The Case of Girl 27: Standing Up to Power in Studio-Era Hollywood

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Like everyone else over the past few days, I have been following the horrific stories of abuse at the hands of production mogul Harvey Weinstein. The abuse itself has been compounded by allegations of complicity by the rest of the company, and the issuing of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and legal payoffs to actors such as Rose McGowan is disturbing to say the least. It is heartening to me, however, to finally see the powerful held accountable. Fired from the company that bears his name, removed from the Academy, ostracized by his family and industry, it seems that Weinstein is finally reaping a small portion of what he has sown. In addition, women and men from all walks of life are coming forward to share their stories, showing the world how prevalent sexual abuse really is–and that it is not confined to Hollywood, but exists in any place where there is unchecked, unbridled power. And it has always been that way.

For the purposes of this post, given the nature of Backlots and the current news, I would like to bring the discussion back to Hollywood and what went on behind the scenes during the days of the studio system. With studio higher-ups reigning supreme, and many people reliant on the studio for employment, countless female stars were sexually exploited, harassed, and abused by powerful executives, co-stars, and other powerful industry figures. Speaking up would often mean being fired, their reputations and financial security ruined. Abuse would happen in executive offices, homes, and at parties, anywhere where the powerful mingled.

It was due to events at one such party that one young starlet dared to challenge the system.

*I must warn you here that the story is graphic and potentially disturbing or triggering for some people. But I want to share it because it is true, and this story continues to happen far too often.*

In 1937, Patricia Douglas was a fresh-faced girl of 17, listed as “Girl 27” on the studio extra rolls. She seemed destined for the Hollywood big leagues, having already appeared with some of the top names in the industry (one of her first roles, at the age of 14, was in the chorus behind Ginger Rogers in Golddiggers of 1933), and so when she saw an ad calling for actresses to work as hostesses at an MGM-sponsored “Wild West” party for salesmen, she signed up.

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On the day of the party, Chicago salesman David Ross set his eyes on her and wouldn’t leave her alone. Douglas tried to stay away from him, running to the bathroom and confiding to others that she felt uncomfortable with his advances. By 10 PM, all hell had broken loose at the party. The men were drunk and many women were molested and groped before the party finally dispersed. But Ross, now drunker than before, still had his eye on Douglas, and was angry that she had fled to the bathroom. “He and another man held me down,” she recalled to author and researcher David Stenn in a 2003 article for Vanity Fair. “One pinched my nose so I’d have to open my mouth to breathe. Then they poured a whole glassful of scotch and champagne down my throat. Oh, I fought! But they thought it was funny. I remember a lot of laughter.” They finally released her, and she went back to the bathroom to throw up.

When she walked outside for some air, in a field covered with parked cars, Ross approached her from behind, put his hand on her mouth, and told her he would destroy her. He dragged her to a car, pinned her to a seat, and brutally raped her.

When she came to and got to the doctor’s office across the street, she was examined by a doctor who cleaned her up before the examination, finding no evidence of rape. She learned later that the hospital was in league with MGM, and that by cleaning her up, he had intentionally removed all evidence of what had happened to her. Douglas tried to speak up, but no one would listen to her. Finally, she decided to take matters into her own hands–she would take the case to the Los Angeles Superior Court, calling David Ross out as responsible for what had happened to her at that party. “I guess the Irish in me came out,” she said. “You knew you’d be blackballed. Me, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be vindicated, to hear someone say, ‘You can’t do that to a woman.’”

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Immediately, MGM went into attack mode. They hired a detective agency to dig up anything they could about Douglas’ past. The studio paid acquaintances to say that she was a drunk and a tramp, and asked a urologist she had seen in the past to re-diagnose a bladder cyst as gonorrhea (he refused). Her up-and-coming friends abandoned her, unable to associate with a woman whose name was linked with scandal.

On the day of the trial, Douglas was forced to recount her rape in detail, all the while listening to Ross’ attorney say to the jury “Look at her. Who would want her?”

At this point, I would like to pause the story and relate how so little has changed. It is so easy to take this statement from Ross’ attorney and put it in the modern era–with so many comments online blaming women for their assaults because they are wearing certain outfits, or they are attractive. The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t about what Douglas looked like, or what she was wearing. Ross was in power, and wanted to exert it. And yet the attorney discredited Douglas’ story by pointing to her looks, implying that only conventionally attractive women are raped.

Outside the courtroom, press photographers tried to get her to look Ross in the face. She began to cry, sobbing that she couldn’t. She ran to a window and nearly jumped. “I was going to jump through the glass,” she said later, “to get away from everything and everybody . . . so I couldn’t be hurt anymore.”

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The jury didn’t indict Ross. The following year, Douglas tried again, this time challenging the casting director and several other organizers of the party in addition to Ross. In response, MGM bribed witnesses to lie on the stand, promising them lucrative jobs in return. The judge dismissed the case, but Douglas was not to be deterred–she filed a suit in a U.S. District Court, which Stenn believes is a legal first–a female plaintiff making rape a federal case based on civil rights. But her attorney was up for re-election as District Attorney, and as he couldn’t win if he was challenging MGM, he failed to appear in court with Douglas three times and the judge dismissed the case “for want of prosecution.”

Douglas’ life was ruined forever. Once a modest, retiring woman, after the trial she began to change. “I went from ‘Little Miss Innocent’ to a tramp. I did it to demean myself. I was worthless, a ‘fallen woman,’” she told Stenn, who had uncovered her story by chance while researching his Jean Harlow biography Bombshell. When he interviewed her for his Vanity Fair article in 2003, she referred to herself as “naïve,” “stupid,” “a lousy mother,” “a walking zombie who glided through life.” She told Stenn that his discovery had finally given her something to live for again. “Before you found me,” she told him, “I was getting ready to die. I’d buy less food; I wasn’t planning to be around long. Now I don’t want to go. Now I have something to live for. And for the first time I’m proud of myself.” She died shortly after the Vanity Fair piece was published.

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Douglas’ story is evidence of what has historically happened in this society when women have stood up to powerful men, and why women may be hesitant to come forward with their stories. With Weinstein gone in disgrace, I hope that we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel shielding the powerful, and Patricia Douglas can rest knowing that maybe, in the not-too-distant future, other women won’t have to go through what she went through.

-Much of this article was drawn from David Stenn’s remarkable 2003 Vanity Fair article “It Happened One Night…At MGM.” I am grateful to him for writing the article, and for his devotion to righting Hollywood’s historic wrongs. If you would like to learn more about Patricia Douglas, a documentary called Girl 27, available on Netflix DVD, was made of the story.

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The Motion Picture & Television Fund: Looking Out for the Film Industry

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Mary Pickford breaks ground on the new Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, 1941.

Every Wednesday this month, Turner Classic Movies dedicates its programming to highlighting the Motion Picture & Television Fund, one of the great treasures of the film industry. Securing the livelihoods of countless people who work or have worked in motion pictures, the MPTF operates a hospital, a senior home for those who need those services, and a general fund to help elderly people remain in their homes or to provide a safety net for former film workers who have fallen on hard times.

The programming consists of movies introduced by the people who were a part of them, now residents of the Motion Picture Country House. I was thrilled to hear about this tribute, as I find that few people outside of the world of film and television know much about the MPTF, truly a labor of love and dedication to, as the slogan says, “Taking Care of Our Own.”

 

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The history of the MPTF is a storied one. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin (the same group that created United Artists) saw a need to provide a fund for those working in movies who were down on their luck. To start it, they created a simple coin box system, in which people could donate their spare change to help their fellow Hollywood folk. In 1921, the fund was incorporated as the Motion Picture Relief Fund, with Joe Schenck serving as its first president, and Pickford serving as vice-president. No one served in an advisory capacity for very long–as an egalitarian organization, and one by the film industry and for the film industry, presidents served on a rotating basis and came from varying Hollywood backgrounds, including Harold Lloyd, Jesse Lasky, and Marion Davies.

Pickford campaigned tirelessly for the fund, gathering donations and organizing events and programs that would serve as benefits. The 1929 stock market crash combined with the coming of talkies to Hollywood had left many of the film colony without work, and the fund was needed now more than ever. She noted, to her frustration, that there were 20,000 people working in films, but only 400 people were signed up as contributors to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In order to streamline her campaigning, she instituted the Payroll Pledge Program in 1932, in which a very small portion of an person’s paycheck from working in the movies went to the fund–much like a social security program or insurance policy for Hollywood workers. In the midst of the Depression, the Motion Picture Relief Fund saved 75 people from being evicted and purchased groceries for 2,500.

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Even as early as 1924, the need for a specialized senior care facility was on the minds of Pickford and those invested in the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In order to raise money for the construction, in 1939 Jean Hersholt (president of the fund at the time) came up with the idea of having a radio show in which many big name celebrities would appear, who would all donate their salaries to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The plan worked, the radio show was a smash hit, and construction on the Motion Picture Country House (“house” instead of “home” because, as Pickford said, Hollywood people always consider themselves “between engagements”) began in 1941. Operations started in 1948, and among its more prominent residents over the years have been Norma Shearer, Bud Abbott, Mary Astor, Mack Sennett, Donald O’Connor, Joel McCrea, Edna Purviance, and countless others. Today, it is home to more than 100 long-term residents, and operates 6 outpatient facilities across Los Angeles.

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The dining room at the Motion Picture Country House today.

Upon a visit to the Motion Picture Country House a number of years ago to see a friend, it was clear what remarkable and important work the MPTF does. My friend is valued and respected, getting care that goes above and beyond the call of duty. I came away from the visit with a deep sense of appreciation for the MPTF and everything the organization does for the industry. I’m happy to see that TCM is helping to shine a light on their work.

Be sure to see residents of the Motion Picture Country House every Wednesday in September on TCM, introducing movies they had a part in. For more information on the activities of Mary Pickford surrounding the Motion Picture Relief Fund, please see Cari Beauchamp’s article for the Mary Pickford Foundation, from which much of this piece was drawn, by clicking here.

If you would like to donate to the current Motion Picture & Television Fund, you can do so online at http://mptf.com/donate or by mail:

MPTF Foundation
PO Box 51151
Los Angeles, CA 90051-9727

Thanks for reading!

Models of Resistance and Bravery in Classic Hollywood

With the horrific recent events in Charlottesville and further rallies planned for the San Francisco Bay Area later this month, I have been feeling terrified beyond measure. The fear that I feel is a personal one, due to the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am a member of a minority group specifically targeted by the white supremacists, but it goes beyond that. Racism, bigotry, and intolerance are now condoned in the highest offices of the United States of America, and I fear that things are going to get worse before they get better.

In this time of immense fear, sorrow, and trauma, I recall the words of the great Fred Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In this post, I would like to highlight some of the great classic Hollywood “helpers,” those who spoke out, who didn’t allow themselves to be stepped on–those who saw societal ills and made conscious efforts to fix them. I hope this can encourage us to turn our minds toward helping, whatever that may mean to us as individuals. I would also like to show some instances of resilience in classic movies, to give us a boost in how we, as a country, deal with this national tragedy.

The Bomb Shelter Scene, Mrs. Miniver (1942)

In this scene, the Miniver family hides out in their makeshift bomb shelter during an air raid. To comfort the children as the bombs drop around their shelter, Mrs. Miniver calmly reads Alice in Wonderland aloud.

Each time I recall this scene, I get chills. The intense meaning behind reading a classic English children’s story about retreating into a magical fantasy land, as bombs drop on England, cannot be overstated. If you haven’t seen Mrs. Miniver, do yourself a favor and rent it. It is a masterpiece of wartime cinema.

The one we all know. Rick Blaine, the man who “sticks his neck out for nobody,” ultimately sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Rick sees what’s really important, then sees that Ilsa gets on the plane so that Victor Laszlo can continue his resistance work.

BETTE DAVIS AND JOHN GARFIELD–The Hollywood Canteen

Rejected from the service during World War II due to a heart condition, John Garfield wanted to do something to help the war effort nonetheless. He partnered with Bette Davis to create the Hollywood Canteen, a place that served food, drink, and entertainment to active-duty service members on leave. It was staffed completely by volunteers from the movie industry, and as such was a mutually beneficial enterprise–the service members (it was open to both men and women, and was unsegregated) got top notch entertainment from Hollywood A-listers, and the Hollywood community, many of whom had been told that their services were better used in the movies, got a chance to feel like they were helping out in a meaningful way. Nearly everyone active in movies during World War II worked at the Hollywood Canteen, and while the desegregation that occurred inside the Canteen was usually not a problem, whenever there was a complaint, Bette Davis took to the microphone to defend the policy. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she later said.

MARION DAVIES–The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic

My manuscript on Marion Davies, a book to be published in the next few years, deals heavily on the subject of the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. There is a lot to say, but for the purposes of this post I will stick to the relevant details. Marion believed strongly in quality health care for everyone. When she saw that it was nearly impossible for children in lower income brackets in West Los Angeles to get care, she created a children’s clinic bounded by Olympic, Mississippi, Barry, and Barrington Avenues in the city, treating low-income children completely free of charge. Doctors from elite hospitals around Los Angeles volunteered their time, and every Christmas there would be an elaborate party with toys for the children and groceries for every family. Parents who later wrote in to thank the clinic often expressly credited their children’s lives with the care they received at the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic.

MYRNA LOY

Much more than “the perfect wife” onscreen, Myrna Loy was vocal and passionate about human rights and welfare. One of those on the front lines of the Red Cross during World War II, she served as the assistant to the director of military and naval welfare. Later on in life, she was a member-at-large of UNESCO and the co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. She spoke out fiercely against discrimination in Hollywood, decrying the practice of casting black actors as only maids or servants, once asking her MGM bosses “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

ANNA MAY WONG

Hollywood’s anti-miscegenation laws, prohibiting onscreen romances between people of different races, damaged the career of the gifted Anna May Wong who, under these laws, could essentially only play opposite Sessue Hayakawa, the only other Asian lead actor in Hollywood. She was relegated to “exotic” roles, of which she quickly grew tired and bored. Wong decided to try her luck in Europe, as Josephine Baker had done, and like Baker, she was an instant success, starring in films like Piccadilly, Song and Show Life, and Pavement Butterfly. Upon her return to the United States, she was quick to speak out against the injustices done upon her and other Asian and Asian-American actors. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”

FREDI WASHINGTON

Best known for her role as Peola in Imitation of Life (1934), the beautiful and talented Fredi Washington was in a quandary in Hollywood. As a light-skinned African-American, Washington was bound by the anti-miscegenation laws that governed Hollywood (meaning she was to receive no romantic leads), but was light enough to pass for white, making it difficult for studio higher ups to cast her in maid and servant roles. Intensely proud of being a black woman, Washington was tired of playing parts where she “passed,” and instead left Hollywood to do theatre and join the budding civil rights movement, working with the president of the NAACP and with the Negro Actor’s Guild of America, which she helped to found. She spoke of her Hollywood past in these words:

“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.”

“I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”

May we take the words and actions of classic Hollywood to heart as we face the days, weeks, and months ahead.

The Nostalgia Myth and Classic Movies in 2017 America

Earlier this morning on Twitter, I saw a tweet directed at TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, accusing him of being “SJW” (the abbreviation for Social Justice Warrior, a derogatory term for a person who engages in left-wing ideology for personal gains) because he condemned the Hollywood blacklist on air. The response was immediate and mostly indignant, defending Mankiewicz and TCM against accusations of a political agenda. But this is not an isolated incident–for the past 6 months or so, the Turner Classic Movies social media accounts have been inundated with viewers telling the channel to “stick to the movies,” that TCM is a place where people come to escape from politics, and that TCM is trying to brainwash its viewers into a left-wing political agenda.

It is a disturbing trend. Given our current political climate and efforts to restrict public access to information, television viewers have fallen down a rabbit hole of misinformation. We have found ourselves in a dystopian world where we don’t know what is true and what is not, and historical context seems to matter little. Perhaps most disturbing, we have begun to see it reflected back in the anti-intellectualism that has become part of the American landscape. We are a country that is scared, wanting to retreat somewhere. History has not changed–but our collective reaction to hearing it has.

Dalton Trumbo gives his testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

2017 is the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist. Due to fear of communist infiltration from Russia seeping into American life, in 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted members of the film industry for alleged communist activities, asking them not only to divulge their own political allegiances, but also to name others. Prison sentences, ruined careers, and suicides were commonplace as the government manipulated public fear to destroy lives…and secure their own re-elections.

The actions of the HUAC (and its counterpart in the Senate, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee) cost lives and careers, during a time of paralyzing fear. For TCM to ignore those actions in the name of “sticking to the movies” would be misguided at best, and promoting ignorance at worst, especially in our current era.

Choreographer Jack Cole, spotlighted last month on TCM’s tribute to gay Hollywood, works with Marilyn Monroe on the set of Let’s Make Love, 1960.

Fortunately, TCM holds itself above that. As the only channel on national television to provide historical context to classic movies, it does important work in tearing down the myth of blind classic movie nostalgia, and as such, it has received its share of ignorant commentary from those who don’t want to hear it, preferring to live in a world where the whole story is not told. Last month, the channel did a month-long spotlight on LGBT figures in Hollywood, and how they shaped the industry as a whole. As I followed their posts on the Facebook page, I saw comments coming in that followed a few standard blueprints:

“I don’t pay extra for cable to have TCM brainwash me into a political agenda.”

“When are they going to have Straight Hollywood Month?”

“Look at the guests they have on–TCM has become a bunch of lefties.”

“Why don’t they just stick to the movies? I come to TCM to escape from politics.”

Each of these statements merits its own lengthy blog post, but in regard to the final one, I fear that people are watching TCM with a warped and shallow view of classic movies.  Classic Hollywood was not created in a vacuum. Far from the ideal utopian world that many seem to think they’re retreating into, classic movies were affected by a world outside that was often in chaos. Hollywood was built by strong, talented, and assertive women and minorities, fighting to get the representation they deserved in a society that shunned them. Far too often, in the name of nostalgia (a concept that I find dangerous), the true history of Hollywood gets lost. TCM brings it back, and I am so grateful that they do.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival: GET YOUR MAN (1927) and the Importance of Film Preservation

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The Castro district of San Francisco filled with silent film fans from around the world June 1-4, as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off for the 22nd year in a row. As loyal readers of this blog know, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a particular favorite of mine. The atmosphere is cozy and laid back, staffed by nearly all volunteers, and most of the sponsors are local small businesses.

While the festival’s operations reflect its San Francisco locale, the programming has a decidedly global feel. Every year, the program features silent films from such disparate places as Sweden, Germany, China, Bali, and Russia, in addition to the standard Hollywood fare that we’ve come to expect. To elevate what’s on the screen, world-class musicians play music live alongside the screen. One year, when they showed the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins, the festival brought in a full Balinese gamelan ensemble to provide the accompaniment. It was one of the most thrilling moments in the entirety of my filmgoing life.

The festival also makes it a habit to show new restorations, ones that either they collaborated on, or that are significant in some way. One of the featured restorations this year was Get Your Man (1927), directed by Dorothy Arzner and introduced by Cari Beauchamp. It was a delightful film, starring the always joyous Clara Bow, who remains one of the stars for whom I have a perpetual fascination. Out of all the grim childhoods that seem to precede Hollywood stardom, Clara Bow’s childhood was the most nightmarish I’ve ever read about. And yet she exudes such warmth, exuberance, and boundless positive energy onscreen, one would never guess the neglect, poverty, and abuse that had defined her life pre-Hollywood.

(In fact, if you’re looking for a great biography to read, David Stenn’s Runnin’ Wild about Clara Bow’s life is among the best biographies I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.)

Get Your Man is pure Clara Bow. Telling the story of a young woman who devises a scheme to get her crush out of an arranged marriage, she smiles, charms, and finagles her way into his heart–and ours.

Several scenes were severely damaged by nitrate deterioration, and when the Library of Congress restored the film, the preservationists were unable to save them. In the place of those scenes, they inserted photos taken on set during those scenes, to give the audience some idea of what was going on.

When I saw this technique, it immediately brought to mind the cuts that were made to A Star is Born (1954) when Jack Warner cut 30 minutes from the finished film, and the footage was promptly lost. During the restoration of the print in 1983, several cut scenes were found in the Warner Bros vault, but much of the missing footage had to be reconstructed using production photos.

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One of the stills used to replace lost footage in A Star is Born (1954)

Recognition of the importance of film preservation is relatively new. Before we had VCRs, DVDs, and other means of viewing films outside a theater, distributors and production companies had little reason to think that saving film stock had much benefit–it was expensive to preserve and took up valuable space. It is estimated that close to 75% of all silent films have been lost, due to the fragility of the stock and little interest in preserving the films. They were thrown out, burned, or buried in makeshift dumps to free space for things people deemed more important.

But technology has galloped along, giving us the ability to view these movies not only in our homes, but on our computers, phones, and tablets. Preservation equipment has also been perfected, with state-of-the-art restoration labs located in places like the Library of Congress, Lobster Films in Paris, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY (a lab that also houses the Selznick School of Film Preservation). With this increased potential for visibility, interest in finding and saving these films grows, as does the urgency to preserve them.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s work to support preservation and preservationists is among the most active of any festival in the world. Since 2013, the festival has contributed to restorations undertaken by the BFI, MoMA, Cinémathèque Française, EYE Filmmuseum, Library of Congress, the Film Preservation Society, and Gosfilmofond, and has made it a priority to showcase films previously thought lost, to advance the cause of film preservation and increase awareness of the need to get these films preserved.

In the case of Get Your Man, preservation came too late to save the complete print. In the case of A Star is Born, no one cared enough to save it. But it is heartening that organizations like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are working tirelessly to make sure that we’re aware of how much these films mean to history, so we can save as much as we can.

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Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in Get Your Man (1927).

On FEUD, Feuds, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford share a laugh.

The first season of the FX bio-series Feud came to a close on April 23, capping off 8 weeks of exploration into the famous rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. With Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland, the series had been much anticipated in the classic film blogosphere and we waited on baited breath. Nearly all of us agreed–it had the potential to be either spectacularly good, or monstrously bad.

The evening of the first episode of Feud was an event. Tweets were coming in fast and furious as the episode progressed, with classic film aficionados noting errors as well as praiseworthy moments. Afterward, the reviews came in from fans of Crawford and Davis…and they were mixed. Several of my friends, classic film aficionados with expert knowledge on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, loved it. Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford, they said, was flawless. Susan Sarandon found the movements of Bette Davis, a very difficult thing to do. Others found it disrespectful and campy with trite dialogue, featuring such an inaccurate depiction of Olivia de Havilland that it was difficult to see much else.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland.

I have had opinions about Feud from the start, but intentionally held off on expressing them here, because I wanted to wait for the end of the season. But now I feel that I can accurately describe my feelings on the subject.

To understand the context for Feud, it is necessary to understand the context of Hollywood during the studio era. On the set, friendships were not encouraged. Actors were to come to the set to work, and not to socialize with other actors. Studios would manufacture competition in order to make the actors work harder, which frequently led to feelings of isolation and loneliness among those working under the studio system. Given the studio-sanctioned psychological pressure and forced allegiance to the studio at which you were under contract, there was little time to branch out. If you had any time to socialize, it was almost exclusively with people at your own studio. With Bette Davis at Warner Bros. and Joan Crawford at MGM, a feud, as it were, was not present in those early days, nor was a friendship. Bette Davis said it best in her interview with Dick Cavett:

“It really depends on whom you work with. And, you see, we don’t work together very often. For instance, the group of people I knew the most were the people I worked with at Warner’s all those 18 years. And if I had been at Metro, I probably would have known those people much more, because they all knew each other. I don’t think it’s by any intent or jealousy or not wanting to know each other, I think all of those people you’re talking about were very occupied all those many, many years. And it does not leave much time, really, to have a lot of friends.”

Whatever animosity was cultivated later, culminating in the (admittedly fascinating) 1963 Oscars ceremony, was captured and played up in a press that feeds on scandal. Classic Hollywood feuds have long been fodder for magazines, tabloids, and newspaper gossip columns. Scandal sells, and publications have historically stopped at nothing to sell a scandal. But far too often, the feuds are either blown out of proportion or falsified altogether, and lives have been deeply affected by the practice of creating stories out of the lives of real people for the purposes of selling them. The rivalry between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine is a prime example. The sisters, while always rivals to some extent, had their relationship exposed, magnified, and milked for all its worth for the scandal-hungry press. The media coverage of their sibling troubles ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy–the sisters’ ups and downs became more frequent, and they stopped speaking altogether in the late 1970s.

Hollywood fights continue to make for good television and high ratings, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me that FX chose the Crawford/Davis feud for its first season of the show. A common thread among film fans when discussing Feud is praise for the show for bringing classic Hollywood into the mainstream. This is a wonderful objective, but there is a delicacy involved in such a task when the people represented aren’t alive to contribute to it. Respect and dignity for the people’s lives and legacies must be paramount, and my primary concern regarding Feud was the notion of bringing Crawford and Davis into the mainstream by way of a petty catfight.

Bette Davis, at the age of 28, violated her contract with Warner Bros due to unhappiness with the scripts and parts she was offered. She first fled to Canada to avoid legal action, then to Britain to take a 2-film deal. Suing Warner Bros in a British court in order to get out of her contract, Davis challenged Warner Bros on their suspension clauses–that if she didn’t take a film for any reason, she would be put on suspension and have that time added to the end of her contract. Warner Bros lawyers succeeded in making Davis look like a spoiled film star, and she lost the case, with the court ordering her back to Warner Bros to finish her contract. But it was among the first major strikes against the studio system, and Davis’ defiance and bravery in taking on one of the most powerful corporate enterprises in the country case set the stage for Olivia de Havilland to mount a similar case against Warner Bros in 1943–a case she won.

Bette Davis in London in 1936, when she brought suit against Warner Bros.

In 1955, Joan Crawford married Alfred Steele, the CEO of PepsiCo and the man who took Pepsi from a small regional bottling company to monolithic corporate giant. Crawford worked with Steele to bring increased revenue to the company, relocating from Hollywood to New York and traveling all over the country to make personal appearances at Pepsi events. When Steele died in 1959, Crawford discovered that he had left her deeply in debt, except for the Pepsi stock that she had saved, and her image. She was elected to replace Steele’s seat on the Pepsi Board of Directors, and thus became a powerful female executive in the corporate world.

Joan Crawford at a Pepsi board meeting.

While Feud did indeed touch upon these aspects of Crawford and Davis, for which I give the show credit, the focus remained on the fighting. I’m thrilled that mainstream networks are beginning to showcase classic Hollywood and bring it into the mainstream. But especially in our present day, as women find themselves fighting for their rights, I wish the action had centered around their strength, portraying Crawford and Davis as the powerful women they were, resisting the urge for the action to revolve around them as stereotypical, catfighting divas.

TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap-Up, 2017

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The 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival came to a close this weekend, and since Sunday night, fond memories and farewells have flooded social media. The photos of fans boarding their planes home, sadly telling their friends they’ll see them next year, tug at our hearts and serve as reminders of what this festival means to so many of us.

In day-to-day life, classic film fans of this caliber often have trouble meeting like-minded people. The chance of meeting a person on the street who can talk at length about the Motion Picture Production Code, the Best Actress Oscar winner for 1950, or the final scene of The Heiress is a slim one at best. “Thank goodness for the internet,” is an oft-repeated phrase among classic film fans. “I thought I was the only one.” At the festival, all of us “only ones” convene, creating what has lovingly been referred to as the “TCM vortex.” Nothing matters except the movies on the screen, and watching them with people who love them too. It’s a world all its own.

This was my 6th festival, my 5th with Backlots as a member of the media. I attended the press conference on Wednesday afternoon, which included TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, programmer Charlie Tabesh, vice president of branding/partnerships Genevieve McGillicuddy, and general manager Jennifer Dorian. We heard some very positive things from the conference, including word of the wild success of the Fathom Events screenings, which have sold over 2 million tickets so far this year. At the beginning of 2017, TCM partnered with Fathom Events to bring classic movies to the big screen once (and sometimes twice) a month nationwide, often playing at theaters in the AMC chain. From the beginning, I was excited about this partnership, hoping for its success. I’m very glad that it seems to be working out beautifully for all involved.

We also received word that the next free online course through Ball State University will be on the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Ball State University partnered with TCM last year for a class on the history of slapstick, and before that for a course on film noir. The classes are always exceedingly popular, and based on the interest in Alfred Hitchcock within the TCM community, I predict that this class will be a great success. If you would like to sign up, here is the place to do it.

TCM does a marvelous job procuring top-notch guests for the festival–this year’s guests included Sidney Poitier and Norman Jewison for the opening night screening of In the Heat of the Night, Lee Grant for a discussion of her life and work in Club TCM, Carl and Rob Reiner for a hand/footprint ceremony at (what will always be) Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and celebrity family members Kate MacMurray (Fred MacMurray’s daughter) and Wyatt McCrea (Joel McCrea’s grandson) to be interviewed before movies. At the press conference, I asked if there was any method to their solicitation of festival guests. Charlie Tabesh responded that many guests are very eager to come, and ask on their own accord, while the festival has tried to get other guests for many years, but they’re not able to make it. Age seems to be very much a contributing factor to this–in recent years, the festival has been leaning toward children of stars more than stars themselves, due to the dwindling number of classic Hollywood stars who are still with us, and the physical frailty of those who are.

Among my group of friends, the schedule for this year’s festival was the most anticipated of any year, with such favorites as The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Awful Truth (1937), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Factor in the nitrate screenings of Black Narcissus (1947) and Laura (1944), and it was one of the greatest programs in festival history, from my perspective.

Red-Headed Woman turned out to be one of my biggest festival joys, introduced by Cari Beauchamp, the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Beauchamp is a beloved presenter at the festival, the go-to expert on women in early Hollywood, and the introduction of Red-Headed Woman was a prime example of what I look for in an intro. The TCM Festival crowd is an intelligent one, and most of us know these movies well. Instead of relating plot points or trivia bits, the introduction to Red-Headed Woman focused on backstory and studio politics, and the effect of movies like it (featuring strong, unapologetically sexual women) on the strengthening of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The pre-code era holds a special place in my heart, and an item of particular interest in the introduction was the difference between the way the Hays office (the earlier enforcement arm of the code) and the Breen office (that followed Hays) operated. The Hays office would actually see the movies, while the Breen office would only read the scripts–thus allowing filmmakers to get away with close to anything using costumes and lighting.

Among my favorite things to do in a theater when a classic movie is showing is to glance back at the audience. It gives me an indescribable feeling to see hundreds of people watching a person from 80 years ago, likely someone long gone from this earth, flicker on the screen. That pleasure seems especially meaningful when the movie features Jean Harlow, who died of degenerative kidney disease at the age of 26 at the height of her career, but has remained one of the most alluring stars of any era. Watching the audience watching Harlow seemed to embody what Beauchamp said when introducing the film: “Jean Harlow lives!”

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As for the overall feel of the festival, I noticed a few differences between this one and previous festivals. This year’s staff seemed larger, contributing to a few snags in communication relating to line management. It was a situation that could have easily have been rectified had there been about half the staff. Despite some initial discomfort and a few panicked moments, I did manage to get into everything I wanted and the line team was always gracious and pleasant in the midst of the pressing crowds and general chaos of impatient film fans. I struck up a conversation with a lovely young line staffer at the Chinese Multiplex while I was in line for Born Yesterday, and she knew who Marion Davies was. Instant friend.

I would like to send TCM a huge thank you for the change they made regarding the pre-codes this year. It made me very happy to see that the festival remembered the two sold out showings of Double Harness last year, and made sure to put the pre-codes in the big theaters. This time, instead of selling out in the small Chinese Multiplex theaters, the movies played at the huge Egyptian Theatre–to packed houses, but no turn-aways. The festival’s love for pre-codes was something that I and many others noted in our post-festival wrap-ups last year, and it was clear that they listened.

Thank you, TCM, for another great festival, thanks to all my festival friends for giving me such a beautiful community, and thanks to my readers for following along so diligently. Here’s to next year!

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