Podcast Announcement for JUDY (2019)

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On Wednesday night, I went to San Francisco for an advance screening of Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger, out in theaters today. This has been a highly anticipated event for many months in the classic film community, and I have many thoughts to share about the movie, Zellweger’s performance, and what the movie means for Judy Garland’s legacy. This coming week, I’m going to be on a podcast with Tony Bravo of the San Francisco Chronicle, where we will discuss this most recent biopic and our thoughts. I will post a link to the blog as soon as I have it.

For now, I’d just like to share a bit of what Judy Garland has meant in my life.

Judy was my entrée into the world of classic film. At the age of 10, I listened to my first Judy Garland cassette in the car on the way up to Sacramento for New Year’s Eve. I still remember that car ride–the first moment I heard Judy sing outside of The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was “Dear Mr. Gable,” and within the first 5 seconds, I was in inexplicable awe.  By the time we reached Sacramento, I was head over heels in love and admiration–and over the span of 2 hours, I had become so protective that when our family friend laughed at the situation (a 10-year-old choosing a Judy Garland tape to listen to in the car), I got upset–not for myself, but for Judy.

This was the first song on the cassette that made me fall in love with Judy Garland.

By 11, I had seen all her movies. She was brought up any time I could find an excuse to fit her into a conversation. In addition to her powerful, emotional voice, I was drawn to her outrageous humor, her laughter in the face of troubles, and a pathos and sensitivity that were so vibrant you felt you could reach out and touch her. All of these things were somehow relatable to me, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand how anyone could not feel attached to this amazingly powerful person.

At 12, my mother took me to the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, MN, where Judy was born and lived for the first 6 years of her life. I ended up going back to the festival 4 times, and at 13 won a trivia competition that landed me an interview with NPR. Many of my most treasured memories from that era have to do with Judy, and the friendships I have made rank among my longest and most lasting.

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After I had exhausted Judy’s entire filmography, I began to branch out into the filmographies of her costars, and their costars. I developed interests in the people who were nominally and marginally part of her life, until I was well versed in classic Hollywood in general. In 2011, I started this blog after friends advised me to create an outlet.

In essence, if you enjoy Backlots, you have Judy Garland to thank. I am grateful that she came into my life, 46 years after her death, and that the same pathos and sensitivity I felt when I was 10 I still feel today when I listen to her recordings. She is a constant and ever-present part of my soul.

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Thanks to Tony and the San Francisco Chronicle for the podcasting opportunity, and following the podcast I will flesh out my thoughts for Backlots.

Talk to you next week!

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LABOR DAY 2019: Norma Rae (1979)

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In 1973, labor organizer Crystal Lee Sutton was fired from the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Her crime was “insubordination,” after her boss took issue with Sutton copying an anti-union letter on the bulletin board. Sutton had been organizing the workers in the plant to form a defense against unsafe working conditions and harassment from the bosses. Shortly after being fired, Sutton stood on a table with a hand-written sign reading “UNION,” workers turned off their machines, and all attention focused on her.

While Sutton was fired, her efforts worked–the textile workers voted to unionize the following year, and Sutton quickly landed a replacement job–working for the AFL-CIO as a labor organizer.

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Her story gripped the nation, and the year after the workers at the plant voted to unionize, her story became Norma Rae–a low-budget movie that rose to the ranks of serious contender for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, of which it earned 2–one for Sally Field in her first Academy Award win for Best Actress, and one for its theme song, “It Goes Like it Goes.” The film was a huge success upon its release, grossing $22 million–$17 million more than it took to make.

In the years since its release, Norma Rae has become synonymous with the labor movement, and with Sally Field. Up to this point, Field had been best known for her roles in The Flying Nun and Gidget. Her reputation made her an unlikely choice for Norma Rae. But following her knockout performance in Sybil two years earlier, her potential as a serious actress was the buzz of the industry. After Jane Fonda turned down the role of Norma Rae, the assistant of director Martin Ritt recommended Field. Ritt took to her immediately, but he had to fight with studio executives to allow her to be cast. Fields writes in her memoir, In Pieces:

“Marty Ritt asked me to come in… He said, ‘Look, the studio doesn’t want you… and they offered it to everyone else, and luckily they turned it down, because I want you, and I will fight for you, and I will win.”

Ritt was right in his instincts. As production continued, it became clear that Sally Field’s performance was going to change her career. Far from her girl-next-door portrayals of Gidget and The Flying Nun, Field played Norma Rae as a fierce, determined fighter with a backbone of steel.

The details of production demonstrate the wide-ranging impact that Sutton’s activities had on J.P. Stevens and other textile mills. Martin Ritt had wanted to shoot on location at a J.P. Stevens plant, but due to the vociferous objections of the bosses, they had to find another, friendlier mill. They ultimately opted for Opelika Manufacturing Corp. in Opelika, AL, where the workers had voted in a strong union, much like the one at J.P. Stevens. During the scenes at the mill, the real-life workers played extras.

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Norma Rae‘s production generated great excitement among the residents in small-town Opelika. At the time, Field was the girlfriend of Burt Reynolds, whose star dwarfed hers. Residents of Opelika frequently came out to watch the shoots, hoping that Reynolds would visit Field on the set. He did several times. Guy Rhodes, associate editor of the Tuskegee News in Tuskegee, AL, wrote about the film’s effect on citizens of Opelika. “To say there was excitement in the air would be an understatement. Not only were the stars in town, numerous local residents were selected to play extra roles in the movie.”

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Reynolds and Field.

When production wrapped and the film was submitted to Cannes, it was immediately swept up in talk of the Palme d’Or and for the Best Female Performance Prize, which Field won. In subsequent ceremonies, she also won Best Actress at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes, and the National Society of Film Critics Awards, before winning the Oscar.

The film did indeed change Sally Field’s career and reputation forever. In addition to the transformation in her professional life, she also credits Norma Rae with a personal wake-up call. “It so changed me on so many levels,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “It changed me politically, I don’t think I was ever aware politically, at all. It started me into looking at other people and how they lived, and I don’t think I had ever done that before.”

Despite all the accolades that it received, and despite its place in the career of one of our most respected modern actresses, Norma Rae is not widely accessible today. It is not streaming on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the platforms on which most people access their movies nowadays. As I search the internet, I can find it in two places accessible to me–on DVD from Amazon, and at a branch of my local library. This puzzling circumstance is perhaps explained by the content of the film, and its effect on its audience.

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Norma Rae is unapologetically pro-labor. It shows its viewers exactly how to form a union in the workplace, from handing out fliers to be read “on your break” to dealing with opposition from bosses and coworkers. The movie shows in meticulous and exacting detail how to work around common obstacles and have a successful union vote. Certain interactions are dramatized and exaggerated for effect, but the situations are very real. Simply by watching Norma Rae, a viewer can learn a great deal about workplace organizing. And above all, it shows that courage and standing up for what’s right pays off in the end.

Happy Labor Day, readers. I hope this long weekend finds you organizing for a better world, whatever that means to you.

The Activism of Myrna Loy

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In 1947, Myrna Loy sued the Hollywood Reporter for $1 million.

The charge was an accusation printed in the then right-wing paper that Loy was a Communist, an accusation fueled in part by the actress having been vocal and active in left-wing politics since the 1930s. In addition, Loy’s role in William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives had implicated her in the United States’ growing anti-Communist fervor that was threatening livelihoods in Hollywood and beyond.

After Loy brought suit against the Hollywood Reporter, the paper was forced to print a retraction, but Loy didn’t stop there. She sent off a missive to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the governmental body investigating alleged Communist infiltration into the United States, that had subpoenaed many of her colleagues in the entertainment industry. The message read simply “I DARE YOU TO CALL ME TO TESTIFY.”

They didn’t dare, and Loy was left alone from then on.

Such was the dynamism of Myrna Loy. Born on August 2, 1905, from her earliest days in Radersburg, Montana where she was born Myrna Williams, she was surrounded by passionate left-wing personalities and progressive politics. After her mother moved the family to Los Angeles following the death of Myrna’s father, the young girl became involved in the film industry when Cecil B. DeMille found her dancing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and cast her in a small role in The Ten Commandments. Her career was rocky at first, but by the late 1920s and with the help of a name change, Myrna Loy became an established star. As she became familiar with the Hollywood landscape, she noticed the inequality afforded to black actors in Hollywood, and began to advocate for their rights within the industry. At one point, she approached her bosses at MGM with the issue. “Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant?” she asked. “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

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An early portrait of Myrna Loy.

In 1932, Loy was active in the election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and remained a champion of his ABC programs throughout his presidency. Onscreen, she became known as the witty and intelligent Nora Charles in The Thin Man series and her screen image quickly became that of the “perfect wife.” But Loy never identified with that characterization and spent her time offscreen tirelessly advocating for the New Deal. She never personally met Roosevelt, something she deeply regretted, though she made many trips to the White House and developed a close and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In later life, faced with Reagan’s election and the undoing of much of Roosevelt’s legacy, she wrote in her autobiography, Being and Becoming: “Can you imagine how all of us who worked for years with Mrs. Roosevelt and her socialist programs feel now, to see them wiped off the map?”

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Later in life, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Loy invoked the ire of Adolf Hitler by speaking out publicly against him in 1938, to the point that Hitler banned all her movies in Germany. Between 1941 and 1945, she worked full time for the Red Cross, entertained the troops, appeared at war bond rallies, and essentially retired from Hollywood. Loy only made one movie during the war period–The Thin Man Goes Home. She continued to work with the Roosevelts on reforms, and in 1945 Loy was invited to the meeting to ratify the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.

The following year was an important one for her–she went back to working regularly after her wartime hiatus and made The Best Years of Our Lives, considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1940s and also the impetus for the Hollywood Reporter to accuse her of communism. Managing to stave off those accusations, that same year, she was appointed to UNESCO, the United Nations department of culture, as the US ambassador. Over the next few years she became increasingly involved, attending conferences all over the world and representing UNESCO on official radio programs, then also signing on with the American Association for the United Nations where she spoke at conferences on behalf of women’s rights.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Loy had been working with UNESCO for more than a decade. She had managed to balance her career in Hollywood with her political work, and begin a new chapter of her career on the stage while at the same time throwing her support behind Adlai Stevenson in his presidential campaigns. When Stevenson didn’t run in 1960, Loy worked hard to stump for Kennedy. During the Kennedy campaign, he invited her to be part of his Conference on Constitutional Rights and American Freedom, where she met Hubert Humphrey and immediately befriended him. After Kennedy’s election, her closeness with Humphrey led to Loy’s involvement with the National Council Against Discrimination in Housing, where she worked throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

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Being interviewed at the UN, 1950.

Loy made huge strides in the organization. She found that though President Kennedy had signed the Housing Act of 1961, “we had uncovered massive evidence that eighty percent of federally sponsored housing was operated on a segregated basis.” Though Kennedy was never able to fulfill the promises of the Housing Act, Loy’s work led directly to Lyndon B. Johnson addressing the matter in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Having finally seen some measure of success in the fight against housing discrimination, 1968 saw Loy back in Hollywood to make April Fools, and also to fight for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign. She was unable to make the Democratic National Convention because of work, but she had fought hard for his nomination, especially in Oregon. She wrote: “I flew into every nook and cranny of Oregon…I shared so many meals with so many civic groups and political organizations that Eleanor Roosevelt’s wistful complaint haunted me: ‘I get so tired of all those chicken dinners.’” When Humphrey, her old friend who had gotten her involved in the NCDH, got the nomination, she found herself campaigning for him too. Not only because she liked him as a person, but also because she was worried about “the attack by Nixon and the Republicans on the judiciary.”

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With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

On the subject of the Vietnam War, Loy identified with the college students who protested against the war and considered herself to be getting “more radical” as she aged. She said that if work commitments with April Fools hadn’t prevented her from going to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, she surely would have been arrested along with the antiwar protesters outside.

As Loy reached her upper 70’s, she started to receive honors for her tremendous career onscreen. From time to time, reporters would also ask her about her political activities, and one such response from Loy in 1980 simply sums up Loy’s political philosophy: “Politics is part of my life…It’s everybody’s privilege to choose party, to be a part of government…and I’m seriously interested in solving our problems. Also, I believe in the U.N. It has seen some rough times, but it’s still surviving.”

Myrna Loy died at the age of 88 in 1993, but she was a political fighter to the end. As we live in these political tumultuous times, it is tempting to think what she would be doing today. We can be sure that she would be campaigning for the Democratic nominees, and vocally denouncing current White House policies on immigration and human rights. As an actress, she was among the best there was. But it was as an activist that Myrna Loy had her most lasting impact on the world, and I believe that it is as an activist she would like to be best remembered.

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At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford and Other Classic Film Adventures in Europe

Readers, I returned to the United States on Tuesday after 2 weeks in Europe, and as my jet lag seems to finally have been conquered, I wanted to write to you about the lecture and the other classic film-related things I did while abroad. It was an absolutely magnificent trip, filled with many wonderful surprises.

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Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

My trip began in Oxford, where I stayed at Lady Margaret Hall with a side trip to Bruern, a small town in the English countryside. At Bruern I attended a lovely dinner with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and other guests of the lecture, one of whom happened to be a retired British Supreme Court justice. It was fascinating to talk to him about Olivia de Havilland’s case, and the differences between intellectual property law in the US and in Britain. I learned that in Britain, the press is much more legally restrained than in the United States, where the courts tend to do whatever they can to defend the freedom of the press. I also had wonderful chats with Olivia de Havilland’s daughter, Gisèle Galante Chulack, son-in-law Andy Chulack, and other fascinating people from varied walks of life. It was very intellectually stimulating, and I came away from the evening with many new perspectives on law, life, and politics.

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Flower gardens of Bruern, near the cottage where I stayed overnight.

The next day, the other guests and I returned to Oxford for the lecture. Gisèle gave a beautiful introduction, after which Suzelle Smith and Don Howarth took the podium to talk about the history of the case. Suzelle and Don are Oxford fellows, and go to Oxford every year to talk about various cases that they have argued. They were proud to show me, too, a gate in front of Lady Margaret Hall that is named for them.

They spoke about the cases that Olivia de Havilland v. FX was based on, including Eastwood v. National Enquirer and Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting, and demonstrated the legal precedents that provided evidence for de Havilland’s argument. As I have noted here before, much of the case was terribly misrepresented in the mainstream press, and huge amounts of corporate money was thrown into FX’s defense. One of the judges on the 3-judge panel at the appellate court had served as legal counsel for NBC, and before being appointed to the appellate court had worked for the same law firm that was representing FX against Olivia de Havilland. Ideally, an appellate court judge would be unbiased, but as we know, the legal system doesn’t always work that way.

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Lawyer Suzelle Smith presents the lecture.

The whole event was warm, positive, and communal. I very much felt like I was part of a family, one of dedicated and passionate people trying to advocate for truth in media and corporate accountability. I am currently in the beginning stages of a soon-to-be-determined project about the case. I’m not yet sure what it’s going to look like, but I will be sure to keep you posted as it progresses.

From Oxford I headed to London, where I spent several days exploring. I discovered that the BFI Southbank was playing Letter From an Unknown Woman during my stay, part of their series of free matinées for seniors. Well…I’m far from a senior, but I was happy to pay the nominal fee for non-seniors to attend what I consider to be one of the screen’s greatest dramas.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman tells the story of obsession and rejection in 19th century Europe, with Joan Fontaine playing a girl madly in love with a pianist, whose undying love continues into adulthood. She ultimately finds that the pianist, a charming and uncommitted womanizer played by Louis Jourdan, couldn’t care less about her. If you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend finding a copy along with a box of kleenex. It was one of Fontaine’s personal favorite projects, and this tragic melodrama shows her acting skill to a tee–as she plays the same character from girlhood through adulthood.

I ended up being the only one there under 80, and I shared the situation with my Twitter followers, as it was simultaneously amusing and par-for-the-course. I received a reply from the proprietor of Knebworth House, Henry Lytton Cobbold, who was rather impressed at someone who would give up an afternoon in London to see Letter From an Unknown Woman. He invited me up to the house to talk about Joan Fontaine, and see some paintings of hers that were there. I decided to go for it, despite the fact that I had a train out of London the next afternoon.

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I awoke at 6 AM, arriving at Knebworth House at 8, in order to make the most of my time before heading back to London for my train. What I found was a magnificent 15th century castle, updated in the Gothic style, which has served as a filming location for such major movies as The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It has also housed major rock concerts by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Henry Lytton Cobbold is the 19th generation to live there, and he is also a filmmaker and devoted Joan Fontaine fan. He knew her well from the 1980s until the end of her life, and she willed him two portraits upon her death. Those are the paintings Henry was inviting me to see.

The portraits were absolutely beautiful, and after we had seen those (and a room full of Joan Fontaine posters), we went through binders of photos, documents, and letters that Henry has in his possession. I interviewed Joan Fontaine in September of 2013, shortly before she died, and this interview was the last one she ever gave. Our mutual connection provided the fodder for much enthusiastic conversation as we pored over Henry’s collection. I could have stayed there an entire week, as we both noted–I was in my element in a way that I rarely experience.

After several hours at Knebworth House, I reluctantly made my way back to London, where I caught a train to Paris. I wanted to write about going to see a film at my beloved Christine 21 Ciné (which I call the “Rue Christine”), my favorite movie theater in the world. I spent many a homesick hour there while living in Paris 8 years ago, losing myself in My Man Godfrey and Mildred Pierce for the price of 3 euros. Sadly, though, the Rue Christine is on a summer schedule and the movies playing during my brief time in Paris didn’t grab my attention. So alas, no Rue Christine this trip. But you can read about my connection to this theater, and the other theaters of the 6ème arrondissement here.

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The last few days of my trip were spent with a good friend in the south of France. This friend is a close relative of Marion Davies, and I have become very close to her over the past few years of my research. Together we watched Lights of Old Broadway, the movie I introduced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. Lights of Old Broadway is a delightful comedy, one of the many early films in which Marion plays a dual role. Here, she plays actual twins, separated at birth and adopted by two very different families–one from the aristocracy, and one from the poor slums of New York. The movie showcases Marion’s skill as an actress, as she plays each twin with really astonishing nuance. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that the character of Fely, the twin from the slums, is very much like Marion Davies in real life. Anne, the aristocratic twin, is soft and refined, but Marion still inserts just a touch of the real Marion Davies in her, too. It’s a complex interpretation, and Marion’s acting style in this movie really deserves an analysis all its own.

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I began my journey home on June 24, and finally arrived home in the afternoon of June 25. It has been a busy, classic film-filled few weeks, and I feel that there is going to be more to do than ever in the coming months. I will be sure to keep you posted on my Olivia de Havilland project, and anything else that comes of this trip.

Thanks for reading!

BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE–Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford Law

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Good morning, dear readers! I wanted to update you briefly on some upcoming excitement at Backlots.

As TCM’s 24-hour Doris Day tribute plays in the background, I find myself in the midst of packing for a big trip. Due to my coverage of the Olivia de Havilland v. FX case, I received an invitation several months ago to attend a lecture on the case at Oxford Law School. I leave tomorrow, and will spend several days at Oxford with the lawyers, Don Howarth and Suzelle Smith, as well as other guests important to various aspects of Olivia de Havilland’s case.

For those new to the blog, when Olivia de Havilland brought her suit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal on Feud, I found it particularly interesting and began to write about it. In addition to my classic film work and particular love for Olivia de Havilland, I also have a fascination with government, civics, and court cases, so this was right up my alley. I followed the case closely, analyzing prior cases that influenced it and what it meant, and didn’t mean, for the First Amendment and right of publicity. As the case went through the appeals process, Backlots emerged as the go-to site for information about Olivia de Havilland v. FX. I was in the courtroom when the case was heard at the California Court of Appeals, alongside The Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and The Hollywood Reporter. Backlots’ coverage also influenced a large article in the New York Times, and frequently broke news about the case before mainstream outlets. Along the way, I communicated closely with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and won the CiMBA Award for Backlots’ coverage.

That communication with de Havilland’s lawyers led to this invitation to Oxford, and I’m very happy to be able to go.

I will be keeping readers up to date via Twitter and a post or two here, with new insights from the lecture and any other classic film-related themes that I encounter in Europe. Following the lecture at Oxford, I will be in London for a spell, then France for a brief visit (including a few days in Paris where Backlots was “born”). I’ll keep an eye out for any interesting classic movie links during my trip.

See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

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TCMFF Day 3: The Festival Audience

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Apologies for the lateness of this post, readers. For the past month, I’ve been busy with much planning, for events film-related and not, to the point where I’ve neglected my coverage. More news about upcoming (and now past) events on another post. But in the meantime, here is the latest installment of Backlots’ coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

On the third day of the festival, I started the morning bright and early with a screening of Double Wedding, the 1937 William Powell/Myrna Loy vehicle that was filmed contemporaneously with their more famous Thin Man series. While waiting in line, I received a tweet from a fellow festivalgoer who was incredulous at how long the line was.

One of my pearls of wisdom, as someone who has been coming to the festival for 8 years, is to always line up for 1930s movies at least an hour and 15 minutes before start time. The TCMFF audience absolutely lives for 1930s fare, and those movies always sell out. In my previous post, I discussed the popularity of the pre-codes–but any film made in the 1930s is guaranteed to have a very long line.

True to my own word, I made my way over to the Egyptian Theatre and lined up for Double Wedding at 7:45 AM, in preparation for a 9:00 start time. I’m glad I did–when all attendees were let in, the theater was packed. Illeana Douglas, introducing the movie, started off with a question.

“Does anybody know how many movies Myrna Loy and William Powell made together?”

Without the tiniest pause, a thunderous reply from just about every member of the audience reverberated throughout the Egyptian Theatre: “FOURTEEN!!!!”

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This was not unexpected. The TCM Classic Film Festival crowd is a group of the smartest, most passionate movie lovers in the world, and William Powell and Myrna Loy are particular festival favorites. Many of us have been studying the careers of Powell and Loy, independently and together, for decades, and the question of how many movies they made together is akin to asking a mathematician if they know what 6 x 6 is.

Entering the festival is like entering an entirely different world, one that a friend of mine called the “TCM vortex.” In prior festival years, I have made posts about the unique experience of watching a movie with the TCM festival crowd. But this experience at the start of Double Wedding has inspired me to talk about the audience itself–who comes to the festival, and why.

Festival attendees come from nearly every state, as well as Canada, Mexico, Australia, Sweden, and Norway. Many festivalgoers come several days in advance–not for sightseeing in Los Angeles, but for spending time with friends from previous years, and to soak in as much of the “festival vibe” as they can, even before the festival starts.

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If I had to describe the festival using one relatable life experience, it would be summer camp. Friends are made there for life–they room together, eat together, and gather together at predetermined spots for events or just for fun. There have been known to be movie musical sing-a-longs in line, and exaggerated imitations of Katharine Hepburn circa 1973–and those experiences remain injokes from year to year. Friends are an integral part of the festival, due to the fact that for many classic film fans, it’s difficult to find like-minded individuals during the rest of the year. For those of us who are lucky to have found like-minded individuals online, tangibility is limited. The bloggers, for example, all virtually interact with each other throughout the year, but only at the TCMFF do we get to sit down over coffee or lunch and discuss film blogging or the intricacies of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Ladies They Talk About.

This clip, of Katharine Hepburn preparing for the Dick Cavett Show in 1973, has become fodder for countless imitations and injokes among the bloggers at the TCMFF.

Schedules are compared, negotiated, and changed based on what friends are doing. This year my friend and I experienced a serious roommate dilemma over whether to see The Opposite Sex poolside or Road House at the Egyptian. We went back and forth, negotiating and compromising, until we finally decided that she would go poolside, I would go to the Egyptian. This is not atypical.

Some of us are fortunate to live in areas where classic films are shown regularly, but many festival attendees come from parts of the country, or the world, where one has to drive hours to see a classic film on the big screen. Not only does the festival give many attendees a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it gives everyone friends and memories that last a lifetime.

TCMFF Day 2: The Power of the Pre-Codes

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As any longtime festival attendee knows, a seat at one of the pre-code films at the TCM Classic Film Festival is akin to a ticket for the hottest show in town. Passholders line up hours in advance, hoping to secure a good line number–if they’re lucky and get there early enough, they might even be able to sit next to their friends. “Early enough” for a pre-code film? It can be as much 2 hours early.

For years, I have questioned why the festival didn’t simply put the pre-codes in a larger theater to accommodate the huge crowds that flock to them. It seems natural that, given the numbers that they track, those movies made between 1929 and 1934 should always be at a large theater like the Egyptian or Grauman’s Chinese. But they’re always in the considerably smaller Chinese multiplex theaters. This festival, I brought the question up in conversation with someone in line, who informed me that the multiplex theaters are the only ones that can play 35mm. I have not been able to verify that, but if true, I suppose it makes sense.

Whenever I introduce a new friend to classic movies, I always start with a pre-code. They’re modern in a way that has a tendency to make people change their minds about what they think classic movies are. Frequently, people outside the film world believe classic movies to be wholesome goodness, where people overact and speak in outdated slang, where women are submissive and there’s never a hint of sex. But when they’re confronted with something like Baby Face, it’s a new world.

Because of the difficulties in enforcing the Production Code of 1930, which aimed to sanitize the movies, studios were finding loopholes in the self-policing code and making movies that they knew would sell–namely, movies with strong sexual themes and independent women. Sell they did, and sell they continue to. Very little has changed in the minds of the viewing public between then and now–even today’s sophisticated audiences, when exposed to pre-code Hollywood, go wild. They seem to tap into something primal in our natures

This year I attended two pre-codes, Merrily We Go to Hell and Vanity Street. Both were textbook pre-codes, with Merrily We Go to Hell strongly suggesting an open marriage and Vanity Street condoning crime and adultery. The former was directed by the great Dorothy Arzner, one of the predominant female directors in early Hollywood and the most prolific of the 1930s. In Cari Beauchamp’s introduction of the film (marvelously capped by the line “Enjoy the hell out of Merrily We Go to Hell,”) she traced the biography of Arzner and how it was largely by luck and chance, meeting the right people (several of them women) at the right time, that Arzner was able to rise up the ladder in Hollywood and become the respected director that she ultimately became.

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The story of a young woman who marries the man she loves only to find out that he’s an alcoholic prone to cheating, Merrily We Go to Hell refuses to allow the wife, played by Sylvia Sidney, to be the victim. Instead, she’s a woman with a spine and self-respect. When her husband, played by Fredric March, cheats on her and then tells her to block the door so he can’t leave, she opens the door wide for him. When he returns, she is packed to leave. She remains, on the condition that she, too, be able to have affairs. The result is an open marriage, and they live this way until the wife finally leaves for good, returning all his letters and starting her life anew. The ending, however, was a bit disappointing–I can just see the studios tacking it on at the last minute to make the audience feel better about marriage in general.

After the movie, the general consensus among the audience members I talked to was just that–it was a fantastic movie, empowering and strong up to the very last scene. All the actors did a magnificent job, especially, in my view, Sylvia Sidney. If you haven’t seen it, it is definitely worth scoping out for a hearty dose of pre-code goodness.

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Vanity Street was quite different in its approach. Instead of a marriage drama, this was a crime drama, almost a pre-code noir. It deals with a young woman who breaks a window to be sent to jail (“They feed you there,” she says, reminding us that this is the height of the Depression). She befriends the policeman who arrests her, and he takes pity on her situation, bringing her back to his apartment to stay while and helping her land a chorus job. But the chorus ends up bringing her trouble, as she is ultimately implicated in a murder.

In its style, I would compare Vanity Street to something like Three on a Match or Virtue, with Charles Bickford and Helen Chandler playing the main roles. In a supporting role is Mayo Methot, best known as Humphrey Bogart’s first wife. This one was presented once again by Cari Beauchamp, who has made a name for herself as one of the festival’s most loved presenters. The TCM Festival crowd is known for its passion and extensive movie knowledge, and from Cari Beauchamp’s presentations, I always come away with new stories from behind the scenes.

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One of the things I learned from this presentation is that Helen Chandler, whose movie career was cut short by mental illness and addiction, was cremated in 1965 and her ashes have never been claimed. This made me very sad and being the person I am, I got to thinking–what would it take to claim her ashes and give her a proper burial? If no one has claimed her ashes since 1965, then she belongs to us, the people who work to keep her memory alive. If any of my readers work in this industry and have any advice, I would love to hear from you on how we might get a campaign like this started. I will keep you all posted.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for day 3!