Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 4: 5TH AVE GIRL (1939), EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), Closing Night Party

The final day of the TCM Classic Film Festival was by far the lightest in terms of screenings, but I also found it to be among the most enjoyable. One of the wonderful things about this festival, speaking for those of us who write about classic film, is that there is never any shortage of community here. The classic film writers’ world is quite a tight-knit one, and I found myself constantly surrounded with fellow bloggers and friends comparing schedules and trying to coordinate screenings, chatting in line about Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne, and updating each other on what’s new on our blogs. The TCM Classic Film Festival is known for valuing bloggers, so many of us in the online classic film community received credentials this year and it was nice to put faces to names, and reunite with those I saw last year.

The first showing today was a repeat, a movie that had sold out in a previous time slot and they scheduled it in another to get more people in. It was a Ginger Rogers movie called 5th Ave Girl, directed by Gregory La Cava (of My Man Godfrey fame) and co-starring Walter Connolly, telling a story about a young woman who is hired by a lonely man to live in his house with his wife and children, and make his life a little less boring. It was not, in my opinion, a hugely successful effort, but it is a feel-good movie and it showcases Ginger’s ability to do some pretty top-notch deadpan comedy.

Interestingly, it was made in 1939, the year known as “the best year for movies,” alongside Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach. But in those days, studios were an essential factory line for movies, and it’s sobering to think that even in a year like 1939, the sheer amount of movies coming out of Hollywood ensures some troublesome ones. Though it was not a bad movie, it was rather slow with a bit of a loose plot that I found tedious. It is one of the few films I’ve seen at festival that I haven’t particularly liked.

Loretta Young and Walter William in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE.

Next up was Employees’ Entrance, a 1933 film about a corrupt and evil boss that uses people and then throws them out. It stars Warren William as the evil boss and a young Loretta Young as the wife of his next-in-command. The boss is such a tyrant that he won’t let his employees get married, so the two have to keep their marriage secret, and the movie is about their lives and those of everybody else who is privy to the antics of this deranged person.

One of the highlights of the Employees’ Entrance screening was an informative and entertaining lecture about the pre-Code era from the president of the Film Forum in New York City, Bruce Goldstein. Goldstein gave a witty and fun overview on what the pre-Code era meant for Hollywood, and referenced several strong pre-Code films and the strong women characters that are indicative of that era.

As my readers know, I have a real fascination with the pre-Code era and I have just learned that TCM will soon be having a tribute to the women of pre-Code Hollywood, who make up some of the most exciting characters ever to be seen onscreen. Stay tuned for more details as they become available, as I will be doing a series on Backlots related to this.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947).

My final screening of the festival was a movie that I have had the privilege of seeing before on the big screen, but this was a world premiere presentation of a new digital restoration that I was anxious to see. It was The Lady From Shanghai, a movie that presenter Eddie Muller called “noir poetry,” directed by Orson Welles and starring his recently separated wife Rita Hayworth opposite himself. The movie is notable for the brilliant “hall of mirrors” scene, and for the surprise of seeing the beautiful Rita Hayworth with short blonde hair–as well as the magnificent directing of Welles and his innovations in cinematic technique. The plot is a bit muddy, but in this case it doesn’t much matter because the focus is primarily on the visuals and Welles’ beautiful manipulation of the camera.

The restoration was gorgeous. There are some mixed feelings within the classic film community about digital restorations, and in my opinion it’s possible for a film to be “over-restored.” A few years ago I had the privilege of seeing a new digitally restored print of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, one that was hailed as being such a superb restoration that it was near flawless. And it was a flawless restoration. To my mind, too much so. It looked computerized in how perfect it was, and it didn’t look like it came from film stock. It turned me off a little. But this one was simply a pristine clean-up–it was still clear that this was a movie that had been shot on film, and it was just the restoration that was done digitally. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

And that was the end of the TCM Classic Film Festival. I spent the rest of the evening at the closing night party, talking to friends and preparing to miss them until next year. But the good news is that we all know each other online, so it’s only goodbye to faces–not goodbye to people. Thank goodness for the internet, keeping us all connected though miles away.

A huge thank you to TCM for allowing me to attend this festival, to Chelsea Barredo for all her help with the red carpet credential, and to all the wonderful people I met and reconnected with this year. Here’s to the next one!

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3: CITY LIGHTS (1931), I REMEMBER MAMA (1948), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), Hollywood Home Movies, THE WOMEN (1939), FREAKS (1932)

On what was my busiest day of the festival thus far, my film experiences yesterday ran the gamut of human emotion. From the laughs and tears of City Lights to the nostalgia of I Remember Mama, to delight at the naughtiness of The Women to the uncomfortable but ultimately triumphant horror of Freaks. It was quite a long day and so, dear readers, I was compelled to begin writing this post on the morning of the last day of the festival, in the name of sleep and sanity.

The first film of the day yesterday was City Lights, a 1931 Charlie Chaplin masterpiece that is one of his many tours-de-force and happens to be one of my personal favorites of all time. It tells the story of a blind girl who is befriended by Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, and when she is unable to afford her rent, he goes through a series of precarious (and often hilarious) circumstances to get the money for her. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, but with a certain poignancy in Chaplin’s scenes with the blind girl, a poignancy that serves to give the tramp character his humanity. This is typical of Chaplin–right when we are about to write the tramp off as nothing but a silly clown, we are shown a side of him that is so sweet, gentle, and kind, we cannot help but relate to him in some way and think of him on our own human terms.

The ending of City Lights is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful endings ever in the history of the movies. For those of you who have not seen it and prefer not to have the ending spoiled, skip this paragraph and clip! But for those of you who don’t mind spoilers, I will show you an ending that is sure to melt the coldest of hearts. When the tramp is with the blind girl at one point in the movie, she discusses the possibility of surgery on her eyes so that she may see. It is inferred that with the money that the tramp gives her for her rent (he manages to get her a lot more than her rent required, by enlisting the help of a millionaire friend who, through a series of circumstances, ends up not remembering him and the tramp is thrown in jail for extortion), she is able to afford the operation, but as the police believe that the tramp stole the money, he ends up in jail and unable to see the girl until he is out. Autumn comes, and the tramp is out of jail…disheveled with raggedy clothes on, he sees the girl, who has had her operation. This is the scene:

Needless to say, it was an emotional moment in the theater. It is rare that a movie can make you laugh so hard, and then tug at your heartstrings with such grace and beauty.

Next up was I Remember Mama, a glimpse into the life of a Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco in the early 1900s. The plot is simple–a young woman recounts her childhood in flashback, recalling the days with her family, the good times and the bad times. TCM’s theme this year is “Family: The Ties That Bind,” and they couldn’t have picked a more appropriate addition to the festival than I Remember Mama. The film earned Irene Dunne her final Academy Award nomination, and in my personal opinion she was robbed that year. Though the competition was tough–she was up against Olivia de Havilland for The Snake Pit, Barbara Stanwyck for Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman for Joan of Arc, and the ultimate winner, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda–Irene Dunne’s performance as the devoted Norwegian mother is flawless. She speaks with a convincing Norwegian accent, and in one scene in which she has to leave her child alone in a hospital, you can feel her pain and guilt. It is a remarkable movie, and a love poem to mothers everywhere.

Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)

I was concerned about getting into the next movie, as there would be a special guest–and not just any special guest. The legendary Maureen O’Hara was slated to appear at the screening of How Green Was My Valley, and as I expected, the line was the longest I had ever seen at this festival. I did end up getting in, and they showed a beautiful montage of clips from Maureen O’Hara movies before Maureen came out–teary-eyed with emotion. At 93 years old she is still strikingly beautiful, and speaks elegantly with a touch of an Irish brogue that came and went during her film career but now seems here to stay. I had the great privilege of meeting Maureen O’Hara several years ago when I was in Ireland, and she is truly a larger-than-life personality. A great lady with great convictions that are apparent whenever she speaks.

How Green Was My Valley is a touching coming-of-age story set in a Welsh mining town, and Maureen O’Hara plays Angharad, sister of main character Huw (Roddy McDowall). The film makes a great many points about family and fairness, especially in regard to labor and treatment of others. It is a simple film that doesn’t put on any airs, yet it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1942–winning over Citizen Kane.

The next activity was a showing of several Hollywood home movies from the Academy Film Archive, including home movies from the Ziegfeld family, footage from Hearst Castle, the set of Oklahoma, and rare backstage footage of a young Jean Harlow. Accompanied by a live piano, the silent clips were shown with live commentary from special TCM guests, including, notably, the great-granddaughter of Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke.The Academy Film Archive is a treasure trove of films, newsreels and film clips, and their selections for the festival are always fascinating. This is becoming a yearly event at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and I always make it a point to go. The audience was enraptured and enthusiastic, and it was great fun to experience.

After having coffee with fellow blogger Vincent Paterno, who is in town for the festival, I headed off to see The Women, a movie readers of Backlots are quite familiar with by now as I have written about various facets of the movie on many different occasions. It is one of the smartest, wittiest movies of the 1930s and, I would argue, of all time. Yesterday’s screening featured a talk with Anna Kendrick, Oscar-nominated actress who happens to be a huge fan of The Women. Kendrick spoke intelligently and passionately about this movie, and she and Ben Mankiewicz (who interviewed her) clearly have a great rapport. It was a lot of fun, and the talk went overtime because Kendrick had so much to say.

I won’t delve into the movie in this write-up, as I would be writing about it all day and you can read my varied analyses of this movie here, here, and here, but suffice it to say that it’s one of my favorite films to discuss. I am especially fascinated by the the influence that designer Elsa Schiaparelli had on the film’s costume designer, Adrian, evidenced in the fashion sequence and throughout the movie.

My final viewing of the night was a midnight showing of Freaks, a dark look into the world of circus sideshows that ultimately brings light to the way people with disabilities were treated within the confines of so-called “freak shows.” It is a movie whose concept makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I think it’s partly because there is a misunderstanding of the film’s title from those who have not seen the movie. It is often passed over by people who are either offended by what they assume the movie will be, or by those who fear the dark and bizarre subject matter. But at its core, Freaks is a movie that turns stereotypes upside down. Previously (and since), actors who had some sort of physical disability were often cast as villains or characters to be feared. In Freaks, it is the disabled characters who are the “good guys,” and the able-bodied characters are the ones to be feared. It is quite an unusual and progressive scenario. Tod Browning spent much of his life working in circuses, and knew this world very well, which makes his interpretation all that more fascinating. In addition, nearly all of the characters were portrayed accurately, by disabled actors or real life sideshow performers.

Tod Browning with some of the cast members of FREAKS (1932).

Today, as the last day of the festival, is a bit of a lighter day, but there are some good things on the horizon to look out for tomorrow! See you then!

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: THE THIN MAN (1934), GREY GARDENS (1975), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), WHY WORRY? (1923)

The TCM Classic Film Festival continued seamlessly into its second day today, with a plethora of diverse films to choose from, running from 9:00 AM straight through midnight tonight. Though I am not attending the midnight movie this evening (I needed to get back to update Backlots), I will  be attending the midnight movie tomorrow night–a showing of Freaks for which I am very excited. Hence, I will be resting up tonight so that I can be alert and awake for this glorious midnight screening tomorrow.

This morning’s viewing was a true classic–one that I had seen on the big screen once before but of which I never tire. It’s The Thin Man, a fun romp of a detective story, a Dashiell Hammett murder mystery told through the lens of husband and wife Nick and Nora Charles and their endless supply of alcohol.

The Thin Man is as much about the drinking as it is about the detective story. There is barely a moment in the film when Nick and Nora don’t have martinis in their hands, or are talking about having martinis in their hands. It is also an incredibly sexual film, in a very subtle and effective way. Eddie Muller, speaking before the film, discussed the significance of The Thin Man‘s release right on the cusp of the enforcement of the Hays Code and the repeal of prohibition. Audiences thrilled at being able to see positive characters onscreen who drank and got away with it, and while Nick and Nora are certainly functioning alcoholics, they are among the most lovable, charming and memorable ones the screen has ever seen. And though the film had to comply with the newly strict rules of the Hays office (having Nick and Nora maintain separate beds, for example), director W.S. Van Dyke worked sexual innuendo into the film brilliantly. One of my favorite moments is when the police are at Nick and Nora’s house to arrest a would-be murderer, and this exchange happens:

Policeman: You ever hear of the Solomon Act?

Nora: Oh that’s all right, we’re married.

The film is also notable for establishing a precedent that husband and wife characters could be friends AND lovers. Nick and Nora are clearly the best of friends, teasing and ribbing each other mercilessly, but also show great love within that teasing mentality. Within this clip are some choice examples from this movie and from the rest of the Thin Man series.

Next up was Grey Gardens, one of my favorites and a highlight for me at the festival this year. A documentary by the Maysles brothers about former aristocrats Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living in squalor at their East Hampton estate after their fortune was mishandled. It is a powerful documentary, and sheds light on what it means to be a member of the old aristocracy, what it is like to be a person “fallen from grace,” and what it means to be a family.

Both characters are very strong personalities, and ever since I first saw this movie many years ago, I have loved Little Edie. Her ability to maintain such a clear sense of herself in trying times, her devotion to her mother, and her eccentric and unique fashion sense are indicative of a strong independent spirit that cannot be easily crushed. At this screening, we were lucky to have Al Maysles there, who talked to us a bit about what Little Edie was like. “It was love at first sight,” he said. Edie adored him right back, and they stayed in close touch right up until Little Edie’s death in 2001. Here is a recording of Little Edie talking to Al Maysles on the phone, many years after the film came out.

Next up was Double Indemnity, for which I was unable to stay for long, because I had to go see Why Worry? I have seen Double Indemnity so many times that I didn’t feel particularly bad leaving early, but suffice it to say–seeing Barbara Stanwyck on the new IMAX screen at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a magical experience. She dominates that role.

Someday I’m going to write an entire blog post on Double Indemnity. It would be futile to try to talk about it here in my limited space, so I will leave the richness of the plot, the script, and the story for another time. But I will say that for a Barbara Stanwyck fan, there is nothing better than seeing her on a big IMAX screen in Double Indemnity.

My last film of the night was Why Worry? This was a Harold Lloyd feature, his last with Hal Roach telling the story of a wealthy hypochondriac who ends up in the middle of a revolution at his health resort. It is a very funny movie, and expectedly so given the caliber and talent of Harold Lloyd.

But the highlight of this evening with Why Worry? was the debut of the new score by Carl Davis, who wrote a brilliant score and got a standing ovation from the crowd when it was over. In attendance was also Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s granddaughter, who talked a bit about her father’s legacy and place in classic cinema.

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Harold Lloyd with Carl Davis and the orchestra.

Tomorrow I have to choose between Stella Dallas and City Lights. This is going to be a tough day! See you then!

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival, Day 1: Press Roundtable, Red Carpet Coverage, THE HEIRESS (1949)

Readers, I apologize for the delay in this post–I returned from a screening of The Heiress last night to find that my internet had taken a holiday of its own and was on the blink. Unable to post online but determined to get you the coverage you expect from me, I started writing on my phone but it had been such a long day that I fell asleep before the post could be entirely written. Hopefully that won’t be happening again and my internet will behave for the duration of the festival.

Yesterday was the opening day of the TCM Classic Film Festival, and what a day it was! Normally the TCM press events happen the Wednesday before the festival, but due to conflicting events at the Roosevelt Hotel, the powers that be decided to move the press day to Thursday, and into the TCL Chinese 6 theater, upstairs in the Hollywood and Highland mall complex on Hollywood Boulevard. We heard from Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, Charlie Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy (the latter two work in network programming), and we heard a slew of fantastic questions and fascinating answers. Robert Osborne answered questions about his associations with Lucille Ball and Jane Darwell (“She wasn’t funny,” he said of Lucy, referring to her offscreen demeanor, “but she could BE funny”) as well as a question about what TCM’s greatest gift to him has been. He answered that the TCM family has been a great gift–the fact that there are so many knowledgeable people at the network, as opposed to the staff at previous jobs he has worked–and hearing from fans. He noted that TCM often gets letters from fans who say that the network has helped them through unemployment, hospital stays, and cancer treatments, and that he never realized that part of his job would be that of nurse. Ben Mankiewicz echoed Osborne’s sentiments that the TCM family has been a great gift to him, and added a bit about his own illustrious family having given him the boost that he may have needed to attain the job that has “changed the direction of [his] life.”

Robert Osborne answers questions.

Robert Osborne answers questions.

My question was posed to Charlie Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy, and it related to original programming. I am a big fan of TCM’s programming, and especially love the documentaries that they have produced in the past. I referenced the beautiful Clara Bow documentary that was done many years ago, and asked if there was anything other documentaries on the horizon. They responded that there is a separate department for original programming, and that there are indeed some things on the table, but it was good to hear that there is interest in these documentaries because it spurs action on their part. They said they would pass on my words to the department, so hopefully in the future we will be seeing more of TCM’s beautiful original work.

Notably, during Robert Osborne’s time to speak, he also referred to the Private Screenings interview with Olivia de Havilland that was supposed to have taken place last October. There has been some buzz online that it didn’t happen, and Osborne confirmed that it unfortunately did not. 97-year-old Olivia had taken ill with pneumonia shortly after they arrived in Paris, and was not able to do the interview. Extremely apologetic, she said that she would come to New York and do one–but when that was scheduled, she had another flare-up of pneumonia and ended up in the hospital again. “It’s not meant to be,” said Osborne.

On my end, I had heard that Olivia had been ill and in the hospital with a lung infection, and thus wondered if there was truth to the rumor that the interview did not happen. Obviously, pneumonia at 97 years old is quite serious. Certainly, a Private Screenings with Olivia de Havilland would be a major coup for TCM, but Olivia’s health needs to come first and Backlots sends her great healing wishes.

Next on the agenda was coverage of the red carpet. It was great fun to watch stars such as Shirley Jones and Margaret O’Brien walk down the carpet into the screening of Oklahoma! at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to anyone (save a rather awkward exchange with Leonard Maltin, who caught me off guard and for whom I didn’t have any legitimate questions), but I got some fantastic pictures.

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My view.

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Shirley Jones on the red carpet.

After a brief rest following the red carpet, I headed out to see a screening of The Heiress, meeting up with fellow blogger Kristen from Journeys in Classic Film, her friend Michelle, and also TCM notable Lawrence Carter-Long (you may remember him from the marvelous series on disability in film that aired on TCM last year). The Heiress is a movie that I have seen literally dozens of times, but never on the big screen, and seeing it this way was a truly thrilling experience. The audience was laughing and gasping at parts that I had never paid particular attention to, and I heard witty dialogue that simply disappears when one sees the movie on a small screen. Olivia de Havilland’s performance in the magnificent final scene was all the more powerful when viewed on a huge scale, and the expressions on her face magnified to create a grand perspective. The Heiress is a gorgeous film in any size, but like anything else, it is meant to be seen on a screen of these dimensions.

Click here to read my analysis and discussion of the final scene of The Heiress.

Today is a full day, and hopefully my internet will be working when I get home so that I can give you the scoop while it’s still hot!

Backlots on the TCM Red Carpet

Debbie Reynolds on the red carpet of the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival.

While wandering around the shopping center at Hollywood and Highland today, I was alerted of an incoming email message through the vibrations of the trusty iPhone in my pocket. I took out my phone, opened my email inbox and discovered, to my great delight, that Backlots has been approved for red carpet coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

So, readers, what does this mean? A red carpet credential allows a journalist to procure once in a lifetime interviews with special TCM guests, and to obtain high quality, exclusive content for his or her media outlet. For Backlots, this is an opportunity to talk to stars such as Shirley Jones and Margaret O’Brien, both of whom have significant fan bases on this site and I predict that interviews with them will prove to garner great visibility for both Backlots and TCM.

Shirley Jones in particular has proven to be very popular with readers of Backlots–feedback from readers shows great interest in her films, and all of the articles I have written about Shirley Jones rank among the most frequently visited posts in the history of Backlots. Jones, who is in fine form following her 80th birthday late last month (she wanted to go skydiving for her birthday, before her children talked her out of it) will be in attendance for Oklahoma!, the opening night movie and her feature film debut.

I am also hoping to get a chance to talk to Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz about programming choices, themes, and features for the upcoming year. If any of my readers have questions they would like asked, please feel free to leave them in the comments section or email me at fowler.lara@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you!

I have been in L.A. since March 31, and have been having a marvelous time leading up to the TCM Classic Film Festival. Come Thursday, I very much look forward to sharing my festival experience with you, my dear reader. As usual, I will be live tweeting on the red carpet, between movies, and at social events, as well as blogging every evening. This is definitely one of the highlights of any classic film fan’s year.

See you Thursday!

The Work of Ruth Harriet Louise: Breaking Ground for Women in Photography

Ruth Harriet Louise, self portrait.

When one thinks of classic Hollywood glamour photography, there are a select few names that come to mind immediately. George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull are two of the most recognizable photographers of the era, and their work stands out as an exquisite capturing of what classic Hollywood means. But there is a name that is often egregiously overlooked, one that deserves to stand on equal footing with the immortal Hurrell and Bull–and that is Ruth Harriet Louise, MGM studio photographer from 1925-1930 and the first major female photographer in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood career lasted only 5 years, Louise’s photographic technique set the stage for what Hurrell would make famous–and indeed, many of her photographs have the angelic, ethereal quality that is the hallmark of Hurrell. Others, however, are sweetly playful, capturing the essence of her subjects in diverse and versatile ways.

Greta Garbo, by Ruth Harriet Louise.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Born Ruth Goldstein, a rabbi’s daughter, in 1903, she began taking photographs as a child and was soon spotted by New York photographer Nickolas Muray for whom she began an apprenticeship. At age 22, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother (Mark Sandrich, future director of several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies) and opened up a portrait studio of her own near Hollywood and Vine. But shortly thereafter, her work was spotted by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios in Culver City, who asked her to come work as a professional portrait photographer at MGM, where she became an integral part of the photography department and one of the most sought-after photographers on the lot.

Marion Davies, 1927.

In  an era when bonds between a star and a photographer were cherished, Louise thrived as the favored photographer of many of the MGM stars. She got a great deal of work from stars who specifically requested her–stars like Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo–and her own star in the photographic world shone brightly for the 5 years she was on the MGM lot.

Hollywood at this time was very much controlled by male talent behind the scenes. Excepting a handful of extremely talented women–such as Louise and directors Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber–Hollywood history in the 1920s was dominated by men. In an industry that valued women primarily as objects, working in what was considered a “man’s role” was fickle. It was in this vein that in 1930, when Ruth Harriet Louise’s contract at MGM expired, it was not renewed. Louis B. Mayer cited the fact that Norma Shearer, the top star at the time, preferred the work of George Hurrell, who had also been hired at MGM and subsequently became the head of the department.

Retirement was, however, already on the horizon for Louise. She married director Leigh Jason shortly thereafter, and the couple had two children. When they tried for a third in 1940, it was disastrous–the labor came too fast and too soon, and the hospital was helpless. The baby died…and Louise died of complications. A sad and sudden end to a remarkable short life.

Ruth Harriet Louise’s photographic legacy lives on in her magnificent portraits of some of the most iconic early MGM stars. Here are a few of my favorite portraits of hers.

See you next time!

Buster Keaton, 1929.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Greta Garbo, 1929.

DEFYING TRADITION: Yiddish Literature On Film–Part 2: YENTL (1983)

In 1982, 11 years after the filming of Fiddler On the Roof, Barbra Streisand set out to film Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, a story about a young woman who poses as a man in order to study Talmud. Written in the 1950s by Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the original story sheds light on gender inequality in Orthodox Judaism and the forbidding of women from participation in religious life, as well as issues of gender dysphoria and a transgender character.

Yentl cuts her hair in preparation for posing as a man.

Yentl, a smart, passionate young woman (with “the soul of a man”) who has been instructed in secret by her rabbi father (who has told her that “even heaven makes mistakes,” implying that Yentl may be transgender), decides to cut her hair and pose as a boy in order to avoid marriage and continue her studies after her father’s death. Yentl, as “Anshel,” is accepted into a yeshiva where no one knows her true identity as a woman. There she meets Avigdor, another passionate scholar, and she falls in love with him–though he is oblivious to her true sex. She learns that Avigdor has been rejected by the woman he is in love with, Hadass, because Avigdor’s brother had committed suicide. As an act of revenge and to be as close to Avigdor as possible, “Anshel” marries Hadass. The only person to ever learn that “Anshel” is really Yentl is Avigdor, toward the end of the story…but ultimately, Yentl decides to abandon her identity as a woman and live completely as a man.

This differs greatly from the narrative in the 1983 film. Much to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s chagrin, Barbra Streisand’s film was a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster musical, subject to the moral codes that Streisand and her company thought the general public would accept. This required an almost complete overhaul of the original ending, and the ending of the movie sees Yentl returning to life as a woman and moving to America in search of greater religious freedom. The exploration of Yentl’s gender identity crisis, and the themes of gender fluidity that punctuate the original story, all but disappear from the film version of Yentl.

In essence, Bashevis Singer’s story was too progressive for a public still wrestling with the concepts that Bashevis Singer puts forth so confidently in Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. This was the height of the AIDS crisis in America, and LGBT issues were just beginning to be recognized and dealt with on a national level. A mainstream, high-budget film about a character who may be considered a trans man was certainly not on the horizon, and as such, the film version of Yentl weaves a completely different narrative. Where in the story, Yentl finds her greater freedom in remaining a man and continuing her religious studies, in the movie she finds herself returning to life as a woman and venturing to America to find greater gender equality. It is a narrative that fits nicely with a mainstream American moviegoing audience in 1983, but ignores or outright negates a very important issue worth exploring.

Knowing Barbra Streisand’s take on LGBT rights, I have a feeling that if she were to have waited to make Yentl and instead have had it released alongside such contemporary films as The Dallas Buyers Club, it would have been a completely different movie and perhaps it would have been more to Bashevis Singer’s satisfaction. But as it is, Yentl is a feminist movie that speaks to the place of women in Jewish religious and social life. And in that sense, taking Yentl for what it is as a film regardless of the original source material, the movie is a success.

Thank you for reading!