Smithsonian Seeks Funds to Maintain Ruby Slippers


The ruby slippers at the Smithsonian Museum, taken on my trip to Washington, D.C. last year.

A few days ago, it came to my attention that the Smithsonian was raising money to keep one of their most visited and prized artifacts from deteriorating further than it already has.

The ruby slippers housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one of 5 pairs worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), are now nearly 80 years old and have begun to show their age. Sequins are falling off, the signature color is fading, and the threads on the shoes are beginning to break–all signs indicative of standard costuming practices at the large studios in the 1930s.

In the days of the studio system, costumes were made not to stand the test of time, but to provide the bare minimum of was needed for a movie at the smallest cost possible to the studio. The material was the cheapest that could do the job, and with the lack of foresight into the era of television rebroadcasts and lasting celebrity, the studio executives saw no need to account for preservation. Saving money and maximizing a film’s profit was their first and foremost concern. When a movie was over, the costumes were just filed away into the studio’s storage–sometimes to be re-used for another movie, sometimes to collect dust.


In relatively recent years, movie costumes that have survived have become a source of fascination for filmgoers and collectors, if not for studio personnel. When MGM liquidated its costume storage inventory at an auction in 1970 to expand space on their soundstages, former MGM star Debbie Reynolds spent nearly $600,000 rescuing what she considered to be living history. “They literally threw away our history and I just got caught up in it,” she later said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history.”


But at the National Museum of American History, preserving costumes and props is considered synonymous with preserving the cultural past of the United States. When visitors walk into the museum and make their way to the second floor, they can see the original Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s living room set from All in the Family…and the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. These are all visible and identifiable parts of American heritage, and the Smithsonian treats them with the same respect and care that they take with Lincoln’s shawl and the flag that inspired the national anthem.

With that in mind, the curators jumped into action when it became clear that the ruby slippers would need further attention to keep from deteriorating further. Being a modern museum that relies on both federal funds and the public, they decided to go to the grassroots level to fund the slippers’ care–with a Kickstarter campaign to meet the restoration goal of $300,000. In a matter of hours, their initial goal was well on its way to being met.

The money will go toward a special case for the slippers, which would contain a non-oxygen gas and a meter that would measure barometric pressure that can be adjusted according to conditions. The curators would need to determine the correct amount of light and humidity that the slippers can receive, and design the case accordingly. The idea is not to refurbish them, but instead to maintain their state as they are now. To prevent further loss of paint and sequins, the slippers will be treated with a special coating. “While the slippers undergo treatment their appearance will not change drastically, and we don’t want them to,” reads the Kickstarter summary.


From the Kickstarter site–museum conservator Richard Barden examines the slippers.

This undertaking is staggeringly expensive and the Smithsonian still needs our help in order to finance the preservation that the curators have deemed necessary. As of this evening, the donations have reached $225,000.

Please visit the Kickstarter campaign site and consider donating. Any small amount is greatly appreciated by the museum. Some of my favorite perks of donating:

-$1 or more: Smithsonian offers its grateful thanks and sends exclusive updates on the project.

-$10 or more: A beautiful digital poster created especially for the project.

-$50 or more: A tote bag created especially for the project.

-$150 or more: A Smithsonian Museum membership.

And if you REALLY have a bit of money to spare…

-$1,000 or more: Lunch and tour with a curator

-$7,000 or more: Your own pair of replica ruby slippers

-$10,000 or more: Watch the restoration as it’s being done.

As many of my regular readers know, The Wizard of Oz is very important to me, as it was Judy Garland who started me on my path toward classic movies. I ultimately have her to thank for much of what I have become, what I have done here on the blog and with my Marion Davies work. I feel a special obligation to pay it forward and make sure that the ruby slippers are protected–not only to preserve the legacy of Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, but to preserve for future generations a tangible example of the American experience–the movies that make us who we are.

New Prompt on Backlots, and Why.

As a site focusing on classic movies, I have largely tried to keep Backlots away from political matters. When I felt it necessary, I have made commentary on events that have affected us all, linking those events to classic movies and how movies are a panacea to help us get through our hard times. But up to now, that commentary has been unifying and apolitical, despite my own passion for current events.

But this morning, I would like to make a brief political note regarding a button you may have noticed at the bottom of the site.

The other day, a good friend of mine and fellow classic movie aficionado posted an astute observation to Facebook. She had noticed that the vast majority of her classic movie-loving friends, regardless of political affiliation, were vehemently opposed to the current Republican nominee for president. Not just casually brushing him off–but persistently rejecting the notion that he should ever come within 10 feet of the White House. The general nature of her feed seemed to reflect the current trends of the country, but those who knew classic movies were especially passionate. As classic movie fans come from all parts of the country, from all political, social, economic, and cultural stripes, she wondered why that phenomenon might be.

As it turns out, I have noticed the same. And many people who made comments on my friend’s post seem to have noticed the same. Thinking about why people who know classic movies might think this way, I came to the conclusion that there are indeed explanations. In addition to an awareness of historical precedents, knowing how political figures rise based on behind-the-scenes research on the movies we love, I think there is another, more chilling reason.

We’ve seen this movie before.



What were once surrealist, dystopian fantasies have become our reality. 24-hour news networks have created a modern day Howard Beale, and “Lonesome Rhodes” is now one step away from the White House. These stories were deemed unrealistic and even offensive at the time of their inception, but they now seem eerily prescient. Both of these fictional characters ended in disgrace, and given the events of the past day, it even looks as though this election cycle might end in much the same way “Lonesome Rhodes'” did. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who know these stories should sit back and relax.

I know that much of my readership is comprised of people who are familiar with classic film, history, and culture. The satirical stories of Budd Schulberg and Paddy Chayefsky have come true in a much starker way than either of them could likely have imagined, and many of us who have seen this on film have had chills running up our spines for some time.

And so I have attached a button to the bottom of the site, urging my readers to register to vote, and to actually go do it. There is far too much at stake here.

Thank you, and may we soon get back to the more pleasant side of classic movies.

Trailblazing Women to be Highlighted on Turner Classic Movies in October


For the second year in a row, Turner Classic Movies will pay tribute to significant contributions to the film industry by women, through their Trailblazing Women series in partnership with Women in Film. Last year’s programming was a huge success, with a spotlight on female directors in what has become a crushingly male-dominated industry. This year’s theme will be “Actresses Who Made a Difference,” focusing on those women who contributed to issues outside of acting, and made waves that are still felt today in the film world and beyond.

The month-long Tuesday/Thursday night programming is hosted by Illeana Douglas, joined by a different female guest each night who will discuss the actresses, why they were chosen, and introduce a film made during a significant period in their life. On the first night, October 4, Douglas will be joined by the leading expert on women in early Hollywood, Cari Beauchamp, author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. The subjects on the first night will be three actresses who seized the idea of the traditionally male studio executive and turned it on its head.


Mary Pickford was one of the most prominent figures in early Hollywood, both on and off the screen. While moviegoing audiences knew her as “Little Mary,” a perpetual little girl in curls even at the age of 30, in reality she was a woman with an steel will and iron constitution, a shrewd businesswoman and a savvy investor who knew the industry inside and out. In 1919, she founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, and subsequently founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which (now operating as the Motion Picture and Television Fund) still serves those in need in the industry. She will be discussed and profiled in conjunction with Little Annie Rooney, a movie she produced and performed in at the height of her position as a head of United Artists Studio in 1925.


Lucille Ball, former contract player at RKO and “Queen of the Bs,” decided in 1950 to join with her husband Desi Arnaz to form their own production company, Desilu, in order to pitch a series based on Ball’s radio program My Favorite Wife. The series eventually became I Love Lucy, the production company became one of the most formidable forces in the business, and Lucille Ball became one of the most influential figures in movies and television. In 1960, she became the sole owner of Desilu and was directly responsible for shows such as Star Trek and The Untouchables getting to air. The movie Yours, Mine, and Ours was made in 1968, while Lucille Ball was serving as the powerful president of Desilu.


Following directly in Lucille Ball’s footsteps was Mary Tyler Moore. 3 years out of her debut hit series The Dick Van Dyke Show (in which she broke significant ground for women on television in her own right), Moore created MTM Enterprises with husband Grant Tinker in order to pitch The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1969. The show premiered the following year and lasted for 7 phenomenal seasons, during which time MTM Enterprises grew and produced not only the show’s spinoffs, Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant, but also the popular  The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. The movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, chosen to represent Mary Tyler Moore this first evening, was made in 1967, in the in-between time just after Moore’s run on The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, and MTM Enterprises began.

Other nights to watch with significant women profiled:

Bette Midler, discussing women who controlled their own destiny, including:

  • Olivia de Havilland, the first person to make a major dent in the studio system by winning a contract case against Warner Bros. The ruling, the De Havilland Decision, is still cited often in entertainment law cases. She will be profiled in conjunction with Devotion (1946), filmed in 1943 but unable to be released until after she won the lawsuit.


  • Marilyn Monroe, who left her Twentieth Century Fox contract behind to study at the Actor’s Studio in New York, only to return and demand director approval on all her projects–then form Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1956 in which she had full control over her work. Her work will be discussed with The Prince and the Showgirl (1956), produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions, as an example.

Jane Fonda, discussing women activists, including:

  • Myrna Loy, who served as the co-chair on the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, campaigned actively against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, and became the first Hollywood personality appointed to U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. One of her best-loved movies, The Thin Man (1934), will be shown to profile her onscreen work.
  • 193679

Dr. Emily Carman, discussing actresses’ wartime contributions, including:

  • Bette Davis, who together with John Garfield established the Hollywood Canteen, where soldiers could eat and be entertained for free while on leave. A semi-Hollywood movie, Hollywood Canteen, was made in 1944 to promote the canteen and enhance the war effort, and TCM will show it this evening.


  • Hedy Lamarr, who developed frequency-hopping technology to help with communication between Allied forces, an invention that is still used today in cell phones, wifi networks, and Bluetooth technology. The Conspirators (1944) will be shown to highlight Hedy Lamarr’s war efforts as well as her film work.

Be sure to tune in every Tuesday/Thursday in October for what promises to be a timely and informative look at a group of women who made a difference in the betterment of their industry and their world.

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: LUCILLE BALL


On August 1, TCM began its annual summer tradition of Summer Under the Stars, a full month of specialized programming that honors one classic film star per day. Yesterday was devoted to the films of Edward G. Robinson, and the rest of the month will see days dedicated to such stars as Esther Williams, Ruby Keeler, Karl Malden, and Cyd Charisse. TCM fans look forward to Summer Under the Stars all year, and the announcement of the lineup is always a popular topic of discussion in the online classic film world.

Today we are watching movies starring a very familiar face–but those more versed in television may be surprised to see it on TCM. Before Lucy Ricardo, before the founding of Desilu and the immortal show that cemented Lucille Ball in our collective conscience, she was a rising star at RKO and later MGM, starring with all the big names of both studios and creating a reputation for herself as the “Queen of the B’s.”

Some of the highlights of today’s programming are windows into Lucille Ball’s career as few people know it–that of a talented dramatic actress whose foray into comedy was simply one of the many roads her career could have taken. Ball herself once said “I’m not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave.” Her comedy was a manifestation of a woman driven not toward being funny, but toward perfection and success. Movies like The Big Street and The Dark Corner give us a glimpse into what Ball’s career could have been like had she chosen drama rather than comedy.

In The Big Street, Ball plays a singer who becomes disabled after being pushed down a flight of stairs by her jealous lover, and takes refuge with Pinks (played by Henry Fonda). After a series of circumstances that include being rejected by a former lover for being in a wheelchair, she lashes out at Pinks in a scene that merits Ball an Oscar for her raw, nuanced performance. Unfortunately, the clip does not exist online.


The Dark Corner features Lucille Ball in a film noir, one that is so steeped in the noir trope that it almost seems a parody of itself. Ball is the femme fatale, the beautiful secretary who unwittingly becomes involved in an intricate murder plot. Starring with Mark Stevens and Clifton Webb in a delightful thriller, this is Lucy as you’ve never seen her. She is a convincing and attractive femme fatale, possessing an energy that holds your eyes on her whenever she is onscreen. I first saw this movie at Noir City this past year, and it was a wonderful experience to see it on the big screen for the first time with hundreds of other fans.


Other programming choices today like Best Foot Forward and The Long, Long Trailer show Lucille Ball in roles familiar to the I Love Lucy-loving public–involving raucous comedy and situational humor. But even here, the carefree nature of Ball’s comedy that has become her trademark is carefully planned and calculated to appear so.

The Long, Long Trailer, co-starring none other than Desi Arnaz, was filmed and released during the fourth season of I Love Lucy, and the influence of the show’s characters is clear in Lucy and Desi’s portrayals of their characters in this movie (in a less-than-subtle move, Desi’s character is even named “Nicky”). Talking with a friend of mine about this The Long, Long Trailer the other day, we came to the conclusion that The Long, Long Trailer is really just one big, extended episode of I Love Lucy, with similar characterizations and even similar gags used in each.

I was slightly surprised to see that TCM hadn’t programmed Dance, Girl, Dance this year for Lucille Ball day. It is one of my favorite roles of hers, and a marvelous example of how filmmakers circumvented the code to make the movies they wanted to make. Ball’s character of Bubbles in Dance, Girl, Dance is clearly a “kept woman,” in view of the massive amounts of furs, jewels, and fancy clothes that accompany her wherever she goes. And it features Lucy doing the hula, just about the most seductive dance that could ever have made it past the censors. It also sums up how Lucille Ball, despite her legacy as a comedic genius, was a woman whose genuine talent in many arenas and drive for success defied categorization.

I leave you with Lucille Ball doing the hula in Dance, Girl, Dance. Happy watching, readers!

This is an entry for the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by my friend Kristen Lopez. Check out the other entries at

SHE DID IT ALL HERSELF: 100 Years of Olivia de Havilland


100 years ago today, Olivia de Havilland was born.

5 years ago this past March (and in the very wee infancy of this blog), I was studying abroad in Paris and heard that the great Olivia de Havilland would be introducing a movie she had recently narrated, a documentary about Alzheimer’s called I Remember Better When I Paint, at the American Library in Paris.

I was ecstatic. This was at a point in my studies where I was becoming quite homesick, and had spent the past few weeks binging classic movies at the Rue Christine in order to give myself a taste of home and comfort. I had become a huge fan of Olivia de Havilland over the past few years, had seen nearly every movie she ever made, and the fact that she would be appearing at the American Library while I was there in Paris seemed almost too good to be true.

She was 94 then, and I had no idea what to expect. Her onscreen persona had been a strange and appealing combination of sweetness and vulnerability, paired with a lion’s strength and an iron will in her eyes. Her life had been a series of triumphs and challenges in the extreme–from rocky relationships with her sister Joan Fontaine and first husband Marcus Goodrich, to loving and beautiful ones with her two children and her second husband, Pierre Galante. She won two Oscars and was nominated for three more. Her childhood had been difficult in many ways, and she overcame it to become one of Hollywood’s brightest superstars and a powerful advocate for the rights of entertainment workers who almost singlehandedly destroyed the studio system. This was a woman of enormous strength.


She was born in Tokyo, Japan on July 1, 1916, the first of two daughters to Lilian and Walter de Havilland, a British couple living abroad in Tokyo’s international district. Her sister Joan was born in 1917. In the aftermath of World War I, in March 1919, she moved with her mother and younger sister to San Francisco. Her parents were separating, and Walter stayed behind to work in Tokyo while Lilian moved with the girls to a warmer climate that would be better for their health. They soon moved from San Francisco to a smaller town an hour south, the village of Saratoga, CA. Lilian became involved with the owner of a San Jose department store, a man named George Milan Fontaine, whom she married when Olivia was 8. He was immensely strict with the girls, his harshness prompting at least one runaway attempt. They weren’t allowed any extracurricular activities, but Olivia was beginning to show a talent for drama and disobeyed her stepfather’s orders by joining the school play.

When Fontaine found out, he gave her an ultimatum. “You will either give up the play,” Olivia recalled him saying later, “or leave this house forever.” Olivia chose the latter, and at the age of 16, she left home.

I had invited several European friends, all fans of Olivia de Havilland, to come with me to the American Library to hear Olivia introduce the movie. They flew in, two from Sweden, one from Italy by way of England, the afternoon of the movie and after cramming all of our stuff into my tiny apartment near Parc Monceau, we headed over to the library. Shortly after our arrival, we saw a regal, perfectly arranged shock of white hair sticking up from the front row of chairs. It was Olivia. She was sitting perfectly straight, talking and smiling with the people introduced to her, a perfect lady. She stood up whenever she was introduced to someone, leaping out of her chair faster than someone half her age. We watched her in awe. Essentially shunned by her family, left to fend for herself at 16 years old, she had forged her own path, never looking back and creating a livelihood entirely on her own, standing tall and maintaining her dignity all the way through her life. Even at 94 years old.


In a local production of Alice in Wonderland, shortly after she left home.

Despite the difficulties she encountered as a teenager living on her own, Olivia received a full scholarship to Mills College based on her exemplary grades. But at the same time, she auditioned and got the role of understudy for Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt, to be performed at the Hollywood Bowl and various other places in California. Olivia decided to do the play in order to build up her resume and perhaps get more scholarship money for Mills, but after going onstage several times as the understudy, Max Reinhardt was so impressed with her that he selected her to go to Hollywood with him to make the movie version.

And thus began the career of Olivia de Havilland. She was signed to Warner Bros, where she made an impression not only with the acting talent that had so impressed Max Reinhardt, but also with her huge, winsome brown eyes and distinctive voice, perfectly suited for recording with the equipment in the mid-1930s.


When the program was to start at the American Library, the producer of I Remember Better When I Paint, Berna Huebner, went to the podium and introduced Olivia, who would introduce the movie. Her words were loving and kind, speaking of a woman whom she had clearly come to love as a dear friend. Then Olivia came up to the podium and began to talk about the movie. I was so profoundly struck by the sound of her voice, I could barely pay attention to anything but the beautiful deep tones that were coming out of her mouth. Her voice was like melted chocolate, rising and falling dramatically with each clearly enunciated word, articulated slowly and deliberately. I have never heard a voice like hers in my life. It seemed to come from an era that is long gone–and of course it does.

During her years at Warner Bros, Olivia was often cast in damsel-in-distress roles, paired a whopping nine times with Errol Flynn. Their feelings for each other were palpable onscreen and off, but Flynn was married and Olivia refused to be the “other woman.” Still, Olivia continued to speak giddily about Flynn even in interviews many decades later, and it was clear that the love had never faded.

In 1938, she persuaded Jack Warner to loan her to Selznick International for a movie that Selznick was making based on the hit novel Gone With the Wind. Warner was reluctant, but finally allowed her to go, and Olivia signed on to play the shy, demure, ever-trusting Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.


Cast members sign the contracts for Gone With the Wind.

It became the role of her lifetime. Above anything else, Olivia de Havilland is remembered as Melanie Hamilton, playing the character to nuanced perfection. She received her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress against costar Hattie McDaniel, with McDaniel winning the Oscar and becoming the first African-American actress to do so. De Havilland took it very much in stride.

People were very attached to Melanie, but they knew I wasn’t a supporting actress. They knew that Hattie was, and they were not tricked, and they were not deceived, and they voted for Hattie.

-Olivia de Havilland, Academy of Achievement, 2006

Back at Warner Bros, she was beginning to tire of being the damsel-in-distress, finding those parts too limiting and itching to expand her repertoire. She had been nominated for an Oscar again in 1942 for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn, but had lost to her younger sister, who had come to Hollywood and started acting under the name Joan Fontaine. Joan and Olivia eventually became fodder for the press, who scavenged for stories and contributed to the crumbling of their sibling relationship, which had never been strong. But on Oscar night, Olivia was extremely gracious and proud of her younger sister, and the press captured it.



In the wake of her second Oscar loss, Olivia started refusing scripts from Warner Bros, resulting in suspensions that were then tacked on to the end of her contract. She seemed forever destined to the roles that she hated–and saw no light at the end of the tunnel for her career. She became very depressed, and consulted her agents to try to help her. The agents called a lawyer, who informed her of an obscure California law restricting the duration of time that a worker can be held under contract to seven years.

She went to court, and after an appeal, she won in a unanimous decision of the California Superior Court. The De Havilland Law, as the decision is now called, had and continues to have huge implications for workers in the entertainment business. It limited the power of the studios over their stars, and gave stars greater freedom to seek projects that they felt suited them, and set a precedent for workers in the music and sports fields. Most recently, Jared and Shannon Leto of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars sued in response to a musical contract issue, and won based on the De Havilland Law. They wrote Olivia personally to thank her.

From then on, Olivia’s career soared. In 1946, she played the role of a mother who gives up her illegitimate child and then tries to adopt him back in To Each His Own. The role finally won her her first Oscar. In 1948, she received another Oscar nomination for playing a mentally unstable woman whose treatment in a mental institution is documented in The Snake Pit, one of the first serious treatments of mental illness on film. Then in 1949 came another role of a lifetime, the role of a simple embroiderer set to inherit a large fortune who is courted by a man of questionable intentions in The Heiress, for which she won her second Oscar. Olivia’s metamorphosis from naïve, schoolgirlish embroiderer to bitter, jaded woman getting her revenge stands as one of the most brilliant transformations in film history.

At home, her life was becoming difficult. She was on the brink of divorce from Marcus Goodrich, whom she had married in 1946, and with whom she had had a son, Benjamin. They finally divorced in 1953, and shortly thereafter Olivia moved to France with Benjamin. Life got better in France–she married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, with whom she had a daughter, Gisèle. She continued to work, though more sporadically now than before, and focus her energy on raising her children. She wrote a witty memoir in 1962 called Every Frenchman Has One, recounting anecdotes of living as a foreigner in France.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 4.00.22 PM

With her two children: Benjamin (left) and Gisèle (right).

Benjamin, a prodigious mathematician, grew up to be a statistical analyst and died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993. Gisèle became a respected journalist like her father, and currently lives in the Los Angeles area.

Olivia became an American citizen in 1943 and has long been dedicated to the bastions of American culture in Paris, devoting her time and resources to the American University, the American Library, and the American Cathedral. It was her commitment to the American Library that brought I Remember Better When I Paint to France, and Olivia de Havilland to me. After her introduction, she sat down and watched the movie with the crowd–delighting in the movie as a simple member of the audience. It was a memorable moment. I watched one of the towers of the entertainment world sitting on a simple folding chair, laughing at a movie’s funny parts and furrowing her brow at the sad parts, just like the rest of us.

After it was over, we prepared to leave. Olivia was taken by the arm by one of the library staff, and accompanied out of the main room. But just as we were about to head out the door, we saw that shock of white hair again–this time behind the library desk, as Olivia chatted with the audience members who had come to see her. She had somehow broken free of the library staff member who was supposed to lead her to her car, and she was simply interacting with those who had loved her for so many years.

Just in case, we had brought things for Olivia to sign. I had brought my copy of Every Frenchman Has One, and my friends and I excitedly positioned ourselves in the crowd. She talked with us for several minutes, asking us where we had gotten our long out-of-print books and interacting in just as charming and gracious a way as she did on the screen.


When it finally came time for her to leave, she went unwillingly. “They’re making me leave!” she exclaimed. It took her another good few minutes to get out the door, and when she did, we saw that she had come to the event alone at 94 years old.

And so it has always been. She did it all herself.

Happy 100th birthday, Olivia. There is no one more deserving of this special birthday than you.



Marilyn Monroe’s 90th Birthday–Celebrated With a Worthy Cause


Norma Jeane Baker (Mortensen on her birth certificate), who would grow up to become Marilyn Monroe. Pictured here around the time when she lived at the Los Angeles Orphan’s Home Society, now known as EMQ FamiliesFirst Hollygrove.

June 1, 2016 marks what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 90th birthday. Her early death has frozen her in time, making it difficult to fathom the idea of Marilyn Monroe being 90 years old at all–and further, while it is confounding to think of Marilyn Monroe as a 90-year-old, 90 is young enough that she might still have been alive today, if that night on August 4, 1962 had gone differently.

Marilyn Monroe is one of the most intricate and complex personalities in all of film history. I have been fascinated by her story ever since I was old enough to comprehend it. Her psychological demons consumed her, but she put forth a million dollar smile that belied her internal struggles. She was a gifted actress, but was stuck in the sex symbol roles that would bring 20th Century Fox the most profit. Childhood memories of living in an orphanage and in foster care, reminding her that she had been an unwanted child named Norma Jeane Baker, haunted her as she lived the life as the most sought-after actress on the screen. Ultimately, these dualities destroyed her.

The child who became Marilyn Monroe was born to a 24-year-old film cutter named Gladys Baker on June 1, 1926. Gladys had severe mental illness, and was unable to care for her new daughter. After living in several foster homes, she was placed at the Los Angeles Orphan’s Home Society in 1935, near the corner of Vine and Melrose. There, she lived in a girls’ residence hall that overlooked Paramount Studio alongside several dozen other children, many of whose situations were similar to hers. She stayed for 2 years before going back into foster care, living long term with the aunt of her mother’s best friend. She returned for visits several times over the course of her life, signing the guest book as “Norma Jeane Baker” on her first visit, and “Marilyn Monroe” every time after that.


The Los Angeles Orphan’s Home as it looked in 1935.

The mission of the orphanage began to shift in the years following Norma Jeane Baker’s stay there, and became known as the Hollygrove Home For Children. It began to focus less on children who had no parents, and more on children like Norma Jeane who had parents who were unable to care for them. Its goals became more family-driven, providing resources and support to families in need of help. The home itself closed in 2005, but the organization continues to do great and needed work in the Los Angeles area.

On the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s 90th birthday, EMQ FamiliesFirst Hollygrove is holding a fundraising drive in her honor. The modern Hollygrove is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “the social-emotional, behavioral and mental health needs of young children, teens and their families,” and aims to “heal the whole child-and the whole family – through a full range of behavioral and mental health services.” It has thought of a lovely and fun way to participate in the fundraising drive–using the hashtag #ModernMarilyn, participants are encouraged to post a picture inspired by Marilyn Monroe, along with the link to the fundraising page.

If you are so inclined, contributing to this fundraising drive would be a wonderful way to honor Marilyn Monroe’s memory this year, and a great contribution to a vital Los Angeles institution. Please follow this link to contribute or share the page with someone who can, and honor a legend while at the same time honoring Los Angeles children and families.

Happy 90th birthday, Marilyn!

Hollywood Stars as Kids


KNOWLEDGE IS POWER: The Subtle Messages of BORN YESTERDAY (1950)

Annex - Holliday, Judy (Born Yesterday)_01

A few days ago, as I spent a sick afternoon at home, I was pleased to discover the delightful Born Yesterday (1950) playing on TCM. This is a movie that has always fascinated me–Judy Holliday’s performance as the dim-witted Billie Dawn won her an Oscar for the Best Actress of 1950, in the face of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, both nominated for the roles of their careers. Holliday’s win has always been a bit of an enigma, so much so that in the process of trying to “figure her out,” I’ve developed a real fondness for Judy Holliday and her all-too-brief career. To me, she’s one of the most underappreciated and underutilized comediennes of the era, and her early death was a huge loss to the industry.

Holliday’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday stands out as her best-known role, a part she originated on the Broadway stage before signing on to reprise the role in the movie. On the surface, the movie is a fluffy comedy about a rather intellectually dull woman who studies with a tutor to expand her mind. It seems to be standard code-era fare. But upon a deeper examination of the plot, and of the character of Billie Dawn, one is hit with some powerful messages about women’s rights, and the political climate in which the movie was made.

Billie Dawn is a poorly-educated New Yorker, living with her gangster fiancé on a long-term business venture in Washington, D.C. Billie often embarrasses Harry with her ignorance, and in order to make a better impression on his business contacts, Harry engages a tutor, Paul (William Holden), to teach Billie the ways of the world. The two get on swimmingly. Billie loves learning, and Paul respects her mind and her autonomy in a way that Harry doesn’t. In interacting with Paul, and in learning more about the way the world works, Billie comes to the realization that Harry abuses and takes advantage of her, and she must leave him.

Advocating for a woman’s right to educate herself, and for her right to leave an abusive relationship, was forward-thinking in 1950. Despite women taking the jobs of overseas men during WWII and the resulting spike in women’s employment in the postwar years, the prevailing thought in 1940s and early 1950s American media continued to be that women should be subservient to their husbands, and that education for women was futile. Few movies challenged this view, with the perhaps singular exception of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy Woman of the Year, released 8 years prior. In Woman of the Year, we are presented with a mirror image of Billie Dawn, in Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of the very educated, self-reliant Tess Harding, who becomes involved with Spencer Tracy’s meat-and-potatoes, sports-enthusiast Sam Craig. They fall in love, and at the end of the movie (spoiler alert), we see Tess trying to eschew her intellectual gifts for domestic life with Sam, trying (and failing) to make him breakfast in the final scene. Sam encourages her to simply be herself, and not change for him. Tess had fallen victim to the same views that plagued the majority of women of that era, and many were not as lucky as she was.


Here, with Born Yesterday, we see a shift in the narrative. “It’s a new world, Harry,” says a business associate of Harry’s, late in the movie. “Force and reason are changing places. Knowledge is power.” When Billie returns to Harry, newly educated, she encounters his brute force as he beats and yells at her. With her newfound sense of confidence and power from her education, she sees him for what he is and leaves him for Paul. An empowering message for women of the early 1950s, often trapped in abusive or unfulfilling marriages.

The “knowledge is power” theme of Born Yesterday is especially meaningful when viewed through the political lens of the late 1940s and early 1950s. McCarthyism was at its peak, with many in Hollywood as its targets. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the raw, ignorant fears of the American populace regarding communism, while the defenders of the Hollywood Ten and other blacklisted individuals fought against the base ignorance of McCarthy’s followers. In its own subtle way, Born Yesterday takes sides, and fights against the core ideology of McCarthyism by asserting that “knowledge is power,” and that brute ignorance is destructive and harmful.


Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead the Committee for the First Amendment, organized to support the Hollywood Ten.

In a side note, Judy Holliday was blacklisted herself in 1952. When testifying before the subcommittee, she took on the distinctive voice and persona of Billie Dawn, confounding those asking her questions and, possibly, saving her career. Despite being blacklisted from certain media for 10 years, she ultimately returned and everything got back to normal–she worked in films and on the stage until shortly before her death in 1965.

While today’s world has changed in its attitudes toward women and education, we are currently faced with an epidemic of anti-intellectualism in our politics, reminiscent of the McCarthy years in its prideful ignorance. It is significant that the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., and extols the virtues of knowledge and education in the very location where our government is centered. We might do well to remember the message of this movie in this day and age, when knowledge and expertise are all too disposable in our political system.