Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! I hope that 2022 saw good things for everyone, and a return to something of a normal life. Though we’re all still trying to keep COVID at bay, I was able to attend so many more events this year, and realized how much I had missed them.
Tonight, I’ll be doing one of those in-person events at the Niles Essanay Film Museum in the Niles district of Fremont, CA. We’ll be showing Zander the Great, a very exciting, genre-defying film from 1925 and Marion Davies’s first film to be made solely in California. It’s a film that is quite rarely seen–but thanks to some stellar preservation work in the past year and a DVD release from the great Ben Model at Undercrank Productions, we now have it publicly available.
I’ll be signing books afterward. The activities start at 7:30–seeing a movie at Niles really is the best deal in town, because for a measly $8, you get vintage cartoons, a movie with an intermission, and almost always an informative talk beforehand. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, come and join us.
Also, I wanted to tell you about Marion Davies as Star of the Month on TCM next month. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it work for me to come on and introduce the movies, but I’m doing a big giveaway of Captain of Her Soul next month to coincide with TCM’s Star of the Month programming! Here’s how to enter this week:
Let me know in the comments section what Marion Davies movie you’re looking forward to on TCM next month. It can be an old favorite, or one you’ve never seen. Just something you’d like to see, and I’ll enter you into the drawing! Here are the movies being shown in January:
January 3 (Marion Davies’s birthday, by the way)
THE BRIDE’S PLAY (1921)
BEAUTY’S WORTH (1922)
WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER (1922)
LITTLE OLD NEW YORK (1923)
BEVERLY OF GRAUSTARK (1926)
THE RED MILL (1927)
THE PATSY (1928)
SHOW PEOPLE (1928)
THE FLORODORA GIRL (1930)
NOT SO DUMB (1930)
HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 (1929)
THE BACHELOR FATHER (1931)
FIVE AND TEN (1931)
BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932)
POLLY OF THE CIRCUS (1932)
GOING HOLLYWOOD (1933)
OPERATOR 13 (1934)
PEG O’ MY HEART (1933)
PAGE MISS GLORY (1935)
HEARTS DIVIDED (1936)
CAIN AND MABEL (1936)
EVER SINCE EVE (1937)
There is only 1 book to give away, but I will do 4 weeks of different questions. If you answer the question every week for all 4 weeks, you get 4 entries. I’m conducting this giveaway here, and on my social media platforms.
Any questions? Just ask!
Thank you all for continuing to bear with me in these busy times with the book. I wish you all the happiest of new years, and more to come in 2023!
Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted on Backlots! I’ve been very busy with activities related to Captain of Her Soul, which is now out as of September 27. I wanted to share a few things I’ve been up to, and some upcoming events, so you might have some context as to why Backlots has been inactive for a while.
-Mrs. Dalloway’s and Larry Edmunds, two premier bookshops in Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA respectively, have had me in for presentations on Marion Davies. You can order signed copies of the books from them!
-I presented at the Annenberg Community Beach House on the book
-I traveled to Silver Spring, MD to present Show People and The Cardboard Lover at the AFI Silver
-The book was featured at the Mechanic’s Institute CinemaLit series in San Francisco, where I presented on Show People, The Red Mill, and even The Cat’s Meow, where we discussed what really happened to Thomas Ince.
-There have been lots of podcasts and virtual events that I have enjoyed immensely. Here is one, with Kendahl Cruhver of Watching Classic Films
Here are some upcoming events:
-Marion Davies will be the Star of the Month on TCM in January. Stay tuned here for some fun things I have planned!
-January 13: I’m going back to Washington, DC to present at Lost City Books.
January 19: Presentation at the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
-February 4-12: I will be presenting at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater for a Marion Davies retrospective. Check the calendar here.
-February 25-26: The Kansas Silent Film Festival! I will present on Marion Davies at the cinema dinner and introduce Little Old New York.
So there you see why I’ve been inactive here for so long! If you haven’t gotten the book yet, you can order from the links above, or here. It makes a great holiday gift.
I’ll be back with more updates soon. See you then!
Day 3 of the festival was predominantly a pre-Code day for me. Pre-Codes are famously popular at the TCM Festival, but they’re almost always screened in the smallest theaters. The question of why is a point of contention among attendees–some think the organizers simply haven’t learned the audience’s trends, and others think that it’s a strategic marketing decision. Whatever the reason is, seeing a pre-Code at the TCM Festival requires a great deal of planning. To that end, I decided to skip the first block of movies to get in line for Three on a Match at noon. I haven’t seen Three on a Match much since I saw it on the big screen nearly 10 years ago. A rather bizarre movie, in my opinion, and immensely disturbing, but a fascinating pre-Code. It tells the story of three school friends whose lives take them in unexpected directions, and without giving away too much of the plot, the title Three on a Match comes from an old saying: “Three on a match means one will die soon.” The three women as adults are played by Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and Joan Blondell, and the young Ann Dvorak is played by a child actress named Dawn O’Day, later known as Anne Shirley. The screening sold out completely, and enough people were turned away that the movie was shown again on Sunday afternoon in one of the TBA slots. This is a recurring theme at every TCM Festival, so it’s difficult for me to believe that there’s not some strategy behind this.
Following Three on a Match, I took the shuttle to the Hollywood Legion to get in line for Baby Face. The movie started at 3–I was in line at 1:45. It is, after all, a pre-Code. And is it ever.
Often hailed as the film that singlehandedly overhauled the Production Code, Baby Face is one of the movies that I tend to show people who are unfamiliar with classic film, or under the impression that old movies are prudish or misogynistic. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers lives in a saloon in Erie, PA with her father who sells her to customers for sex. When he dies in a gas explosion, she leaves her home with her best friend Chico (Theresa Harris) to start a new life in New York. She is unapologetic about using her body to rise to the top of the business world, regrets nothing, and faces the world with a cold, ruthless ambition.
Baby Face required extensive editing and reshoots to comply with the Code as it existed in 1933, and even after those extensive edits, it pushed the limit of what was acceptable to the censor boards. Following its release, the Production Code was strengthened to include more oversight so that a film like Baby Face wouldn’t be seen as long as the Code was in effect. The original, uncensored film was lost for decades, until it was finally unearthed several years ago and restored.
I’ve seen Baby Face more times than I can count, but I never miss it when it’s playing on TCM or at a theater nearby. Barbara Stanwyck is a personal favorite of mine in anything, but this role seemed written for her talents. Bruce Goldstein introduced the movie at the Hollywood Legion, and he presented a revelatory program that included notes from the production office on what was ordered to be changed. After the movie, he showed a 5 minute reel comparing the censored and uncensored versions, including an alternate ending that punished Lily Powers for her actions in compliance with the Code.
I got back in line after that, for another pre-Code called Counsellor at Law, the personal pick of Leonard Maltin, who was receiving the Robert Osborne Award beforehand. The presentation of the award was a wonderful and loving ceremony to one of the most respected critics of all time. Maltin accepted his award with a genuine, sincere speech delivered without the use of notes. After the ceremony, Maltin went right into his introduction of Counsellor at Law, a rarely seen pre-Code from 1932. It is an unusual movie, in which John Barrymore plays an emotionally unstable lawyer who swings between extreme highs and devastating lows. The plot, deceptively thin on the surface, is the gateway into a character’s disturbed mind. If the film were made today, there would inevitably be discussions of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, and mental health triggers in a high stress workplace. John Barrymore plays the character to perfection, showing on his face the character’s joy in one moment, utter despair in the next.
I had originally planned to go back to the room and go to bed after Counsellor at Law, but at the last minute I decided to join my friends for the evening show of Singin’ In the Rain at Grauman’s (officially TCL) Chinese Theatre. Singin’ In the Rain was one of the very first movies I ever saw on the big screen, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. I nearly wore out my VHS copy as a child, and learned who Calvin Coolidge was from Lina Lamont at the age of 7.
As many times as I’ve seen this movie, there are often new things that I notice. The character of Lina Lamont was originally written for the talents and persona of Judy Holliday (Betty Comden and Adolph Green were good friends and longtime collaborators), and I can see so much of her in Jean Hagen’s performance. I’ve written about how their careers operated in tandem with one another–in addition to the Singin’ in the Rain connection, Jean Hagen was the understudy in Born Yesterday on Broadway, and the two were in Adam’s Rib together. I can’t help but imagine what Lina Lamont would have been if Judy Holliday had played her.
This viewing, I honed in on the brilliant character development that takes place in the opening sequence. Through Dora Bailey’s radio broadcast, the audience learns the backstory of nearly every important character in the movie in the first 10 minutes. Kathy Selden, of course, enters later. When Don tries to seduce her in the car and she pushes him off yelling “Don’t you touch me!” everyone in the audience of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre applauded. A relevant moment indeed.
Day 2 of the TCM Classic Film Festival was one filled with laughter. From the first moment the schedule came out, I knew it would be–with The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie on the agenda, there is no other possible outcome. I started the day with The Sunshine Boys, a wonderful screening introduced by Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Richard Benjamin as a featured guest afterward. Richard Benjamin plays Walter Matthau’s nephew in the film, an talent agent who represents (and barely tolerates) his ex-vaudeville comic uncle. He tries to reunite his uncle with his old comedy partner, played by George Burns, but there’s one problem…they hate each other.
Randy Haberkamp indicated in his introduction that Richard Benjamin’s performance is often overlooked in favor of the two stars. I find that to be very easy on the small screen, but viewing a film on the big screen can make all the difference. Richard Benjamin’s performance lit up the screen, as did his charisma with Walter Matthau. In his interview afterward, Richard Benjamin discussed how close he came with Walter Matthau in real life, which was very touching to hear.
The George Burns role was originally supposed to go to Jack Benny. Jack, however, had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was too sick to take on the strain of a new film. To replace him, he recommended his longtime best friend George Burns, who had not been in films since 1939. Jack died in late 1974, and George played the role to perfection, earning an Academy Award for his performance and revitalizing his career. A beautiful end to one of show business’ great friendships.
A wonderful crowd showed up for Tootsie, which is always an exceptionally fun movie to see on the big screen. I have always adored Tootsie, finding it to be unexpectedly deep in its social commentary and the acting is superb. There is hardly a single line that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Elaine May was an uncredited screenwriter on the film, and I can hear her influence clearly throughout the script.
It was especially fun for me to watch Tootsie with my friend Sara, a Jessica Lange superfan who was seeing it on the big screen for the first time. Jessica Lange won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance, which is so beautifully nuanced. She conveys complex emotions so clearly in her face–in the scene where she tells Dorothy she can’t see her anymore, you feel her pain viscerally.
Following Tootsie, I had an appointment with my friend Priscilla. Months before the fest began, we had discussed getting together to watch The Jack Benny Show sometime during the festival. We’re both ardent fans of Jack and we had bonded over that over Twitter. So we met poolside at the Roosevelt and watched the Peter, Paul, and Mary episode, laughing until our sides hurt. We then proceeded to watch Jack Benny for a good hour and a half together, and Priscilla showed me this sketch, which sent us into even more hysterical fits of laughter:
While some people come to the festival for the movies, many of us consider these kinds of moments an integral part of the experience. There certainly isn’t anyone in my non-classic film life with whom I can watch Jack Benny for hours on end, and I’m grateful to the festival for providing a place where we can be ourselves with like-minded people. It’s hard to overstate how much this part of the festival means to me, and to all of us who often feel that our interests don’t align with our peers in everyday life.
After our Jack Benny marathon, I went to the Doris Day centennial celebration panel at Club TCM. It was a lovely and loving discussion with several of Doris Day’s friends, discussing their personal histories with Doris Day and what she was like offscreen. In my view, Doris Day is one of the most misinterpreted personalities of classic Hollywood. When people think of her, they often think of a virginal girl-next-door, representative of a wholesome mirage of 1950s culture. In contrast, the real Doris Day was a passionate and vibrant woman who devoted her life to the wellbeing of animals. She had a frequently difficult life, surviving an abusive marriage, the death of a child, and a second husband who squandered all her earnings. In regard to her music, people know “Que Sera Sera” and other light songs (though I could write a treatise on why “Que Sera Sera” is not at all the light song it seems), but her career with Les Brown in the early 1940s established her as one of the top female vocalists of her era, a fact that is often overlooked when we remember Doris Day today. Her friends on the panel described a down-to-earth, loving, and generous woman who lived for animals and adored her fans. It was a moving and gentle tribute.
The next movie on the agenda was The Gay Divorcee, the first star pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie also features a 17-year-old Betty Grable, who performs a delightful number called “Let’s K-nock K-nees” with Edward Everett Horton, which nearly steals the film out from under Fred and Ginger. It’s been stuck in my head for a full day and I don’t have any particular interest in getting it out.
As I mentioned in a previous post, watching Fred and Ginger on the big screen is one of life’s great treats. One of the interstitials playing before movies throughout the festival this year is a clip of Fred Astaire preparing to jump on a couch in a scene from The Gay Divorcee. It fascinates me, and over the course of the festival I’ve been watching it closely to see what it is that he’s doing that I find so interesting. I think it’s the combination of grace and intense strength, especially in his upper body, a seemingly incongruous combination that Fred has in perfect proportion.
While watching The Gay Divorcee, I paid special attention to how Fred and Ginger moved, together and separately. One thing I noticed is that both “Night and Day” and “The Continental” are danced on a floor with white lines running down it. When Fred and Ginger dance together, their feet never land on lines. They dance over them, jump over them, but their dance routines are orchestrated around those lines and it’s a beautiful detail to watch.
I’ll be back tomorrow with more details from day 3!
“This California dew is a little heavier than usual tonight,” as Debbie Reynolds said in Singin’ in the Rain, and she might have been talking about this evening in Hollywood, where an unexpected downpour punctuates a full first festival day.
The fun kicked off this afternoon with “So You Think You Know Movies?” Bruce Goldstein’s exceptionally difficult TCM trivia game hosted in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It was a crowded and excited audience, filled with many veteran festival attendees. I ran into my friend Karen Hannsberry of The Dark Pages, and we formed a trivia team that consisted of several very knowledgeable people. Thanks to some great deduction skills on the part of Stephan Reginald in particular…we won the game! It was the first time I’ve ever come close to winning “So You Think You Know Movies?” We each received a nice TCM tote bag with a book, a DVD, and some magnets, and the thrill of having succeeded in some of the hardest movie trivia there is.
Following the trivia, several friends and I went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. Passover is still observed until Saturday evening and I’ve had a bit of a hard time finding good food options. Fortunately, California Pizza Kitchen had a few Passover-friendly options and my friends and I had a delicious meal as we caught up after many long years apart. It is an interesting phenomenon to be back at a festival like this, after 3 years where we’ve lacked mass socialization. I am very conscious of being “out of practice” with socializing, and it’s a strange feeling to want to talk to people without really being sure of what to say. I’ve expressed this to some of my friends, who admit to the same feelings. I’m glad I’m not alone.
My friends from dinner were all going to Jewel Robbery, so we got in line together and sat together in Multiplex 4. The introduction was by Cari Beauchamp, always one of the most popular presenters of the festival. She gave a detailed and engaging talk about the pre-Code era, and its implications for portrayals of women and their sexual freedom. At several points during the introduction, audience members clapped and cheered for her statements about women’s rights, and reacted with enthusiastic laughter at some of the letters from the Hays Office. It was a marvelous introduction fit for an audience that knows movies. A friend who was sitting near me remarked: “Every presenter at the festival should learn from Cari Beauchamp. Her introductions should be the high standard everyone tries to reach.”
The movie itself is pure joy. It tells the story of a woman who falls for a jewel thief after witnessing a robbery, and it is full of double entendre, innuendo, and all the glorious dialogue we expect from pre-Codes. In addition, there are several scenes featuring “drugged cigarettes,” clearly marijuana. In true pre-Code fashion, it’s not at all discreet–characters who smoke these cigarettes are seen laughing at nothing, on a ridiculous high that William Powell says will culminate in “a good appetite.” Something not able to be seen just a few years later, and rare even for this time period.
Afterward, I went up to the Hollywood Legion, a beautiful 1940s theater that was renovated in time for the 2019 TCM Festival. I saw Indiscreet there in 2019, and marveled at the uniqueness of this venue that radiates the 1940s. This evening, I saw A Star is Born, the original 1937 version of the story. I wondered what I would notice when I watched it on the big screen, and I found that my eyes were particularly drawn to the color blue. The 1937 A Star is Born is an early example of the 3-strip Technicolor process. Prior to the development of 3-strip technology, the 2-strip Technicolor process had a pastel quality to it, with limitations for blues and reds. Blues appeared green, reds appeared pink. In A Star is Born, we see a scene next to a sparkling clear blue swimming pool, one of the early times an audience could see a color like that on the screen. A dark blue umbrella and the dark blues of Janet Gaynor’s outfit accentuate the brightness of the pool. Putting myself in the place of a 1930s audience member, I can only begin to imagine what a thrill it must have been to see that brilliant color onscreen.
Now I’m back in the room, ready to prepare for another big festival day tomorrow. See you then!
This where the classic movie faithful converge. The greatest part of the weekend, for me, is reuniting with like-minded people, who speak the same classic movie “language.” Today I realized that this is my tenth festival, and each year I envy the people experiencing it for the first time. In prior years, I have discussed the unrivaled TCM audiences and the special experience of seeing a film here. One of my favorite stories is from several years ago, when Illeana Douglas was introducing Double Wedding and asked if anyone knew how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together. The answer boomed through the Egyptian Theatre, as the entire audience gleefully shouted “FOURTEEN!!!” This kind of enthusiasm is rare, and found in every theater of the TCM Festival. When you’ve experienced it, its absence is palpable anywhere else you go.
The official festival starts tomorrow, Thursday, but I arrived today to attend the media mixer in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The site of the first Academy Awards in 1929, the Blossom Room serves as the meeting place for panels and discussions during the TCM Classic Film Festival, a venue known as “Club TCM.”
The media mixer was an opportunity to hear from the five TCM hosts–Eddie Muller, Jacqueline Stewart, Alicia Malone, Dave Karger, and Ben Mankiewicz–on what they were most excited about for the festival, and to hear a special announcement that was teased to media last night.
The hosts all expressed an appreciation for the fans and an excitement for being back in person for the first time since 2019. Eddie Muller singled out the Doris Day centennial celebration as something he was looking forward to, and Jacqueline Stewart said she might “faint at the sight of Pam Grier” when she interviews her before the screening of Coffy on Sunday. Pam Grier is a special focus of the festival this year. The special announcement teased to the media was revealed at the end of the mixer–the fourth season of TCM’s podcast, “The Plot Thickens,” will focus on Grier.
Dave Karger is particularly invested in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, because Topher Grace is a family friend and Karger knows how special the movie is to him. Alicia Malone wishes she could see the pre-Codes, but she is going to make it a point to see Queen Bee, because it’s “Joan Crawford at her Joan Crawfordest,” in her words. Ben Mankiewicz said that the adrenaline rush of the festival immediately came back to him, a sentiment that many of us feel at this moment.
As with previous festivals, I will be enabling livetweets on the blog so that you may follow along with my activities in real time. Here is a rundown of my plans for the first two days:
FESTIVAL SCHEDULE PART I
Trivia with Bruce Goldstein: “So You Think You Know Movies?”
Jewel Robbery (1932)
A Star is Born (1937)
Bruce Goldstein is a mainstay at the TCM Festival, and his trivia show is one of the highlights of the festival for many people. Ruthlessly difficult and loaded with jokes and fun facts, it’s a great deal of fun that I never miss.
TCM did an interesting thing putting Jewel Robbery opposite E.T., the opening night film. On its own, Jewel Robbery would sell out in an instant. Pre-Codes are notorious sellouts at the festival, and Jewel Robbery stars Kay Francis and William Powell, some of the most popular of the stars for festivalgoers. In addition, the intro is by Cari Beauchamp, who gives some of the most popular introductions of the festival. But by scheduling it opposite the opening night movie, the festival organizers essentially increase the value of the film for the high level passholders–the theater will be filled with Classic passes, but only the most diehard Essential and Spotlight passholders will choose to go. It’s an interesting supply and demand issue, tackled TCM-style.
After Jewel Robbery, I will hurry up the hill to the Hollywood Legion Theatre to see A Star is Born. There have now been four iterations of the story (five if you count the inspirational material, What Price, Hollywood?), but the 1937 version holds a special place in my heart. To me, it’s the most tender and gentle. The 1954 version is big and glamorous, perfect for 1950s audiences and for Judy Garland’s enormous talent. But Janet Gaynor and Fredric March have a softness to them, and the early 3-strip Technicolor adds a meditative beauty that doesn’t exist in subsequent versions of the story.
The Sunshine Boys (1975)
Queen Bee (1955)
TCM Celebrates Doris Day
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
This is a day where I plan to laugh a great deal. The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie are both films where just about every line is funny–The Sunshine Boys embodies a rapid-fire, vaudevillian style, and Tootsie is intellectual and sharp. I do think Joan Crawford is at her Joan Crawfordest in Queen Bee, and I think it will be particularly fun to watch it with the festival crowd.
TCM Celebrates Doris Day will be a panel discussion in Club TCM featuring several of Doris Day’s personal friends and representatives from the organizations she founded, the Doris Day Animal League and the Doris Day Animal Foundation. It is sure to be a full house. Though Doris Day’s public image was as a wholesome, all-American girl next door, in reality she was a trailblazing woman who led a passionate, vibrant life devoted to improving the wellbeing of animals. She is a particular favorite among many TCM fans, and I’m very much looking forward to this talk.
I was talking to a friend the other day about movies that are simply meant for the big screen. A few years ago when I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the TCM Festival, I was blown away and moved to tears. Those bright colors, those beautiful faces. It was as though I had been watching a different movie every time I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at home, and I wondered how I could ever see it the same way again. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the big screen is a similar experience. There is a reason that audiences were transfixed by them during the Depression. The viewer is transported and taken into their world as they dance. For that reason, The Gay Divorcee is a must-see for me–especially during these difficult times with COVID and war raging, everyone deserves to be taken out of this cruel world and into Fred and Ginger’s. If only for that one moment.
Next month, for the first time since 2019, Hollywood Boulevard will once again be filled with classic film fans attending the TCM Classic Film Festival. The event is now less than a month away, and announcements from festival organizers are coming fast. My friend Aurora at Once Upon a Screen predicts an official, full schedule tomorrow. It is always an exciting time for festivalgoers, but this year is particularly special. Many of us haven’t seen each other since the last in-person festival, and for niche communities like this one, the separation from kindred spirits can be agonizing.
There are many approaches to the TCM Classic Film Festival–some take the opportunity to see films new to them, others take comfort in old favorites. I tend to fall into the latter camp. Indeed, when I heard that A League of Their Own had been added to the festival lineup, I nearly fell off my chair with excitement.
There has been much debate in recent years about what makes a classic, and according to some philosophies, a film from 1992 is categorically too late to count. But A League of Their Own has been a part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember, and if there ever were a film from this late in movie history to merit the “classic” label, this is it. Set against the backdrop of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, it tells the story of two sisters who join the league, and the effect it has on their relationship and the unity of their teams. It has become a much-loved and oft-quoted cult film for a generation of girls, and I fell under its spell at a young age. So much, in fact, that it singlehandedly inspired me to sign up to play baseball on a girls team (I quickly discovered that I was not cut out to be a Rockford Peach).
In attendance will be several stars of the film, including Lori Petty and Megan Cavanagh (Kit Keller and Marla Hooch, respectively), but the absence of director Penny Marshall, who died in 2018, will surely leave a gaping hole in the event. Due to the large contingent of millennial women who attend the festival, and who grew up with A League of Their Own as a beloved comfort film, I expect this to be one of the more popular screenings of the festival.
Some more festival news–I have a very welcome update from the previous post on Backlots, in which I mused about Drew Barrymore not being at the opening night screening of E.T. It has now been announced that she will indeed be there, as will Henry Thomas. Reflecting on E.T., I am struck by the phenomenal strength of the child actors. Both Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas give powerhouse performances as the children who bond with an extraterrestrial, with a pathos and emotional maturity far beyond their age. Henry Thomas’ audition is a marvel to watch–he noted later that as he played this scene, he was thinking about his dog who had recently died.
The opening night screening is open to Essential and Spotlight passholders, and attendees will walk the red carpet into Grauman’s Chinese Theater to see the film. It is a fantastic and memorable event for those who have come to the festival for a dream Hollywood experience.
The wonderful Lily Tomlin will also put her hand- and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a long overdue honor. This ceremony has come to be a TCM Classic Film Festival tradition, and Tomlin joins her 9 to 5 co-star Jane Fonda in being honored with a handprint ceremony by TCM. It is always an extremely popular event, with passholders lining up hours in advance to see it.
For a full schedule of announced movies and events, you can check out the TCM Classic Film Festival website here. If you are planning on attending the festival, passes are selling out fast. Click here for the latest availability, and remember that there are multiple great ways to attend the festival–with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets.
The TCM Classic Film Festival is less than 3 months away, and per the annual ritual, fans have been speculating about the opening night film. Opening night is a fancy affair, complete with a red carpet for passholders and VIP guests, followed by a film and a gala party. Reserved for the highest level passholders, opening night is an opportunity for festival guests to mingle with the Hollywood elite.
Historically, the film is an anniversary restoration. Because of the emphasis on VIP festival guests, it is also a film which has stars still living. Due to the ever-dwindling pool of representatives from classic Hollywood, it was probable that the opening night film would be from the past 50 years, and guesses ranged from The Godfather to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?.
Speculation about the opening night film was put to rest last week, when the festival announced that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) would open the festival. In attendance will be director Steven Spielberg alongside producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
To this day, E.T. is one of the few movies that consistently make me cry. At the end, when E.T. touches Elliot’s head and says “I’ll be right here,” my eyes fill with tears. As a story, it is interesting to note that it essentially has the same plot as The Wizard of Oz and closely follows Joseph Campbell’s mythic structure of the hero’s journey. It rarely gets the credit it deserves for its adventurous yet familiar, fairy tale-like storyline.
E.T. is a slight diversion from the normal TCMFF opening night films. In the past, the anniversary restoration has traditionally been a musical from the golden age of Hollywood. This trend was broken in 2019 with When Harry Met Sally, the last time the TCMFF was held in person. The choice of E.T. immediately following When Harry Met Sally speaks to a shifting festival atmosphere, one that is sure to ruffle some feathers. Debate rages in the classic film community over what constitutes a classic, but TCM has historically taken a flexible approach to the question, playing films on the channel up through the 2010s. Most amateur analyses show that the festival still focuses on the golden age of Hollywood, but there is a great deal of fear for its future as TCM has been engulfed in corporate acquisitions of Turner.
As far as the guests go, notably absent (at least as of this writing) is the phenomenal Drew Barrymore. At 7 years old, her gifts are far beyond her years and she gives one of the most heartfelt performances in the film. Festival passholders would, of course, be thrilled to see her not only as an actor from E.T., but also as the granddaughter of John Barrymore.
The opening night film is reserved for Spotlight and Essential passholders, which the festival website tells me are currently sold out. However, plans change, and there is a very dynamic waitlist. If you’d like to be added, you can find more information here: https://festival.tcm.com/tcm/.
Passes for the TCM Classic Film Festival go on sale to the general public today, and I have been happy to see that so many of my friends will be returning to Hollywood this year. After two of virtual festivals, the excitement of seeing our festival friends in April is palpable.
Since its inception in 2010, the TCM Classic Film Festival has been the crown jewel of classic film festivals––a five-day, multi-venue event where the community is as important as the movies. Affectionately known as the “TCMFF” by attendees, its audience is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. Once, before a showing of Double Wedding, presenter Illiana Douglas asked a trivia question: “Does anybody know how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together?” The answer, immediate and enthusiastic, rang through the theater. “FOURTEEN!” shouted the entire audience together. It is a place for people with this level of enthusiasm to connect with each other and the movies they love.
Putting on a festival of this magnitude is a staggeringly expensive effort. Theater rentals, appearance and licensing fees, security, and transportation all contribute to a huge financial expenditure on the part of TCM. That cost is passed on to attendees in the price of festival passes, which has long been a sticking point for devoted fans who want to come, but have to choose between paying for a pass and paying the rent. Many fans who attend save all year for the experience, and this year prices have increased upward of 18%. The prohibitive price of the festival has been a touchy subject, and it is something I have definite opinions about, but I would like to put that discussion aside for the moment and focus on the passes that many fans are purchasing today.
In the interest of helping people get the most out of the festival as they consider a pass (or attending without a pass, an option I will address later), I thought I would do a rundown of pass levels and what they get you. Some people believe that Spotlight is the only way to get the “full” festival experience, and thus decide not to go if they can’t spend that much money. This is not the case. You can have a wonderful and fulfilling experience without the top level pass, and you should not let the price of the Spotlight pass deter you from the festival.
These are observations that I have gleaned from my eight years attending the TCMFF, and if anyone reading has advice to add, please feel free to comment below!
I will start from the lowest pass level and work my way up.
THE PALACE PASS
The Palace Pass, going for $349, is a great budget option for people looking to experience Los Angeles while in town for the festival. It gives you access to festival venues starting Friday, April 22, but it doesn’t give you access to any of the parties, the Chinese Multiplex or Club TCM (which hosts panel discussions and interviews). For people who have come into town specifically for the festival, restricted access might be a dealbreaker, but for casual festivalgoers who would like to go on day trips to explore the city while in town, and avoid being in a dark theater all day, this might be just the pass for you.
I have met many Palace Pass holders in line, and a few of them hadn’t read about the pass before they purchased it––but of those that had, and had made the informed decision to experience the festival this way, they are almost universally very satisfied with it.
THE CLASSIC PASS
The Classic Pass, going for $849 this year, gives you access to all festival venues, Thursday through Sunday. The only thing it doesn’t give you is access to the Opening Night Movie and Opening Night Party––everything else you can access. The difficult thing about the timing of pass sales is that the opening night movie has not been announced yet. This leaves fans gambling on whether or not the opening night movie will be worth the extra cost of a higher level pass. But there are other movies on opening night as well––and with a Classic Pass, you are guaranteed a movie to see on Thursday night.
Personally, I am a huge fan of the Classic Pass and recommend it to anyone looking for my suggestion. To my mind, it’s the best deal of the festival––and even though it’s still expensive by any standard, you get the core of the festival––all the movies except opening night, and everything at Club TCM.
THE ESSENTIAL PASS
Going for $1,099 this year, this is the perfect pass for those who were thinking of going the Classic route, but know they want to see the opening night movie. To justify the extra expense, there are a few ways to figure out what the opening night movie might be––it is usually an anniversary restoration of a classic musical, so that leaves the likely years of 1942, 1952, 1962, 1972, or 1982 (TCM usually doesn’t go beyond the 1980s for opening night movies). If there’s a movie from any of those years that you know will be getting a restoration, and you desperately want to see it, the Essential Pass might be worth your gamble for that alone. The Essential Pass also gets you a gift bag of TCM collectibles, which in past years has included mugs, journals, and collectible programs.
For festivalgoers trying to decide between the Essential and Spotlight Pass, keep in mind that the Essential Pass doesn’t give you priority entry the way the Spotlight Pass does. You’ll be waiting in the general line alongside the Classic and Palace Pass-level attendees. If priority entry and seating is important to you, you might want to consider going up to the top level.
THE SPOTLIGHT PASS
The highest level pass is the Spotlight Pass, which for $2,549 gives you access to everything the festival has to offer. You will attend the opening night movie and go to the party afterward, also attended by VIPs and TCM hosts. People holding the Spotlight Pass get priority entry into all screenings, and opportunities to socialize with the festival’s special guests. In prior years, Spotlight holders also got breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel, though I’m not sure if that will be happening again this year.
The Spotlight Pass is a good choice for people who want to experience the TCMFF in “first class.” Some Spotlight passholders I’ve talked to see the festival as a kind of vacation––the same way people might look at a luxury all-inclusive package. But I know many diehard fans who buy a Spotlight Pass every year, and see it as a unique opportunity to meet their favorite stars and talk to TCM hosts. The Spotlight Pass is really what you make it.
There is also an option that doesn’t require a pass, the STANDBY alternative. Let’s take the photo above as an example: if you know that you want to see My Darling Clementine on Friday at 9:30, you would go early and get in a standby line. Passholders go to a separate section––Spotlight and VIPs in one line, Classic, Essential, and members of the press in another––and they are let in first. If the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, the theater opens to standby attendees, and you purchase your individual ticket for $20.
I know a few people who are doing standby this year, due to the significant increase in pass prices. It is rare that a screening completely fills up, but for very popular films and those in small theaters, you might face a bit of a letdown. But truthfully, sometimes Classic and Essential passholders face the same letdown when demand exceeds expectation, and in that case, the film in question is often shown again. Just like a regular passholder, you can try again when the film is re-screened.
Since 2013, I have attended as a member of the media, which essentially provides the same benefits as a Classic Pass. I did purchase an actual Classic Pass in 2012 when Backlots was in its infancy, and I was very pleased with it. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything––I had little interest in the parties and had other movies on opening night that I wanted to see. But my preferences are not everyone’s, so I hope this guide has been helpful as you consider a pass, or going without one, today.
In the spirit of carpe diem, I have just returned from a trip to Paris to attend the three-day opening of the Olivia de Havilland Theater. It was a trip that I hoped would happen since I learned about the event earlier this year, and by the time it came around, the circumstances were such––COVID-wise and otherwise––that I could go. It was a wonderful event, and I would like to share my experiences with you. This is a version of a blog post that will also appear on a Parisian site in the near future, and when it is posted, I will link it here.
The Olivia de Havilland Theater is the centerpiece of the Monttessuy Center for the Arts at 9 Rue de Monttessuy, the new artistic home for the American University of Paris (AUP). Located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris near the Eiffel Tower, not far from the university’s main campus, the center will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay.
In the late 1970s, the building that now houses the Monttessuy Center for the Arts was the art history building, so designated due to its high ceilings that could accommodate the slide projectors of the day. Art history classes later moved to Rue Bosquet, where they stayed for twenty years, but when AUP sold that building, the art department was left without a home. Classes and offices were scattered around campus, and there was no central location for art students to meet. But in 2014, a series of renovations grouped those classrooms and offices together again, and interest in the arts surged at AUP. Over the past five years, the arts department has grown 270%. This led the university to renovate 9 Rue de Monttessuy and recreate it as the hub of AUP artistic life.
The plans included the Olivia de Havilland Theater, the first at the university, with the idea that it would host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes. Olivia had always loved school, was a high-achieving student, and thrived in academic environments. But as a teenager, she went through a period of intense struggle. At the age of 16, her stepfather, having learned that she was in a play without his permission, gave her an ultimatum––give up the play, or leave the house forever. Olivia left the house.
This was the beginning of a very dark period for her, and her grades began to slip until she was failing classes. It was her teachers, she remembered, who brought her out of a severe depression and give her life meaning again. With the help of those teachers, she bounced back to the top of her class, graduating second at Los Gatos High School. From then on, she felt a duty to give back to the education system that helped save her. She never forgot her teachers, sending them Christmas cards every year until they had all passed away.
She moved to Paris in 1953 and her son, Benjamin, eventually enrolled at AUP. Olivia saw a way to actively repay the debt she felt she owed, to help students the way her teachers had helped her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s, she became the first female trustee at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.
It was a historic time for Paris, for students, and for the world. Olivia watched the unfolding student unrest from her position as trustee, violence that culminated in the 1968 student revolts in Paris and those at Kent State in 1970. Viewing her position as one of student liaison to the university, she listened directly to student concerns and put students at the forefront of her work on the board. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was happening in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she gave them an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.
In recent years, AUP served as a way for Olivia to remember her son Benjamin, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in 1991. She welcomed countless AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, and remained the university’s unfailing champion. In 1994, Olivia was awarded an honorary degree from AUP. In 2015, she was awarded the AUP Presidential Medal of Distinguished Achievement.
Olivia de Havilland died in July 2020 at the age of 104. To celebrate the extraordinary place she held at the university, AUP began plans for a theater in her honor. It has now reached completion and is ready to welcome students.
Three days of festivities led to the formal dedication of the theater and the ribbon cutting for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts. On October 20, donors, friends, and university trustees attended a screening of To Each His Own, the film that brought Olivia her first Oscar win. Professor Marie Regan introduced the film, calling attention to Olivia’s extraordinary use of her voice to communicate changes in character. The following night, Olivia’s son-in-law Andy Chulack introduced The Heiress, Olivia’s second Oscar-winning role. Chulack, an award-winning television editor, spoke of how well the film was edited and his favorite scene, when Olivia’s character reacts with fury to her father––perhaps reflecting Olivia’s own feelings, Chulack said, when her stepfather abandoned her as a teenager.
At noon on October 22, Ambassador Amy Bondurant moderated a panel with some of Olivia de Havilland’s closest friends and family members, who reflected on their fond and often hilariously funny memories with her. Audience members and panelists opened miniature bottles of champagne together, honoring Olivia’s famous love of champagne. It ended with an enthusiastic imitation of her distinctive laugh, led by Olivia de Havilland’s niece Deborah Dozier Potter.
The formal ribbon cutting occurred that evening. The audience heard remarks from professor Jonathan Shimony, Mayor Rachida Dati, Consul General Colombia Barrosse, university president Celeste Schenck and chair of the board of trustees Doris Daughney, who spoke on the importance of the work AUP is doing for its students and the world, and how this new artistic center will further the development of students’ humanity, the core of AUP’s mission. To most, Olivia de Havilland is known as a film star. Few are aware of her devotion to education, and to AUP in particular. As the Monttessuy Center for the Arts opens, with her theater at the center, Olivia de Havilland’s name will be synonymous with educational excellence, her debt to her teachers repaid with each student who walks through its doors.
Backlots is devoted to honoring and celebrating all aspects of classic film and is written by Lara Gabrielle, a California-based classic film writer and historian. Lara is the author of CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: The Life of Marion Davies (UC Press, 2022).
Here you will find pieces on frequently seen classics and some lesser-known gems, as well as book reviews, festival coverage, and pieces on the history, theory and culture of film as it relates to the study of classic cinema.
Enjoy the site, and thanks for reading!
AFFILIATIONS & AWARDS
2019 CMBA Award for Best Profile of Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker--"The Activism of Myrna Loy"
Winner of the 2018 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series, BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX
Winner of the 2014 CiMBA Award for Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker: A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER 96TH BIRTHDAY
Winner of the 2011 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, THE FINAL SCENE OF THE HEIRESS
I am honored to be a judge of the Animal Film Festival in Grass Valley, CA.
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Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver."