A Statement on Current Events

“That’s the trouble with you readers,” Joe Gillis says to Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard, “you know all the plots.”

For hundreds of years, we have seen the same plots play out in our criminal justice system, as the intrinsic systems of oppression in this country do what they were built to do–devalue Black lives and exonerate those in power for discrimination, harassment, and outright murder.

Those of us who know classic film know that the studio system was complicit in the devaluing of Black lives. They gave in to Jim Crow laws and cast Black actors in roles of maids, servants, and porters–never as lawyers, doctors, or scientists. The money from the Jim Crow south was more important to the studio heads than the humanity of the people they portrayed, or challenging existing social norms in the United States as a whole. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

Here at Backlots, Black lives matter. Black lives are woven into the fabric of classic Hollywood, both on and off the screen. We as writers on classic film have a responsibility to do our part to dismantle the systems of oppression perpetuated by the powers-that-were during the era of the studio system. I pledge to do my part by focusing on the Black experience in Hollywood, which was vibrant, rich, and diverse, in direct spite of its outright censorship by the studios.

I am heartened to see the plot start to change. The charges against Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd have been upgraded, and 3 other officers charged. Protests in the street are dominating the news, and it seems that we’re on the cusp of something big.

Lena Horne said it best: “Nobody, black or white, who really believes in democracy can stand aside now. Everybody’s got to stand up and be counted.” I stand in solidarity with the protestors and those working to change the plot for good.

Marilyn Monroe and Acts of Political Bravery

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On June 1, 2020, Marilyn Monroe would have turned 94 years old. Though she died at the tragically young age of 36, Monroe was refreshingly candid and unbothered by the concept of aging. “I want to grow old without facelifts,” she told an interviewer, saying she couldn’t wait to retire to Brooklyn when her career was over. If things had been different, her genes tell us that she likely would have been alive today (despite her mother’s difficult life, she lived into the 1980s and her older half-sister Berniece is still alive, turning 101 in July). But sadly, a long life was not to be, and she lives on as a young, vibrant woman frozen in time.

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The image of her skirt blowing up on the subway grate, her wide, flashy smile, and her version of “Happy Birthday” sung JFK have become synonymous with that era of American popular culture. But Marilyn Monroe remains one of the most misunderstood figures of Hollywood history. The real woman behind the image was the polar opposite of what her public perceived her to be. A quiet introvert with a sweet disposition, Monroe loved children, books, animals, and writing poetry. She disliked crowds and was happiest when she could be at home with a book. Her difficult childhood had precluded her from graduating high school, but she desperately tried to make up for it by enrolling in evening UCLA extension courses as an adult, while working at the studio during the day.

She was also fiercely political and had a strong moral compass with activist instincts, and a keen interest in current events. Growing up during the Depression in a series of foster homes including time spent at an orphanage, Monroe naturally empathized with the underdog and easily saw societal ills, often relating them to the struggles of her own life. On the set of All About Eve in 1950, she relaxed between takes by reading her book, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. Those on set warned that she shouldn’t read the autobiography of a muckraker around the studio heads, as in era of McCarthy it might destroy her burgeoning career.

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Reading Ulysses, that she was indeed reading for pleasure at the time, as photographed by Eve Arnold.

Monroe was one of the first stars to openly defy the studio system, brazenly violating her contract to study at the Actor’s Studio in New York. When she came back, she demanded director approval and had created her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. She knew her power–she knew that she was the biggest box office draw that Twentieth Century Fox had, and could use that as leverage to break an unjust and exploitative system. When she married Arthur Miller in 1956, she found herself caught up in the maelstrom of anti-communist fervor, as Miller was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names. Monroe was unafraid to use her power and her time with the press to voice her support for Miller’s cause.

Deeply concerned about the nuclear post-war world in addition to the witch hunts going on in the United States, Monroe closely followed the founding of SANE, the committee that advocated anti-nuclear testing policies and ultimately complete nuclear disarmament. When a Hollywood chapter was founded in 1960, Monroe became a founding and active member. She told a reporter during the era of SANE’s founding “My nightmare is the H-bomb. What’s yours?” She used her many media connections to push for Democratic and pro-peace policies that she believed would make a more just world. Below is a letter she wrote to Lester Markel of the New York Times with her ideas on presidential candidates for 1960.

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An oft-told story is one in which Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald get an engagement at the all-white Mocambo Nightclub by phoning the club and telling them that she’d be there at the front table every night. While it seems that the story didn’t concern Fitzgerald’s booking at the Mocambo (several other Black performers had played there before, and Monroe was out of town during those dates), Monroe did indeed help Fitzgerald, her favorite singer, play the Tiffany Club in East Hollywood, and she took a front table every night she could.

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Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe at the Tiffany Club, 1954.

The two developed a deep friendship, and Fitzgerald herself said about her after Monroe’s death: “She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Marilyn Monroe’s politics have long been hidden away or skimmed over in biographies and studies of her life. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps her political activities are antithetical to the Marilyn Monroe people think they know, and the general public would prefer to keep her one-dimensional and easy to digest. But the truth reveals a person dedicated to causes of justice and righteousness, who was not afraid to use her power as a weapon for social change.

The Friendship of Ingrid Bergman and Ruth Roberts

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Ingrid Bergman with Ruth Roberts, to her left, and other crew on the set of Gaslight (1944)

During this COVID-19 crisis, I’m finding daily routine to be a key factor in maintaining some semblance of normalcy. For me, this means daily classic movies at set times of the day. Movies keep me calm, and bring comfort in a world that seems to be crumbling further every day. If you derive comfort from film the way I do, and you haven’t discovered the Criterion Collection yet, I’m finding it to be a godsend in this regard, a movie lover’s dream. Having finished the delightful Jean Arthur collection, I’m now working my way through the “Ingrid Bergman in Europe” collection, a diverse group of films from Ingrid Bergman’s pre-Hollywood days in Sweden, and her work in Europe following her troubles in Hollywood.

I have always found Ingrid Bergman a fascinating personality and from childhood, have been riveted by her comforting, Swedish-accented voice, distinctive beauty, magnificent acting and personal strength of character. Her onscreen portrayals reflect her offscreen strength, as she frequently played independent and strong women, including the likes of Joan of Arc and Golda Meir. The difficulties she faced in Hollywood (she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to their son, Roberto, out of wedlock in 1949) were excruciatingly painful. While she suffered immensely at having been rejected by Hollywood, she held her chin high and continued working–albeit in Europe for the next 7 years rather than in the United States where she had effectively been ostracized.

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Ingrid Bergman before coming to Hollywood.

Bergman was a gifted linguist and polyglot–brought up in Stockholm bilingual in Swedish and German, she loved language for its own sake and was able to adjust quickly to life and work in Europe. However, when she came to the United States to work on the English version of Intermezzo for David O. Selznick in 1939, it was a different story. Her knowledge of English was rudimentary at best, and Selznick was worried about how she would sound onscreen. On her first day at the studio, she was introduced to a woman named Ruth Roberts, who was to be her English language and dialogue coach.

Ruth Roberts was the sister of director George Seaton, and came from a Swedish immigrant family herself. Ruth spoke fluent Swedish due to her family background, and later served as Loretta Young’s Swedish dialect coach on The Farmer’s Daughter. But she made the decision not to divulge her bilingualism to Ingrid.

In order to familiarize Ingrid with English, of which she knew just a smattering (she speaks a few lines of simple, broken English in the Swedish film Dollar, which is interesting to hear), Selznick demanded that she spend day and night with Roberts. At first, Ingrid balked at this order–but ultimately accepted. After a few mere hours with Ruth Roberts, Ingrid realized that she had been wrong to resist. She had found a kindred spirit, a woman who would become her best friend and one of the great influences of her life.

The two did, indeed, spend all their time together, speaking nothing but English–and Ingrid found that despite her initial hesitancy at having her freedom curtailed, she adored Ruth and enjoyed spending time with her. In her autobiography, My Story, Ingrid recalled that one day when Ruth was coaching her on the set, there was a word whose pronunciation Ingrid was struggling with. “If only you could give me one Swedish word…” Ingrid said sadly, knowing she could get the pronunciation if she only knew how to form her mouth correctly. Ruth looked her right in the eye and gave her a Swedish word with the same sound.

“You speak Swedish?” Ingrid asked incredulously.

“I am Swedish.”

“Then why–”

“Because, Ingrid dear, if I’d told you earlier you’d be jabbering away in Swedish and my job is to get your English right.”

From the American version of Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman’s first English language film.

The revelation of Ruth’s bilingualism deepened their friendship further, and their shared connection to Sweden helped Ingrid acclimate and learn quickly. It was thanks to her friendship with Ruth Roberts that her English improved so rapidly. Ruth remained Ingrid’s dialect coach throughout her career, even when Ingrid spoke perfect English and had established her “voice” in Hollywood. Ingrid’s autobiography is filled with correspondence with Ruth Roberts, in both English and Swedish, and stories of Ruth’s emotional support during Ingrid’s ostracization from Hollywood and her connection to Ingrid’s children. Their friendship was lifelong, and though Ruth was 16 years older, the two died only 3 months apart in 1982.

The gift that this friendship gave Ingrid is immeasurable. Though she did have a gift for languages, eventually learning 2 more in addition to English, her personal and professional connection to Ruth Roberts provided her with the foundation and confidence to not only work in a foreign language, but to win 3 Oscars in it. This was not lost on Ingrid, who treasured their friendship and remained grateful to Ruth for the rest of her life.

 

Classic Film for Trying Times

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Along with the rest of the country, I have been struggling to adjust to our current world situation. I am fortunate in many ways–with the ability to work my day job as a teacher from home, I have no lost income, and I am young and healthy. My heart goes out to anyone suffering illness or caring for someone who is. This is an uncharted road, and it’s frightening not to know what’s coming next or when this will end.

A few days ago, a family friend asked for a list of classic movies to watch during COVID-19 isolation and I wanted to share it with my readers. Throughout this post, I have bolded the films that appear on my list, and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t seen them to check them out while quarantined.

I have written on this subject before, but I want to reiterate just how beneficial classic film can be in difficult times like these. Much of cinema in what we consider the Golden Age of Hollywood was made specifically for people living through trying times. In the 1930s, as the country suffered through the Great Depression, not knowing where meals would come from or how long it would last, movies like Swing Time (1936) allowed the public to escape their troubles into a world of almost dreamlike fantasy, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang in their gentle tones of happiness and calm.

 

Much of the public clung to the movies, and their stars, to help them stay stabilized during the Depression and the ensuing years of World War II. In the 1930s, the success of The Thin Man (1934) relied not only on the public’s desire to see beautiful costumes and lavish living, but also on the star power of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who had become faces of comfort. Star-studded musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) followed, showing the country the nostalgia of the past and also giving them familiar faces that brought a sense of stability to a tumultuous era.

It is also necessary for people who may be feeling alone or isolated to be able to see their experiences reflected on film. After World War II ended, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) came out, which reflected in beautiful nuance the complex emotions of soldiers coming home from war. Movies like Stella Dallas (1937) deal very frankly with feelings of loneliness, allowing us to identify with Stella when we feel apart from the world and it feels like there’s no one to turn to.

At the same time, laughter is, and always has been, the best medicine in many troubling times. The fact that screwball comedy emerged in the 1930s is, in my estimation, no accident. People needed something to laugh at, funny dialogue to listen to, and carefree characters to identify with. My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937) both take viewers to a space where they can laugh at the idle rich, while at the same time identifying with some of their universal struggles. The fast-paced dialogue forces the audience to pay attention and forget whatever is going on outside.

One of the most important things, though, especially in times of isolation like the ones we’re finding ourselves in now, seems to be allowing yourself to make a connection. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, audiences developed deep connections with certain stars, and the routine of going to the movies to see the latest Barbara Stanwyck or Claudette Colbert picture helped many people get through their difficulties. The connection we have today with film stars is not the same as it was in the 1930s. The star system, in which the moviegoer’s connection with a star was barely below that of a god, has long gone. Today, in order to make that same connection, identify a film that makes you feel good, and allow yourself to watch it as many times as you desire. For me personally, that movie is The Thin Man. I can’t identify precisely why it is that The Thin Man is so comforting to me, but whenever I’m feeling sad, upset, or anxious, it picks me right up again.

Above all, readers, stay safe, stay healthy, and find your comfort. I leave you with one last clip, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). A young woman, living through an abusive marriage during the Great Depression, finds solace in going to the movies, and her fantasy becomes a reality when one of the characters steps off the screen. The two of them have a romance that takes her away from her current circumstances, and gives her the courage to stand up for herself and face those circumstances head on. It is a love letter to the power of movies to change our outlook and ultimately bring us closer to healing.

Here is the complete list of films that I sent to my family friend.

Funny:

The Thin Man (1934)

The Awful Truth (1937)

Ball of Fire (1941)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Nostalgic/Sad:

I Remember Mama (1948)

Penny Serenade (1941)

Stella Dallas (1937)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Charming:

Indiscreet (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958)

Pillow Talk (1959)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Musicals:

Funny Face (1957)

Swing Time (1936)

Golddiggers of 1933 (1933)

On the Town (1949)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Pre-code:

Baby Face (1933)

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

The Blue Angel (1930)

Hollywood and the Office of War Information, 1942-1945

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The other day as I was eating breakfast, I began to think (as normal people do) about wartime food rationing. Today, few people blink an eye when eating an omelette or a cookie, which consist almost entirely of foods rationed during wartime, but when the United States entered World War II and began limiting the availability of many goods, the content of meals was an everyday concern.

Rationing, enacted by the United States government in response to the increased military needs of wartime, was not an easy sell to the American public. In order to convince the public to accept rationing, and other wartime necessities in the eyes of the government, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt had to get creative. The Office of War Information was tasked with making the American people believe that the government was doing what was best for them and for the world. To achieve that goal, they turned to Hollywood.

From the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, the Office of War Information had played an integral role in maintaining American support for the war effort. Formed by executive order in June of 1942, it partnered with Hollywood almost immediately as an image liaison to the general public. As OWI director Elmer Davis said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized.” Roosevelt agreed–the medium of motion pictures were a powerful tool, he felt, and the restrictions on the film industry were much lighter than other industries, allowing for maximum utility. He instructed the OWI to implement a Bureau of Motion Pictures, which would serve as a New Deal stronghold and would influence the content of nearly all of Hollywood’s output during the time of its existence. The Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, released by the BMP in June of 1942, underscored that World War II was to be seen as the common man’s war, that the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear) were at stake for the whole world, and this was to be shown in the films screened in American theaters. Soon, the Manual for the Motion Picture Industry became the go-to book for employees working in wartime Hollywood.

From banning re-releases of Gunga Din and Kim due to the government’s anti-imperial stance, to forbidding the international release of The Palm Beach Story (Americans would be viewed as too silly, they said), the OWI’s influence on the industry was far-reaching. By the end of 1942, nearly all major studios were allowing the OWI to examine their scripts and story treatments, toward the end goal of “Will This Picture Help Win the War?” Short films began to appear touting the war effort, often featuring major stars. Here is a Warner Bros short film featuring Bette Davis encouraging Americans to buy war bonds instead of Christmas presents.

Chuck Jones and the Leon Schlesinger Unit at Warner Bros produced “The Point Rationing of Foods” for the Office of War Information, to sell the concept of rationing to the American people. The United States had begun rationing almost immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The change was introduced gradually, with the government rationing one item at a time, but by the end of 1943, most everyday items were rationed.

In order to prevent hoarding and people selling goods on the black market for a higher price, the government instituted price ceilings for rationed items, as seen in “Prices Unlimited.” Here, we also see how ration boards worked, and the government’s idea of what would have happened if rationing were not implemented.

After Republicans made major gains in Congress in the 1942 congressional election, the House of Representatives voted to defund the entire Domestic Branch of the OWI for 1944, seeing it as just a mouthpiece for Roosevelt’s policies. Funding was ultimately restored, but with severe restrictions, and the office was officially closed with the end of the war in 1945. With the rise of the Red Scare coinciding with the end of the war, many of those involved with the BMP and the OWI in Hollywood were targeted for being communists, and several employees admitted to having belonged to communist front organizations. Elmer Davis, who became a journalist after the war, was vocal in his defense of his colleagues in the wake of invasive investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. In his book, But We Were Born Free, he blasts McCarthy and the HUAC hearings as “a master class of obscene innuendo.”

In signing the Executive Order ending the OWI, President Harry S. Truman credited the OWI with an “outstanding contribution to victory,” and while its underlying morals of propaganda are controversial today, the OWI’s work is considered to be an important part of American mobilization on the home front.

The Case for Subtitles

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When Bong Joon-Ho won his Golden Globe for Parasite last month, he gave a piece of advice to the audience: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” he said, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

With Parasite‘s Best Picture win at the Oscars last night fresh in the public mind, I have seen several articles and commentaries criticizing the use of subtitles in movies. An article by Alissa Wilkinson of Vox wrote about Bong’s advice: “The challenge was simple: Americans just don’t like reading subtitles.” A follow-up by Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum read: “No one likes subtitles. They’re only common in markets where film revenues aren’t high enough for studios to recoup the cost of producing dubbed versions.”

Drum went on to say: “After all, they eliminate one of the key aspects of the acting craft: reading lines. It is faux sophistication of the highest order to pretend that this shouldn’t—or doesn’t—matter.”

It is with this last line especially that I would like to take exception.

Full disclosure: I am a foreign language aficionado. I love hearing and speaking foreign languages, learning grammar rules, syntax, and vocabulary. I speak 5 foreign languages in addition to my native English. By default, my view of foreign language films is filtered through that lens, but my views are grounded in respect for the art of film as well as for the languages in which it is created.

I agree with Drum that one of the key aspects of the acting craft is reading lines. When a film is dubbed, the original inflection, tone, and emotion of the actor is lost. A line reading is an integral part of a scene. Regardless of what language is spoken, the emotion in an actor’s voice is universally understood. A performer spends countless hours perfecting their lines, their pacing, their interactions with the others in the cast. All that work is for naught when a different actor dubs the film for a foreign market, and ultimately does a disservice to foreign audiences in addition to the actor’s creative process.

Last weekend I went to see the Swedish version of A Woman’s Face at the Castro Theatre as part of the Noir City festival. It was not the first time I had seen it, but I was excited to see early Ingrid Bergman on the big screen. It is a breathtaking film in many ways, and one of the things I was most looking forward to about the experience was hearing Ingrid Bergman speak Swedish. I have noticed that when playing a role in Swedish, she conveys rawer, more intense emotions and seems freer, less encumbered by the restraints of a foreign language. Ingrid Bergman is a marvel in any language, but there is a marked difference when she acts in her native tongue. If the powers that be had chosen to dub A Woman’s Face, it would have been as if they were cutting half of Ingrid Bergman out of the film entirely.

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Ingrid Bergman in A Woman’s Face (1938)

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, Jean Seberg’s distinct American accent is what gives the film, and her character, heart. There is no replicating Jean Seberg’s accent, and her Americanness is a large part of what drives the plot forward. A dubbed English language version of Breathless is inconceivable, it would become an uninteresting shell of its former self, as the language of Breathless is at the core of what it is.

Parasite is a phenomenal and important film. Bong Joon-Ho is doing groundbreaking work in the industry, playing with genres and labels and making bold class commentaries where no one else dares to. I know that many people have been driven away from Parasite due to its subtitles, and it not only saddens me that they’re missing this magnificent piece of filmmaking, but it makes me fear for what a vast swath of this country is not seeing.

We live in an increasingly connected world, but one fractured by nationalism and xenophobia. Film is one medium by which we can come together and share universal themes, stories, and feelings. Insistence on hearing our own language in a film from a different culture only serves to drive us apart even further, stifling the power of film to unify a world that needs it so much.

Happy Holidays From Hollywood

As Christmas Day comes to a close and Hanukkah enters its 4th day, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very joyful holiday season. Hollywood has always gone all out this time of year, and I have assembled some of my favorite Hollywood moments commemorating the season. For now, I’m staying clear of It’s A Wonderful Life and other Christmas classics that get a lot of play, because there are other movies that deserve some acknowledgment, too. Enjoy!

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The Hanukkah scene from The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

There are very few classic Hollywood movies that depict Jewish life, much less a full-on Hanukkah celebration. But The Diary of Anne Frank gives it to us, thanks to Anne’s own diary entry on the holiday. It’s a shame that we have such a paucity of unapologetically Jewish scenes in Hollywood (even today, there aren’t many), but this scene is really something. Not only does it show the lighting of a chanukiah, but it also affirms the survival of the annex families up to this point, which holds great symbolism when viewed through the lens of the Hanukkah story itself (I will make a post about this on the final night of Hanukkah).

Now, one small staging quibble. When Otto Frank lights the chanukiah, he lights it with the first candle at his left. This is incorrect. The first candle should be on his right, and then the candles are loaded on each subsequent night toward the left. It’s a small complaint, and I can overlook it for the larger good here.

Bing Crosby and a choir of schoolchildren sing “Adeste Fidelis” (O Come All Ye Faithful) in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

Here, I must do a tiny bit of bragging. It may surprise you to learn that though Christmas is not my holiday (we’re Jewish, so we have the 4 candles lit tonight), my knowledge of Christmas carols is unparalleled even by many of my Christian friends. This is partly due to my stint in the San Francisco Girls Chorus when I was young, and my participation in their Christmas concert at Davies Symphony Hall every year. However, I can’t credit the Girls Chorus with my ability to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” in English and Latin. That is thanks to Bing Crosby, and his performance in this beautiful scene from The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which Bing sings “Adeste Fidelis” with the children at his parochial school before they are interrupted by nun Ingrid Bergman. The film as a whole is one of my personal holiday favorites, and includes such wonderful scenes as Ingrid Bergman teaching a student to box to defend himself.

In this scene, gender stereotypes are flipped on their head and Ingrid Bergman is the one who wants Eddie to learn to fight, while Bing Crosby promotes pacifism. It’s one example of the nuances and complexity of the film that are often overlooked.

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Barbara Stanwyck learns what family is in Remember the Night (1940)

Remember the Night (1940) doesn’t get the credit it deserves as a holiday film, nor as a serious examination of societal ills. Barbara Stanwyck plays a jewel thief who is befriended by the DA on her case (Fred MacMurray), and she goes home with him for a Christmas celebration with his family. On the way, we learn why she is the way she is–she has a mother who never gave her any approval nor affection from childhood, and who rejected her outright after the mother remarried. With the DA’s family, we see Stanwyck gaze around longingly at his loving relatives, realizing what could have been for her. It’s a real, raw moment that is rare in Christmas movies, and it’s made even more poignant when one knows about Stanwyck’s own troubled childhood.

The Christmas pageant in Penny Serenade (1941)

Though not technically considered a Christmas movie, this is a moving scene that speaks to parents and families at this and every season. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, who by this time have gone through unimaginable struggle trying to uphold the adoption of their daughter, Trina, arrive at her school to watch her Christmas pageant. The looks on their faces as they hear her singing “Silent Night” from behind a cloud, are the looks of proud parents everywhere. And when Trina trips and falls backstage, Irene Dunne reflexively gets up to help her. It is a scene that captures the unconditional love of family, and how Trina is and has always been their child, despite what any court could say.

Happy holidays to all, and I hope that 2020 brings you the best of everything.

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