Category Archives: Birthday Tributes

Happy Birthday Marion Davies (January 3, 1897)


I have been living with Marion Davies as a subject since November of 2013.

When you write a biography, your subject stays with you 24/7, informing your interpretations of the world and of the things you see and hear. I often think about how to make a paragraph flow better, and when I read a new bit of information about an era in which Marion lived, I wonder about how to incorporate it into her story. There’s no getting around it–and with Marion Davies, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I often say that Marion Davies is the greatest subject I could have ever chosen. Many people who knew her well are still alive, and further, the first words out of everyone’s mouth seem to be “Marion was a wonderful woman.” Her kind and generous nature, as well as her fun and generous spirit, are palpable even today, 55 years after her death, and I feel like I’m the luckiest writer in the world to have her in my life.


Marion (left) with her mother and sister Rose, circa 1904.

Her birthday was January 3, 1897, but like many actresses of her era she liked to shave a few years off. She usually gave her birthdate to magazines and interviewers as January 1, 1900, creating a digestible round number that was easy to remember. Sometimes she went further. On her death certificate, it says she was born in 1905–upon her arrival at the hospital for the final time, she told the staff that she was born a full 8 years after her actual birthdate!

Marion frequently celebrated her birthday on New Year’s Day, and often in conjunction with her nephew, the screenwriter Charles Lederer, who was born on December 31. But her own birthday celebrations paled in comparison to the magnificent and grand celebrations that she organized for William Randolph Hearst, the love of her life and companion for more than three decades. Marion’s own celebrations would be relatively small, and frequently tied to New Year’s Day or Charlie’s birthday. She never thought much of building herself up, and instead threw herself into the celebration of others. For Hearst’s birthday, hundreds of guests would gather at his ranch at San Simeon (today known as Hearst Castle) or Marion’s Santa Monica beach house for a grand party–circus-themed, western-themed, Spanish-themed–and while the two of them organized the parties together, the grandness was all Marion’s doing.


At the circus-themed birthday party for Hearst, 1937.

Marion’s general attention to her own birthday was typical of who she was as a person–her modesty and lack of pretense defined her, preferring to give a party than receive one. But every year on her birthday I think about how fortunate I am to be her biographer, and how she truly embodies what Tennessee Williams once said about her–remarking on the self-involved, indulgent community that whirled around her, Williams remarked that “Marion Davies makes up for the rest of Hollywood.”

Happy birthday, Marion, I feel lucky every day to be working with her.


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.
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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.

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.

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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.




The Classic Movie Blog Association, of which Backlots is a member, is hosting a very interesting blogathon–dealing with those films that we know are stinkers, but that we love anyway. This is a real opportunity for me not only to extol my love for a bad movie, but also to explain WHY I love this failure as much as I do! So without further ado–light the candle, get the ice out, roll the rug up, it’s….MAME!

The story is of Mame Dennis, a madcap bon vivant who takes in her orphaned nephew Patrick and raises him as her own, teaching him that “life is a banquet” and educating him in the ways of her world. Mame is initially awkward with him, but over the course of the film we see a strong maternal love develop within her, and Patrick becomes close with her too. It is a simple plot that really touches on basic human emotions, and that in itself makes it a successful story.

Mame was inspired by a long line of successful stagings of the classic Patrick Dennis story Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade, written in 1955. Though the plot was entirely created, Dennis passed it off as autobiographical by employing his own name as that of the book’s narrator. As he stated in LIFE magazine in 1962: “I write in the first person, but it is all fictional. The public assumes that what seems fictional is fact; so the way for me to be inventive is to seem factual but be fictional.” The book was an instant success, and shortly thereafter a Broadway show, entitled Auntie Mame, was created by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee with Rosalind Russell in the lead role. The play opened in 1957, and Russell’s portrayal of Auntie Mame landed her a Tony nomination. The following year, Russell reprised her role on film, which in turn earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, and Auntie Mame became the highest grossing film of the year.

Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame.

In 1966, the plot was revisited again for a musical version of the Broadway show, this time entitled simply Mame and headed by Angela Lansbury in the title role and Bea Arthur as Mame’s best friend Vera. This production had enormous success, running a total of 1,508 performances in New York before touring the country. Both Lansbury and Bea Arthur won Tonys for their performances. The 1969 West End production of the show starred Ginger Rogers and ran for 14 months.

Angela Lansbury performing “It’s Today” during the revival run in 1983.

Then came the film.

Deeming Angela Lansbury too unknown in films to reprise her role (which I think makes no sense, because by that point she had been in 36 films and had been nominated for the Academy Award 3 times), Lucille Ball was booked to play Mame Dennis in a planned film version in 1972. Shortly before filming was to begin, Ball broke her leg in a skiing accident and could not start work on the film until she was healed. The proposed director, the legendary George Cukor, was forced to withdraw from the film due to the delay in shooting, and the task of directing the film went to Gene Saks, who had directed the Broadway production (and who happened to be married to Lansbury’s Broadway co-star Bea Arthur, also slated for the film version). The disasters of the production were not over. Madeline Kahn was cast as Agnes Gooch, Mame’s secretary, and when filming started, Ball (who had casting approval) was not satisfied with her performance and had her fired. It also became devastatingly clear that Lucille Ball could not sing, and was far too old to be playing Mame Dennis with any sort of credibility (she was 62 when filming began). This necessitated the use of soft-focus filters to disguise her age.

Note the soft-focus in this trailer.

Ball had to have long rehearsal sessions with Jerry Herman in order to increase her singing ability, but it was in vain–she could not sing. It is very clear in the film that Ball is uncomfortable.

Despite all the problems, Mame WAS a successful film, breaking records during its run at Radio City Music Hall, but Lucille Ball could not be saved. Critics were very harsh, and reviews included:

“Miss Ball has been molded over the years into some sort of national monument, and she performs like one too. Her grace, her timing, her vigor have all vanished. When she is photographed at close range, the image goes soft, indicating that the lens was smeared with Vaseline and shrouded in gauze. The other actors in the movie are clear enough on their own. But when they step into a shot with her, they go out of focus too.”

-TIME magazine

“After forty years in movies and TV, did [Lucille Ball] discover in herself an unfulfilled ambition to be a flaming drag queen?”

-Pauline Kael, New Yorker Magazine

“Hopelessly out-of-date musical … will embarrass even those who love Lucy. Calling Fred and Ethel Mertz!”

Leonard Maltin, Movie Guide

I often wonder what would have happened if just a few changes were made to the film–if they had realized that Angela Lansbury DID have clout on film, and if George Cukor had stayed. I have a feeling that it would have been a much better film.

It does have some saving graces, for example the magnificent Bea Arthur, who I’m convinced can do no wrong. She won a Tony for the role of Vera on Broadway, and her performance here is really the highlight of the film.

Arthur and Lucille Ball singing “Bosom Buddies.”

Needless to say, the music is also extremely quality. Jerry Herman’s successful Broadway score translated into some brownie points for the film, but one can hardly say that this is a credit to the film, as Herman simply uprooted the Broadway score and placed it onscreen–a simple cut-and-paste job.

Now let me tell you why I love this movie.


You know how sometimes a movie is so bad, it’s good? This is one of those. It may not be in the category of Plan 9 From Outer Space bad, but the campiness of this one blows Plan 9 out of the water. The colors, the lighting, the ridiculously expensive production (estimated at $12 million), and the sheer low quality of the script and acting make it a recipe for a cult smash.

I first saw this movie when I was about 12 years old at a friend’s house, and I was immensely taken with it. My friend and I developed a whole new set of inside jokes from it (see above re: the script), and it became an instant favorite. That’s really what this movie is good for, and despite its bad quality, it’s still a great and fun movie-watching experience.

Thank you to the CMBA for hosting this fun blogathon!!

Happy birthday Maureen O’Hara!

Me with Maureen O’Hara in Ireland, June 2011.


Lucille Ball is one of entertainment’s most enduring icons. She has been visible for nearly 80 years, and I would venture to say that there are very few people alive today who have not known and loved Lucy for the better part of their entire lives.

I myself discovered Lucille Ball when I was in early elementary school. My best friend and I became obsessed with “I Love Lucy” around the 2nd grade, and we subsequently watched every episode of the series, then moved on to the “Lucy/Desi Comedy Hour” and “The Lucy Show.” We just couldn’t get enough of her. And I think we weren’t alone in this–my dad also seemed to know a good deal about Lucille Ball as a person (he was the one who taught me, at the age of 7, that she had been a starlet and a model, and that at one point had gone by the name Dianne Belmont), so it was evident that he was in love with Lucy, too. She just had a certain something that resonated with people. And I don’t think it was just her comedic genius–there was something about HER that attracted people to her.

Since its series finale in 1957, “I Love Lucy” has proven to be a mainstay in syndication, and has essentially never gone off the air. 54 years after the show ended, it is shown in dozens of languages across the world and continues to get stellar ratings (in fact, the Hallmark Channel is so confident in the ratings of “I Love Lucy” that they are hosting an entire weekend-long marathon of the show in honor of Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday today). Can you imagine a show today still playing in 50 + years, broadcast in different languages all over the world? I can’t think of ANY modern show that will stand the test of time like “I Love Lucy” has.

Since this is a classic film blog, I would like to talk a little bit about Lucille Ball’s early film roles. Alas, they have been somewhat obscured by her absolutely blinding success with “I Love Lucy,” enough that whenever I see a film with Lucille Ball on the big screen, I hear mutterings from the audience “Is that Lucille Ball???” People are surprised that she had any career at all before “I Love Lucy,” and I think it’s a shame, because some of those early roles are very noteworthy and she could have had a monumental success in films had “I Love Lucy” not come along–in my opinion, she would probably have remained a character actress, because of that Eve Arden-esque wit and backtalk at which she was so clever. She did, however, have some good starring success in her early years with Dance, Girl, Dance, the film she made in 1940 with Maureen O’Hara, Du Barry Was a Lady in 1943, and in a number of other quality films at MGM.

Dancing “The Jitterbug Bite” in Dance, Girl, Dance.

She also had a good deal of success in radio, which is not surprising given that unique voice we all know so well. The character of Lucy Ricardo was, in fact, inspired by Lucy’s character on a radio program called “My Favorite Husband,” done in 1948 with Richard Denning.

It’s interesting to note that her voice essentially never changed, from her first moment on the screen straight through the 1960’s. It was then that the smoking caught up to her and gave her the distinctive smoker’s voice that became a trademark of Lucy’s later career. The uniqueness of her voice is something that people don’t often comment on, yet I would imagine that if people closed their eyes and watched an early Lucille Ball film, even if they didn’t know she was in it, they would be able to identify her instantly.

This interview, done in 1973, shows her not only as a lovely human being, but also her immense intelligence. She responds to each question carefully and thoroughly, and knows exactly what she is saying and why she is saying it. The thoroughness, perfectionism and business-savvy qualities in Lucille Ball are legendary. It is said that on the set of “I Love Lucy,” if she found a scene to not be funny, she she would often tell the director so, and proceed to argue with him until she got her way. She knew what was funny and what was not, and she was not about to sacrifice the show to an unfunny scene. Obviously, Lucy’s way always got huge laughs.

The famous scene from the episode “Lucy Does the Tango.” This scene contains the longest studio laugh in the history of the show, and one of the longest in the history of television.

Lucille Ball’s legacy has been strong for many decades, and it shows no sign of stopping now. With the huge amounts of “I Love Lucy” memorabilia being sold at high prices, with the show frequently on in syndication, the plethora of Lucy impersonators and the millions of fans devoted to her, I think we’re going to have Lucy for a long, long time to come.

Thank you to the people over at True Classics for hosting this wonderful blogathon.


Ginger Rogers would have been 100 years old today. In honor of this immensely multi-talented star of stage and screen, I am putting together a humble birthday tribute to say a posthumous thank you to a woman who quite literally gave her heart and soul to the film industry.

I will start by saying that I consider Ginger Rogers to be massively underestimated as a screen star. Ask anyone on the street who Ginger Rogers was, and you’ll get a response like “Fred’s dancing partner!” In a sense, I think it was a curse that Ginger became known as just one of “Fred and Ginger,” because it isolated her in the eyes of the public. If Ginger had a flaw, it was that she was TOO talented. She was a master at everything. People who have too many talents tend to get either smothered completely by their own talent, or become known for one thing and the rest of their potential goes down the drain. The relative anonymity of Kay Thompson today is an example of someone being smothered by their own talent, I think–and Ginger is an example of the latter. The public can’t handle that much talent from a single person, and don’t know where to focus their energy, so either one thing takes center stage, or nothing at all.

She was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri, and was raised by her mother and stepfather (John Logan Rogers) in Fort Worth, Texas. She took the last name of her stepfather as a child, and as one of her young cousins couldn’t pronounce “Virginia,” she became “Ginger.” Her mother, Lela, had worked as a scriptwriter and had a real passion for Hollywood, one that she passed on to her daughter–Ginger grew up with the theatre, and soon fell in love with it.

Ginger with her mother, Lela Rogers.

After winning a Charleston dance contest at the age of 15, she was given the opportunity to join a vaudeville traveling act, and traveled with them for 6 months. At the age of 18 she made her Broadway debut in a play called Top Speed, which was followed by a starring role in the musical Girl Crazy, which garnered her rave reviews and a seven year contract with Paramount Pictures.

The Paramount contract didn’t really work out, and she garnered a number of other, smaller contracts, including those with Warner Brothers and Pathé. She made a significant impression at the Warner Brothers studio with 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (a personal favorite of mine), but it was at RKO that Ginger would make her biggest mark. She was paired with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio in 1933, which was followed by 8 other films together at that studio (The Barkleys of Broadway, their 10th and last film together, was made at MGM in 1949). Here are some moments from those films:

“The Carioca,” from Flying Down to Rio, (1933)

“The Continental,” from The Gay Divorcée, (1934)

“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” from Roberta (1935)

“Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat (1935)

“Let Yourself Go,” from Follow the Fleet (1936)

“Pick Yourself Up,” from Swing Time (1936)

“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” from Shall We Dance (1937)

“The Yam,” from Carefree (1938)

“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

“Bouncin’ the Blues,” The Barkleys of Broadway ( 1949)

It was also with RKO that Ginger made Kitty Foyle in 1940, the film that would showcase her talent as a dramatic actress as well as a dancer and comedienne. The story of a woman torn between two men, Ginger proved to the world that she was more than just the musical counterpart to Fred Astaire. She garnered an Academy Award nomination, and won for the Best Actress of 1940.

Ginger and James Stewart pose with their Oscars, February 27, 1941.

As the 1950’s approached and McCarthyism began to rise in the United States, Ginger was one of the few people in Hollywood to show strong support toward McCarthy’s policies. A lifelong Republican, she held views that were not in line with those of many of her close friends (Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Bette Davis, to name a few), but nonetheless, Rogers was known for being a good and loyal friend, and was well-loved within Hollywood. It has been said that Ginger herself may not have been as conservative as she said she was–but instead put on that face for her mother, to whom she was very close and who was a staunch supporter of McCarthy.

Though her career declined as roles for older women became harder to find, Ginger still managed to find work in smaller films and on Broadway, notably replacing Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! in 1965. She made a number of television appearances, acting right up until her death of congestive heart failure in 1995.

From an appearance on “The Lucy Show,” with her good friend (and distant cousin) Lucille Ball. The young girl is Lucie Arnaz.

Ginger spent her last years in ill health, confined to a wheelchair due to a fall on the stairway of Ronald Reagan’s yacht. A number of strokes did not help. It’s sad to think of the great Ginger Rogers in a wheelchair, but I guess it’s some consolation that her movies are still around and keep her alive and well in our minds.

I leave you with one of my favorite moments of hers, from Gold Diggers of 1933. Happy 100th birthday, Ginger!!


June 10 marks the day that Judy Garland would have been 89 years old. If you have been following my blog at all, you already know that I am a huge Judy Garland fan. She has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and the really serious fandom started when I was about 10, when I heard a compilation of her Decca recordings–I fell immediately in love, and it’s all been uphill from there.

It is no secret that Judy Garland is the quintessential queer icon of the century. There have been many theories about just why the gay community is so drawn to her–among them that the early passing of her father (who was indeed gay) led her to seek out similar men, and that her status as a “tragic” character led the gay community to identify with her troubles. I don’t pretend to understand just what exactly it is that makes Judy such a lasting icon in the gay community, but I think that the renowned playwright and drag performer Charles Busch articulates her appeal very accurately:

I think it’s just facile to think that ‘Oh, because she’s so pathetic, that gay people whose lives are so pathetic identify with that,’ I think that can get a little tiresome. I think it’s more that despite her problems, she was able to dredge up this…energy that was very infectious.”

I am going to compile here some of what I consider to be her best work, and that which seems to encompass her as a person. Happy birthday to Judy!

As a child.

Singing “Blue Butterfly,” at age 7.

Publicity photo for MGM, shortly after she signed with them in 1935. This shoot was done within days of her father's death.

“It’s Love I’m After,” from her first feature film, Pigskin Parade. She was 14.


With Allan Jones and Fanny Brice, publicity photo for "Everybody Sing."


This is a series of home movies shot on the set of The Wizard of Oz, by songwriter Harold Arlen.


On the set with "Toto," a female Cairn terrier whose real name was Terry.

Publicity photo for "Presenting Lily Mars," 1943.



With daughter Liza, in "Photoplay," May 1947.

With Gene Kelly in The Pirate.

Again showing her skills as a dancer with Gene Kelly in Summer Stock. After this film, she was fired from MGM and embarked on a highly successful concert career.

Judy at the Palace, where she played for a sold-out record 19 weeks in 1951, earning her a special Tony Award for her revival of the vaudeville scene.


Accepting her Tony Award for the Palace engagement from presenter Helen Hayes.

A Star is Born in 1954 was Judy’s comeback film, and it garnered her an Oscar nomination, sparking outrage in the community when she lost to Grace Kelly.

Giving another Oscar-nominated performance in Judgment at Nuremberg.

The poster for what is considered to be Judy's best concert, and one of the best concerts of all time, done at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961.

The overture to the Carnegie Hall concert.

Judy provided the voice for "Mewsette" in the 1962 animated film "Gay Purr-ee."

One of my favorite scenes from Judy’s last film, I Could Go On Singing in 1963.

Here are some scenes of Judy with celebrities from Judy’s TV show in the 1963-64 season:




Album cover for Judy and Liza at the London Palladium

With daughter Lorna onstage at the Palace, 1967.

Judy’s last interview in Copenhagen, 1969.

Part 2.
A special thank you to Caroline at Garbo Laughs for hosting the Queer Film Blogathon, of which this post is a member!


I am going to try not to focus on Marilyn or Audrey on this blog, but today is Marilyn’s birthday, so I think she deserves a small tribute.

The reason I’m not going to focus on either of those two is that I feel they have become pop icons, available everywhere, and all their charm (of which they both had a good deal) has been devalued due to their accessibility. I have nothing against either of them, in fact on the contrary–I think they’re both absolutely fascinating people. But for the purposes of this blog, their accessibility here will be limited in favor of those actors and actresses who don’t get as much outside attention as they do. However, here is a bit of an acknowledgment to Marilyn.

Marilyn Monroe’s persona was an exercise in opposites. Alternately sexy and modest, outgoing and shy, bombshell and waif, she possessed a true split personality that I think gave her a severe identity crisis that ultimately contributed to her demise. Her status as a pop icon now completely ignores a good portion of her charm, instead focusing on the classic images from her career that make her seem like a shameless sex symbol with no depth. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

As a child on the beach in Santa Monica.

Born Norma Jeane Mortensen (though she used the last name “Baker” throughout her childhood), Marilyn was born on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, to a severely mentally ill mother who had gotten pregnant by a man whose identity was not clear to her. Due to her mother’s mental illness (later determined to be paranoid schizophrenia), Norma Jeane spent her childhood in a long series of foster homes, by her own account numbering 10 in total, in addition to a 2-year stint in the Los Angeles Orphans Home. This childhood (or, really, lack thereof) seemed to be a catalyst for her problems later in life. Constantly searching for stability and a father figure, she married 3 times, the first when she was 16, then to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. As she became a star (first signing with a modeling agency, then landing small parts in films), this dichotomy between fame and poverty grew. She admitted to feeling like two different people–Marilyn Monroe, the star, and Norma Jeane Baker, the girl with no home. She grew to legend in the 1950s and soon became tired of being known as simply a sex symbol. She wanted desperately to be taken seriously, and in 1955 went to Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio in New York to study the craft. She came back to make what I consider to be her best film, Bus Stop, in 1956.

Studying at the Actor's Studio.

However, she never gained the public appreciation she so craved for her efforts, and this contributed to her becoming very depressed. She developed a dependency on pills and alcohol, became increasingly difficult and late to the set, and died in 1962 at the age of 36, which was, in my opinion, a likely suicide. Some of her very last words in her last interview were “Please don’t make me a joke.”

It pains me to think what she would think of what she would think of her star persona today. It’s really quite sad, because I think that even after death, she is being done a great injustice with the memorabilia industry, capitalizing on her persona as a sex symbol that she was so trying to rid herself of. I am going to add some videos of her as she would have wished to be remembered. Happy birthday, Marilyn!

One of her earliest and best films, Don’t Bother to Knock. She plays a mentally unstable babysitter, a part she said she modeled after her remembrances of her mother. It is also worth noting that the famous breathy voice began as a method to control her stutter, a childhood affliction that never completely went away.

Outtakes from her last, uncompleted film, Something’s Got to Give.

Talking about Bus Stop, 1956.

Talking about her teenage years.

An interview about her marriage to Arthur Miller. She looks very uncomfortable in this interview–she said that she didn’t like crowds, which she thought was due to her years in the crowded orphanage.

BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE: Katharine Hepburn

Since it was Katharine Hepburn’s birthday on Thursday, May 12, Backlots is acknowledging the occasion with a short biography of the legend, and a celebration of some of her great films and roles.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut on May 12, 1907, Katharine Houghton Hepburn was the second of 6 children born to Thomas Norval Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (yes, she was indeed named after her mother), a progressive couple well-regarded in the Hartford community. A generally happy childhood (marred, however, by the suicide of her older brother Tom, which had a tremendous effect on her throughout her life–she consistently listed her birthday as November 7, which was Tom’s) was followed by attendance at Bryn Mawr college, where she began her theatrical career in university productions. At the age of 25, she made her first onscreen appearance opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932),  which was followed the next year by Morning Glory (1933) which garnered her the first of her 4 Academy Awards (the other three for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) The Lion in Winter (1968, for which she tied with Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”) and On Golden Pond (1982). Her career spanned 6 decades, she influenced women’s fashion by popularizing pants, and was a true independent spirit. Her final film was made in 1994, and she remained active well into her final days. Reports say that she continued to ride a bicycle until a hip problem in her late 80’s precluded it, and she was sharp and witty right up until her death in 2003 at the age of 96.

Hepburn was an immensely versatile actress, capable of playing comedy and tragedy with equal skill, as evidenced in part by the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the royal tragedy Mary of Scotland (1936), along with the hilarious The Philadelphia Story (1940) and the dramatic The Lion in Winter. She is widely considered to be the best actress of all time, and given her track record, Backlots does not dispute it.

Here are some of her best roles. I will start with her Oscar-winning performances:

Morning Glory (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). The young girl at 0:38 is Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton. She plays the main character in this film (although truthfully the movie is centered more on the older generation than the younger, in a commentary about changing times), and though she’s not a great actress, it’s interesting to watch her.

The Lion In Winter (1968). Hepburn plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, opposite Peter O’Toole. Katharine Hepburn was known for not attending the Oscars, and this fact was made clear when she shared the Oscar with Barbra Streisand in 1968, who was all too happy to give her speech while Hepburn did not attend.

On Golden Pond, 1982, opposite Henry Fonda. A lovely performance, also featuring Fonda’s daughter, Jane.

Some other greats:

Bringing Up Baby, 1938. One of my personal favorites. It’s the perfect screwball comedy, and Cary Grant is hilarious as well. Interestingly, shortly after this movie was made, Katharine Hepburn was voted “box office poison,” due to her string of flops, but “Bringing Up Baby”was loved by the critics.

The Philadelphia Story, 1940. Considered to be one of the best Hepburn films, I think she deserved the Oscar that year, though she was up against some tough competition (Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca,” and Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle,” who won). It’s a very dignified comedy, and boasts great performances all around.

Holiday, 1938. Another one of my personal favorites. The story of a young spirited girl stifled by her society family, Hepburn is completely at ease in the role and it’s great fun to watch. Highly recommended.

In addition to the films I’ve profiled here, I would also recommend:

  • Little Women (1933)
  • Alice Adams (1935)
  • Woman of the Year (1942)
  • Adam’s Rib (1949)
  • The African Queen (1951)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Truthfully, I think you can’t go very wrong with Katharine Hepburn. With the exception of Spitfire (1934) and Dragon Seed (1942, where she plays a Chinese person. No, really), I don’t think she really made a completely bad film, even the “string of flops” that earned her the “box office poison” label in the late 1930’s are not so bad. 

To close, I leave you with an interview clip that truly shows how much respect she had in the industry. She was known for being assertive and for being a powerful woman, and it shows here. Watch the tech guys as they cave to her every demand. They are just putty in her hands. Katharine Hepburn was more than a legend, she is immortal. Happy birthday, Kate!