Category Archives: Lara Gabrielle Fowler

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) on Women in Political Life

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Last night, I was pleased to see that KQED, my local PBS affiliate, was showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for their weekly Saturday night movie program. I have always loved this film, and deeply respect the emotional integrity and intelligence it brings to the screen.

It’s hard to imagine that at one time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was very subversive and controversial. Today, its message of resilience is so universal that any overt political message is overshadowed to the modern eye. But when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered at the National Press Club in Washington, many senators were present and a large group of them walked out, offended at the governmental corruption the film depicted. Joseph P. Kennedy tried to prevent the film’s release in Europe, as he felt it would encourage the Axis powers. At the time of the film’s release, government had not yet acquired the reputation of corruption that we now take so for granted. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington changed that to a large extent.

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The film’s influence on the decline of the studio system is well-documented. United States v. Paramount Pictures et al struck down the studios’ practice of block booking (wherein a theater had to purchase 5 films to show 1), because so many theaters opposed to purchasing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its foreshadowing of the McCarthy era, and the political control of media outlets and the information they disseminate to the public, has, deservedly, been analyzed many times. This is part of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s lasting legacy. What I want to talk about is something that is not often discussed–the complex and subtle commentaries on women in politics that exist within the film.

In the Roosevelt era, women were just beginning to gain a foothold in American political life. The film’s references to “96 men” when referring to the makeup of the Senate (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states), is not an accurate picture of the Senate in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was conceived in an election year where a number of high profile races were taking place, one of which was an Arkansas race between Republican C.D. Atkinson and Democrat Hattie Caraway. Caraway, the incumbent, had been the first woman ever elected to the Senate. Much like the fictional Jefferson Smith, she had been appointed to the Senate (following her husband’s death), then was reelected in her own right the next year. In spite of tough opposition in 1938, she won another reelection with a landslide 89.6% victory over Atkinson.

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Senator Hattie Caraway in her office.

Senator Caraway’s presence is ignored in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps for several reasons. While the movie was filmed in early 1939 after Caraway’s victory, the script was written prior to the election. The screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly, likely did not want to predict the outcome. And even after her victory, pointing out a woman in the Senate may have felt too political, regardless of the fact that Caraway was indeed in the Senate. Or, perhaps, they were trying to create a completely unrecognizable governmental body.

Whatever the reason for leaving Senator Caraway out of the picture, a true female political force is indeed revealed in the movie, through the character of Saunders, played to perfection by Jean Arthur.

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Saunders, whose first name we learn is Clarissa, is Jefferson Smith’s fast-talking legal secretary. She is a bit cynical and jaded, a true Washington insider, but maintains a sense of humor. Whip-smart and experienced, she scoffs at the newbie Jefferson Smith, who has been appointed from some unnamed western state when the previous senator died, and she lectures him on congressional procedure when he gets too optimistic about his bill to open a boys camp at Willet Creek. Saunders is respected by men, and is considered their equal. At one point, Smith pries her first name out of her and he lets it sit for a moment, repeats it, then goes back to calling her Saunders. When he mounts his famous filibuster against the Willet Creek Dam Project at the end, she coaches him from the gallery, walking him through the entire process. She is smarter than anyone else in the room, and more strategic. It is clear that in a just world, she would have been the one named replacement senator.

In Jean Arthur’s gutsy characterization of Saunders, we see a strong, intelligent woman whose gender relegates her to work as a political secretary rather than a politician, and who directs a marathon filibuster from the balcony to which she is relegated as a bystander. The characterization can be read not only as a commentary on the general situation of women in the United States, but also as a call for women to be accepted as full and participating members of public life.

The film ends ambiguously, with Jefferson Smith taken out of the Senate chamber after fainting, and the corrupt Senator Paine confessing to his crimes. I like to think that perhaps following this ambiguous ending, for Saunders too, there is a political future.

This last midterm election, the United States elected a congressional body with the highest percentage of women in history. Somewhere, Hattie Caraway is cheering, and Saunders is finally no longer on the sidelines.

 

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STRONG AND TENDER: The Story of Carole Lombard and Bess Peters

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When Carole Lombard received an Oscar nomination for My Man Godfrey, she was asked where her talent for screwball comedy came from. On the surface, Carole’s own early life had been much like the one her character Irene Bullock lived. She was likely expected to answer that the role came naturally to her because of her youth. But instead she replied with a surprising answer–the character of Irene Bullock, she felt, had a sense of tragedy about her. She never specified what that tragedy was that she saw in Irene Bullock, in much the same way that Carole rarely spoke about the complexities of her childhood experiences in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Those childhood experiences, the good and the bad, served as the underlying inspiration for her portrayal of Irene Bullock and also formed the foundation of her bond with her mother, Bess Peters.

This past weekend, I attended Kimberly Truhler’s pre-code Style and Sin lecture at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. These presentations are extremely popular, drawing crowds from the classic film world and the style world alike, as Kimberly delivers talks on the fashion of pre-code Hollywood and how it has influenced the styles of today. This past weekend focused on the fashion and films of Carole Lombard, with a double feature following of Virtue and Twentieth Century. I knew that I couldn’t miss it, so I came down to Los Angeles for the event.

As Kimberly spoke about Carole Lombard’s childhood, it dawned on me that very little has been written about the strong bond that existed between Carole Lombard and her mother. It was a bond that grew out of a hardship barely visible to outsiders, but that marked Carole in ways that she rarely let show.

Bess Peters gave birth to her daughter, born Jane Alice Peters, in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 6, 1908. She was the third and youngest child of Bess and her husband, Frederic “Fred” Peters, whose family had become wealthy selling hardware. Bess was from a prominent Fort Wayne family herself, with old money that merged with Fred’s new to provide a very comfortable home for Jane and her two older brothers, Frederick Jr. and Stuart. The three grew up climbing trees and playing sports, with Jane right alongside her older brothers and showing great promise as an athlete.

The elder Frederic Peters had suffered an elevator accident before he married Bess, and it left him with a permanent leg injury and horrendous headaches that affected him so much that his moods changed and he turned violent. While it is not known what happened inside the home, the family was terrified of his headaches. It is thought that Fred was abusive to Bess, and the children witnessed it. “Contrary to the general notion,” Carole said in an interview with Sonia Lee in 1934, “I haven’t had an easy time. I had a horrible childhood because my parents were dreadfully unhappy in their marriage. It left scars on my mind and on my heart.”

Eventually, Bess left with the children. Their trip to California in October of 1915 was discussed in the Fort Wayne press as an extended holiday that included the whole family, but Fred Peters ultimately stayed in Indiana. Carole said in 1932 that her mother needed the rest. They planned to stay in Los Angeles for 6 months, but they found that with the combination of the favorable climate and Fred’s headaches back in Indiana getting worse and worse, they seemed destined to stay.

Jane thrived in California, her tomboyish energy and skill in sports earning her the respect of the neighborhood boys. Her tree-climbing and fence-scaling ruined her clothes, but Bess never discouraged her from it. In a Screenland profile, Bess’ parenting style was described as “100 years ahead of her time.” She cheered her daughter on in anything she tried, and encouraged her to find her own path, wherever that might lead her. Bess’ children were the only connections she had in California, and she needed them as much as they needed her.

Jane was particularly close to her mother, and that closeness remained all their lives. Even when Jane grew up and became Carole Lombard, she clung to Bess and missed her terribly when they weren’t together. When she was with friends, Carole would often think of her mother out of the blue. “That Bessie,” she would announce, “Is she terrific! Do you adore her? Let’s call her up.” And she would telephone her mother, including all her friends in the call. Carole and Bess saw each other nearly every day. Adela Rogers St. Johns noted that theirs was an unusually close bond, even as far as mothers and daughters went.

After Bess and the children left Fort Wayne, Carole rarely if ever saw her father again. Her parents had gone through what Carole referred to as a “Victorian divorce,” never officially divorcing but never again considering themselves husband and wife. She regarded herself as Bess Peters’ child and never thought much about her father. When he died in 1935, she did not attend the funeral.

Bess was an unusual woman, exceedingly tolerant and non-judgmental of her daughter or anyone. Her family had been a bit aristocratic and stuffy, while she was always sophisticated and adventurous. She was proud of Carole’s career and what she had done for herself, having once been an aspiring actress herself. She watched her daughter rise to comedic excellence and international fame, watched her receive an Oscar nomination and become one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood–not only for her work, but also for her vivacious and loving personality. “She is satisfied with the sincere friendship and love that her children offer her,” wrote Screenland magazine about Bess, “and she refuses to block with advice, tears or commands any course they wish to follow.”

Bess Peters with Carole and Clark Gable at their wedding, 1939.

When the United States became involved in World War II, Carole immediately wanted to help. For most film stars, the way to help with the war effort was to entertain the troops and raise money, by traveling to bond rallies in various American cities. Being a native daughter of Indiana, the natural place for Carole to go was Indianapolis, and there she went in mid-January of 1942, raising over $1 million in bonds during her time there. Bess was there with her, lending her daughter support and cheering her on as always.

To get back to Los Angeles on January 16, 1942, Carole and Bess boarded TWA Flight 3 which would leave from Indianapolis and refuel in Nevada before heading to its final destination. The details of what happened that night are well known. If you are curious, I would recommend reading Robert Matzen’s excellent book Fireball, but what is relevant here is that due to blackouts and severe lack of visibility, TWA Flight 33 crashed violently into Mount Potosi in the Sierra Nevadas, killing everyone onboard. The crash site where Carole and Bess died together is now a de facto cemetery, virtually untouched since the night of the crash 77 years ago.

In her memorial of Carole Lombard, Adela Rogers St. Johns  wrote of the “strong and tender” Carole, remarking on her close relationship with Bess as evidence of who she was as a person. At the close of her section about Bess, she writes: “Someone said to me this morning that it seemed so awful that her mother should have been killed, too. I can’t feel that, knowing them. It would have been so awful for the one that was left.”

JUDY and Lara in the News

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Apologies for the delayed post, readers. It’s been a rather busy few weeks and this is the first opportunity I’ve had for a blog post since my last one in late September. The Marion Davies book is in its final stages, so I’ve been spending a great deal of time putting together the proposal that will ultimately go to publishers. More about that as the time gets closer, but suffice it to say that writing a book takes a village, and I consider my village to be the best there is. For that I am very grateful.

Since my last post here, I have appeared on a podcast and in print, both for The San Francisco Chronicle. The topic was the new biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, that has stirred up a lot of controversy within classic film and specifically Judy Garland circles. I discussed my feelings briefly with the Chronicle, as time permitted, but I’d like to expand upon my thoughts here, for the edification of Backlots readers and to express things for which there was no time or space on the podcast and in the paper. If you have seen the movie, please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the bottom of this post. I would love to hear from you.

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With my sister, friends and penpals on the steps of Judy Garland’s childhood home, Grand Rapids, MN, 1998.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Judy Garland was my gateway to classic film and remains a constant part of me. As I work on Marion Davies, I am keenly aware that I would not be where I am today had I not happened to pick that Judy Garland tape from the bargain bin at Borders on New Year’s Eve, 1995. Without Judy, Backlots wouldn’t exist, and I wouldn’t have made some of my most cherished friends.

Many of the Judy Garland figures I trust had already panned the movie, and were angry that Renée Zellweger took the role at all. Others praised Zellweger’s performance, saying that she completely channeled Judy Garland in 1969 and that she nailed Judy’s mannerisms, which is no easy task. I didn’t know what to think, so I decided not to think at all. I made an active decision to go into the movie with an open mind.

The backdrop to Judy is the series of concerts that Judy Garland gave at the Talk of the Town dinner club in London shortly before she died, and the scenario is based on the off-Broadway play End of the Rainbow. It is an interesting part of Judy’s life in many ways, and the movie tells the story of her life and career through flashbacks, mostly to the set of The Wizard of Oz and events that occurred around 1939.

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Interacting with the audience at Talk of the Town, January 14, 1969.

As soon as the movie started, I started noticing inaccuracies. The first I noticed was the depiction of Judy’s relationship with Louis B. Mayer. The movie showed Mayer as a seemingly regular part of the Wizard of Oz set, and while executives did visit sets on rare occasions, they generally dealt solely with administrative work and left their directors and producers alone in their work. While on the set, Judy tells Mayer that she wishes she could be a normal girl, going to movies just like others her age. Even at 16, Judy Garland was operating at an intellectual level beyond that of most adults. She knew how to interact with Mayer, and it was not to tell him that she wished she could go to the movies like other girls her age. It is a nuance, but an important one.

In general, Judy’s staggering intelligence is missing from the movie. Friends estimated that her IQ surpassed 160–she learned astoundingly quickly and was capable of performing complex dance routines after seeing them once. She found rehearsal dull and unnecessary, and got very impatient when she was needed to rehearse anything beyond a single take. Her dislike of rehearsal is indeed shown in the movie, which I appreciated, but the reason for it–the speed and depth of her learning–was not.

This number from Summer Stock (1950) was filmed in one take after Gene Kelly had shown Judy the steps once.

At one moment, Zellweger’s Judy says that she never had time to learn to do anything but sing. Judy was, in fact, a very accomplished pianist, having learned at a young age from her mother. She played at such a high level that pianist friends who heard her play told her that she should give professional concerts. “No,” Judy would reply, “this is just for me.” She feared that if word of her skill at the piano got out, it would be exploited like the rest of her talents. She was also deeply political with a strong moral compass, and as a young person was an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. She was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, protesting the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, and later became involved in the planning of the March on Washington and the election of John F. Kennedy.

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The movie does depict the harrowing sexual abuse that Judy suffered at the hands of Louis B. Mayer. It is dealt with quickly, glossed over almost shamefully, and it is not accurate. This bothered me to no end. It would have been better, in my mind, not to show it at all, rather than gloss over it and put it in the wrong place at the wrong time. Judy wrote about the abuse in her unpublished autobiographical manuscript, which is readily available to the public, and inaccuracy in this domain is inexcusable. It was too important to Judy’s self-image, her psychological problems, and the course of the rest of her life to be dealt with so nonchalantly. The moment could have served as an important link for modern-day survivors, but instead they treated it lazily, as if the moment were required but not desired.

The main action takes place in 1969 and at that point, Judy’s minor children, Lorna and Joe Luft, were teenagers (Lorna was born in 1952, Joe in 1955). In the movie the children are shown far too young, which contributes to a narrative that was not the real one. In general, the timeline was way off, a jarring time bend for those of us who know it. Liza Minnelli was shown at a Los Angeles party early in the movie, but she was not in Los Angeles in 1969, having moved to New York years earlier to start her own career. Nor did she ever call her mother “Mom,” as we hear in the movie. Throughout their lives, all of Judy’s children called her “Mama,” a name by which they all still refer to their mother.

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But for me, the most egregious inaccuracy had to do with the portrayal of Judy herself. The movie showed her wallowing in self-pity, going onstage drunk, and being booed offstage by the audience. Never did Judy bare her soul in interviews or feel sorry for herself, the way they showed onscreen. The closest she came was when she was interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1967, describing her difficulties with her own mother. She did have a few disastrous concerts, notably in Melbourne and Hong Kong, but the Talk of the Town concerts that provide the backdrop for the movie were nothing of the kind. Judy loved London, and London loved her.

To say Judy had an uproarious sense of humor would be an exercise in understatement. Lucille Ball, denying her own comedic gifts, once said “I was never funny. You know who was truly funny? Judy Garland. Judy Garland was funny. She made me look like a mortician.” Judy’s quickness of wit was legendary in Hollywood, and she was an unmatched storyteller. Her tall tales left audiences laughing until they cried.

None of this was shown in the movie. There were a few moments where hints of Judy’s sense of humor came through, but they were only hints. Nothing made the audience laugh out loud or applaud enthusiastically, the way they did when Judy told stories, and it was one of the aspects of the movie that I missed the most.

In regard to Zellweger’s performance, it was clear to me that she had done her research. She made an effort to channel Judy’s mannerisms, which are incredibly difficult to do, and did them to the best of her ability. In concerts and on her TV show, Judy would frequently toy with the microphone cord, tossing it over her shoulder and making it a sort of prop for her performance. Zellweger did this, but didn’t quite do it right, nor did her Garland-esque movements evoke the vibrance and life that Judy’s did. Judy moved with her soul–becoming one with the song as her spirit succumbs to the beauty and power of the music. We the audience feel this with her as she moves, an almost indescribable experience.

Zellweger, by contrast, seems to be going through the motions. She knows the Judy Garland signature moves–the arm over the head, the position of the hand as she holds the microphone–but the life in it is missing.

This is perhaps the best way I can sum up Judy–the life in it is missing. Instead of painting a three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman, it chooses to rely on cursory, surface level research and tells incomplete stories or complete untruths. Renée Zellweger did the best she could, but I couldn’t help but mourn for what could have been.

Podcast Announcement for JUDY (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk to you next week!

LABOR DAY 2019: Norma Rae (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reynolds and Field.

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

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

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

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

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

The Activism of Myrna Loy

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

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

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

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

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

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An early portrait of Myrna Loy.

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

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Later in life, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

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

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

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

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Being interviewed at the UN, 1950.

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

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

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With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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

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

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

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At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

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

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

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Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

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

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

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

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

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Lawyer Suzelle Smith presents the lecture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!