old standby classic stars. Instead, you will hear hearty cheers for such names as Ted Healy, Will Ryan, and Lynn Bari, names dear to those who often attend Cinecon every September. It takes place at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood over Labor Day weekend, and boasts a huge number of returnees each year–Cinecon is a true mecca for fans of the obscure.

While not specifically a classic film festival in itself, the Telluride Film Festival is happening this weekend in Telluride, CO. This is one of the preeminent film festivals in the United States, and this year is host to several classic film-related showings. Today is a showing of the new Swedish documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year and making waves at film festivals internationally. Through letters, diaries, and interviews with her loved ones, the movie tells the story of one of the most captivating women in Hollywood (and one of the most controversial at the time of her stardom) on the 100th anniversary of the year of her birth. The festival is also screening Hitchcock/Truffaut, an interview with filmmakers regarding how François Truffaut’s 1966 book Cinema According to Hitchcock has had an impact on their individual styles.

In addition, I am sad to have missed most of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming during the month of August, but my friend Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film hosted a blogathon during the entire month of August that chronicled each day of Summer Under the Stars. Check out the blogathon entries and see how the month played out on TCM. Next month, however, I am looking forward to TCM’s look at the women who shaped the movies. Hosted by Ileana Douglas and co-hosted by such luminaries as writer Cari Beauchamp (the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Early Hollywood) and director Alison Anders (director on Sex and the City and the movie Gas Food Lodging), the month will be filled with classic and contemporary movies made by women working behind the camera. It promises to be a fascinating look at an integral part of Hollywood that gets little attention, even today. The series begins October 1.

Two cinematic legends: star and producer Mary Pickford with her great friend, screenwriter Frances Marion.

Have a wonderful Labor Day, and see you next time!