TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1: 7 Seconds of Bette Davis in JEZEBEL (1938)

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This afternoon, classic film fans from around the country and the world descended upon the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that runs from the Roosevelt Hotel to the Egyptian Theater for the opening of the TCM Classic Film Festival. For much of the day, the street was completely blocked off for the red carpet entrance to the opening night movie, In The Heat of the Night, for which Sidney Poitier and Norman Jewison were in attendance. It looked to be a spectacular affair. But for those of us whose passes don’t allow entrance to the opening night movie, there was no shortage of other choices–and I, being a devotee of Bette Davis in general and Jezebel in particular, was thrilled to see the pre-Civil War story of love and defiance as an option for the festival’s opening night. It was a screening I did not want to miss.

Jezebel has always fascinated me. The story of Julie Marsden (Bette Davis), a rebellious young southern belle in 1852, who defies convention and alienates her companion Pres (Henry Fonda) only to have him leave and return with a new wife, it is a beautifully directed, beautifully costumed movie that plays with the idea of women’s rights long before the women’s rights movement, while still reining itself in with the restrictions of the production code. We see a strong woman who fights for what she wants, but who repents when her companion leaves. Then when he comes back with a new wife, she rebels again, only to give her final repentance at the dramatic ending.

I arrived at the movie relatively late in my classic film life, having somehow missed it until my first year in college, and due to the nuanced and textured performances of Bette Davis and Fay Bainter, I’m rather glad that I came to it late. As I watched Jezebel for the first time, I was able to grasp right away the meticulous and fine acting details that define the movie.

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Jezebel is best-known for the scene in which Julie appears at the Olympus ball in a red dress, in direct defiance of what Pres wants her to do. All unmarried women appear in white, he tells her, but when Julie insinuates that he’s just afraid of having to defend her, he relents and takes her to the ball in the red dress. It is indeed a marvelous scene, filled with discomfort and palpable tension. But what I consider to be the greatest moment in the movie occurs afterward.

Following the dance, Pres leaves Julie, humiliated. A year later, he returns and Julie has repented, appearing to him in a white dress and asking him to forgive her. She kneels down to the floor, her dress flowing around her, and tells him “Pres, I’m kneelin’ to ya.” A few seconds later, Julie finds out that Pres has married during his absence. The woman walks into the room and is introduced as Pres’ new wife from New York. What follows is a phenomenal 7-second performance by Bette Davis. Start the video at 2:31.

Davis immediately transforms from the angelic, saintly creature that was kneeling to Pres on the ground, into a confused, startled person. She starts with a blank stare, almost as if she hadn’t heard what was said. Then, she gets a look on her face that shows comprehension, but a disbelief that he had done it. Leaning forward slightly, she looks for a moment as if she were about to move toward him, but thinks better of it. She looks at Amy, scrutinizing her, looking her up and down, then gets a puzzled look on her face, and turns back to Pres before she says, in shocked disbelief, “Your wife.” This all happens over the span of 7 seconds.

The entire moment is played in the face–except for a small movement of her arms when she is leaning forward. It works due to Davis’ naturally expressive features, and her ability to use them and them alone. These 7 seconds are a testament to Davis’ skill as an actress, and to her ability to work effectively with director William Wyler. By this time, Wyler knew Bette Davis extraordinarily well, onscreen and off. By the time of Jezebel‘s filming, Davis and Wyler were spending a great deal of time together as romantic companions, and Wyler used his knowledge of Davis to direct her to her second Academy Award. Whatever direction Wyler gave her in that moment prompted Davis to create one of the most impressive physical moments of her career.

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Stay tuned for more reports from the TCM Classic Film Festival as it rolls on through the weekend. Tomorrow’s schedule includes screenings of The Maltese Falcon, Born Yesterday, and Red-Headed Woman. Thanks for reading!

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TCM Classic Film Festival Schedule Released–How We Pick Movies and Where I’ll Be

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The TCM Classic Film Festival released its full schedule this past week, and social media has been abuzz ever since with attendees announcing their festival picks. Some festivalgoers opt to prioritize screenings of movies new to them, others prefer to see old favorites alongside others who love the film as they do.

It seems to come down to a difference in what attendees hope to get out of the festival. For those who give priority to the “new-to-me” screenings, the TCM Classic Film Festival serves as a pathway to expanded film fluency, an opportunity to close the gaps in their film repertoire, gaps that we all have regardless of our level of knowledge. For those who prefer to put movies they’ve seen before at the top of their list, sometimes movies they’ve seen dozens of times, the festival is a way to bond with other classic film lovers, to visit with those who have a special connection to a particular movie or genre. And, naturally, there are those who consciously combine the two practices.

Historically speaking, I’ve tended to run with the “old favorites” crowd. Over the past 6 years that I’ve attended what is known affectionately as “TCMFF,” I’ve found that the most useful gift that the festival can give me personally, and that I can then give to Backlots’ readers, is a connection with the movies and the people who attend the festival. At last year’s screening of The More the Merrier, for example, I knew about half the audience, and I knew how much they loved the movie. There is a sense of community that comes from that, one that I wouldn’t have gotten if I had gone to see a movie with which I was unfamiliar.

I’m aware that I have a bit of privilege when it comes to picking movies for TCMFF. The San Francisco Bay Area provides easy access to classic movies, and chances are good that a movie shown at TCMFF that I’ve never seen will also play at the Castro or the Roxie at some point, so I can feel comfortable settling in with an old favorite on the big screen. Many attendees don’t have such easy access to classics, and seeing an old favorite on the big screen would be a wasted opportunity to expand their viewing repertoire. One of the beautiful things about TCMFF is that it can be easily customized for the individual attendee–her interests, preferences, and what she wants to get out of the festival as a whole.

With that context in mind, here is my TCMFF schedule:

THURSDAY, APRIL 6

6:30 PM: Jezebel (1938)

9:30 PM: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

FRIDAY, APRIL 7

9:00 AM: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

11:30 AM: Born Yesterday (1950)

2:00 PM: Trivia at the Roosevelt

4:30 PM: So This is Paris (1926)

7:00 PM: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

9:30 PM: Laura (1944)

SATURDAY, APRIL 8

9:00 AM: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

12:00 PM: The Awful Truth (1937)

5:00 PM: Hollywood Home Movies

6:30 PM: Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

9:30 PM: Black Narcissus (1947)

SUNDAY APRIL 9

10:15 AM: The Egg and I (1947)

1:30 PM: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

4:30 PM: Singin’ In the Rain (1952)

8:00 PM: Speedy (1928)

Some notes on my choices:

  • Black Narcissus and Laura are both on nitrate. Nitrate film is rarely shown in theaters today–due to the fragility and flammability of the stock (it has its own source of oxygen, and famously keeps burning when submerged in water), theaters have to have a special license to be able to use the stock in a projection booth. Nitrate is known for the “shimmering” quality it gives the film, and suffice it to say I’m extraordinarily excited to see this on nitrate:

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  • The 9:30 PM slot on Friday is very difficult, as it pits Laura against Twentieth Century (1934) against Cat People (1942). Laura barely ekes out a win over Twentieth Century simply because of the nitrate, but it pains me to abandon Carole Lombard. TCMFF reserves several TBA slots at the end of the festival for movies that overflow, and I’m hoping that Twentieth Century fills one of those spots.
  • While not a movie per se, the Hollywood Home Movies event at Club TCM is always a highlight of the festival for me. In cooperation with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, TCM brings in rare video of the stars at home and on the set, providing glimpses into their lives often narrated by the children or relatives of the people depicted sitting right there on the stage. It’s marvelous.

I’ll keep you posted with any more news. Thanks for reading!

Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2017

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For the 5th year in a row, Backlots will be joining the ranks of the media in early April,  covering the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. In the years since its inception in 2010, the TCM Classic Film Festival has easily become the most prominent classic film festival in the country, attracting world-class speakers and attended by fans from all over the world.

The festival always has an overarching theme, and this year TCM is saluting comedy in the movies with a theme they call “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

The schedule is still in the works, but the lineup announced so far is phenomenal, even by TCM’s standards. Some of the highlights for me thus far:

  • The Palm Beach Story

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Starring Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, and a marvelously funny Mary Astor, The Palm Beach Story is a staple of the screwball comedy genre about a woman who divorces her husband to finance his career with the money of a millionaire she starts to date. This is a movie that we’ve been hoping to have at the festival for some time, as it’s a real crowd-pleaser and very much in the vein of The More the Merrier, which was such a big hit last year.

  • Red-Headed Woman

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In this steamy pre-code, Jean Harlow uses her feminine power to climb the ladder of success, wrecking marriages, engaging in affairs, and attempting murder along the way. With a screenplay written by Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman is a must-see in Jean Harlow’s filmography, and a delicious example of what we think of when we think of that raw and glorious era between 1929 and 1934.

Having attended the TCM Classic Film Festival 6 times (5 as press with Backlots), I have come to recognize general trends among festivalgoers, and which movies will be sellouts. TCM has an intricate ticketing system–about an hour before the movie starts, the staff starts passing out numbers to passholders in line, starting with the Spotlight and Essential passes and then moving to the Classic and Media. Once the numbers get past the number of seats in the theater, the movie has sold out. Thus, if you hold a Classic or Media pass, it is important to get in line as early as possible, in order to avoid being shut out of a movie. The festival leaves TBA slots open on the last day of the festival to re-screen select movies that sold out, but it is left to their discretion which ones are re-screened.

Red-Headed Woman is a sellout if I’ve ever seen one. Pre-codes are immensely popular at the TCM Festival, as is Jean Harlow, as are movies from any year of the 1930s. Last year, Double Harness sold out, was re-screened, and sold out again. I would expect this event to repeat with Red-Headed Woman. If you’re attending the festival and would like to see Red-Headed Woman, I would advise you to get in line about 2 hours ahead of time. It will fill up so quickly your head will spin.

  • Twentieth Century

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Considered to be one of the first screwball comedies, Twentieth Century features Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in a zany piece filled with hilarious Carole Lombard lines and over-the-top acting by Barrymore that leaves the viewer in stitches. It’s one that I’m surprised hasn’t been shown up to now, it’s such a marvelous fit for TCM. Watch for this one being sold out too–Carole Lombard always sells well at this festival.

  • Born Yesterday

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The winner of the Best Actress Oscar of 1950 (it came as a thrilling surprise–Judy Holliday was up against Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis for All About Eve), Born Yesterday is an exploration of how a newly-educated woman equips herself to leave her abusive boyfriend. While on the surface it may look like a standard 1950s comedy, the movie is really an ode to the powers of education, and to a woman’s right to her own happiness. It seems especially significant in this day and age, when both education and women’s rights are under threat. I wrote a blog post about Born Yesterday some time ago, feel free to take a look.

Stay tuned to hear more festival news as it comes in. Looking forward to reporting to you from Hollywood!

Remembering Robert Osborne

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The classic film world has lost a monumental force, one of our preeminent modern film historians and certainly among the most visible. Robert Osborne, the beloved host of Turner Classic Movies since 1994, died on Monday at the age of 84.

Osborne had been on a long hiatus from TCM due to illness, and was absent from the past few TCM festivals in Hollywood. His death hit the classic film world hard, with posts and tributes written almost immediately and emotions running high.

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TCM has a unique fan base, and Osborne was the face of the network. Many of us grew up with him, his soothing voice becoming synonymous with evenings in front of the television watching a classic movie. More than just a representative of TCM, however, Osborne transcended the network. His knowledge of movie history, and of the stars and directors who made it, was staggeringly detailed, nuanced, and deep. Always polished and dapper on air, Osborne’s presence on the network was representative of a different era of television–one that seems to have otherwise disappeared. His sophistication and elegance harkened back to the news programs of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, as he informed us respectfully, intelligently, and passionately, about the movies he loved as we did.

Osborne began his career as an actor with Desilu, and it was Lucille Ball, in her infinite wisdom, who first noticed Osborne’s talent for journalism when he was still a young actor. He published his first book in 1965, then became a longstanding columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Osborne enjoyed relating the story of his first major interview, for which his subject was Natalie Wood. Osborne told of the incident in an article for a Natalie Wood tribute on TCM:

By the time I met her in 1965, she was already a Hollywood veteran at the age of 27. And along with her determination and brilliance, she also turned out to be incredibly kind, especially to an admittedly novice journalist like me. She was, in fact, my first major celebrity interview and when I arrived at her home, with those beautiful brown eyes looking at me, waiting for me to begin, I realized just how much of a beginner I was. My questions had no rhythm to them, and my notes were, I realized too late, completely disorganized. Looking back, she could have stopped that interview then and there, or quickly answered my questions and ended it almost as soon as it had begun. But she didn’t. Instead, Natalie ended up sitting down on the floor with me and giving me suggestions on how to best organize the interview to get the most interesting story.

That day she became my mentor and, more importantly, my friend.

He went on to be one of the great classic Hollywood interviewers and the author of several books, including a series on the Academy Awards. The series began in 1965 with The Academy Awards Illustrated, and culminated in 85 Years of the Oscar, published in 2013. He was a respected and sought-after co-author, with credits on a seemingly endless list of classic film books.

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Osborne was a dear friend of many classic Hollywood stars, including Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, and particularly Olivia de Havilland, with whom Osborne spoke every Sunday. It was de Havilland who introduced him to Bette Davis, and the two became fast friends. When he was looking for an apartment in Manhattan in the late 1980s and had finally found one he liked, he called Bette Davis to come see it with him, to get her opinion. Davis liked it, and Osborne took it. The building, serendipitously enough, was called the Osborne, and he lived there for the rest of his life.

I had the great fortune to meet Robert Osborne at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012. It wasn’t a very formal meeting, but it was incredibly memorable for me. I related to him my love of Rita Hayworth, and we chatted for a few minutes about her. I feel so fortunate to have met a scholar and man of his stature, and to be able to talk about a mutual love.

Here he is introducing Cover Girl, one of his favorite Rita Hayworth movies. Robert Osborne’s loss is immeasurable, and will be felt forever in the classic film community. He is and will continue to be greatly missed.

Oscar Sunday: Predictions and Historical Context

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It’s Oscar time again, when movie lovers get together to discuss, make predictions, and debate with fervor who is deserving of the most prestigious awards in screen acting…and who is not. In my family, we have a yearly Oscar get-together with longtime family friends, complete with a very competitive Oscar pool for which we all research the latest statistics and predictions up to the very last minute.

Today, I would like to explore some historical context for this year’s nominations. There are some parallels, connections, and trivia connected with classic Hollywood that I think are worth noting, especially with La La Land dominating the nominations.

La La Land has tied with All About Eve for a record number of nominations.

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While the record was first tied when Titanic was nominated in 1998, there has been no movie in history that has beaten All About Eve‘s record of 14 nominations. Prior to 1950, Gone With the Wind held the record with 13.

If La La Land wins everything for which it’s nominated, it will be only the 4th movie in history to win “The Big Five.”

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It Happened One Night (1934) was the first movie to win what is known as “The Big Five”–Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay. For over 40 years, it remained the only movie to have done so, until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, which was followed by Silence of the Lambs in 1993. If La La Land manages to secure all these awards, it will join a very prestigious group of movies.

Granted, I don’t think this is going to happen. La La Land is supposed to win about 10 awards tonight, and a few of “The Big Five” categories have been pretty locked in for other nominees, based on my research. But we may be surprised.

Sidney Poitier was the first African-American to win Best Actor. Nearly forty years later, Denzel Washington was the second.

Before Sidney Poitier, Hattie McDaniel was the only African-American to have won an Oscar. Poitier was not expected to win, so he made up a speech as he made his way up to the stage, which included the line “It is a long journey to this moment.” After Poitier, no African-American won another Best Actor Oscar for another forty years, until Training Day in 2002, when Denzel Washington won. He’s nominated again tonight for Fences, and is a top contender to win.

Here are the Oscar speeches by Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington.

Only once in the history of the Best Director category has a nominee won Best Director without a Best Picture nomination.

Oscar history won’t be made tonight in this arena. All nominees in the Best Director category have nominations for Best Picture. Only at the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930, when Frank Lloyd won for directing Divine Lady, has someone won Best Director without at least a nomination for Best Picture.

There’s a caveat to this bit of trivia. At the 1st Academy Awards, there were two categories for Best Director–best director of a comedy, and best director of a drama. Neither of the comedies nominated for Best Director of a Comedy were nominated for Best Picture. But now there’s only one category, and Divine Lady‘s record stands.

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Frank Lloyd with his Oscar for Divine Lady.

Any other classic Hollywood Oscar connections with this year’s Oscars that I missed? Feel free to comment with your favorites, and I’ll update the post with your comments. Enjoy the Oscars tonight!

From @Filmatelist on Twitter:

“Tonight is the third time a movie called THE JUNGLE BOOK was nominated for an Oscar (the previous incarnations were 1942 & 67). This is only the 4th time ever a single title had three different versions all nominated for Oscars, spread out years apart from each other.”

Remembering Mary Tyler Moore: ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

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Mary Tyler Moore’s death on Wednesday was an enormous loss for the entertainment industry. It is hard to overstate the importance of Mary Tyler Moore’s influence in shaping how women are portrayed in media, and in paving the way for more nuanced female characters. Onscreen, Moore took the standard portrayal of a woman as a housewife and mother, subservient to her husband, and turned it on its head. As capri-wearing, outspoken Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, she was an equal to her husband and was often portrayed as the more level-headed of the two. As single working woman Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she broke ground as a female executive in a newsroom, unafraid to stand up to her boss and stick up for herself. The barriers she broke for women on television have not gone unnoticed, as words of gratitude have come pouring in from women in the industry today, from Oprah Winfrey to Samantha Bee. Offscreen, she was one of the first female studio heads, founding MTM Enterprises with husband Grant Tinker in 1968, a studio that produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoffs, as well as such shows as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

Moore was modest about her status as a trailblazer, and downplayed her role as a feminist icon. She was timid about participating in the feminist movements that defined the 1970s, and remained somewhat more traditional offscreen than her beloved onscreen characters would lead us to believe. The role with which she identified most, she once said, was her Oscar-nominated performance as the distant, emotionless Beth Jarrett in the movie Ordinary People.

Coming after the likable, fun roles of Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, it is startling to see Moore playing a character so different. Director Robert Redford had seen something in Moore’s previous roles, a hint of sadness or vulnerability, that led him to believe that she could play the role, and he wanted her for it. The story of a family coming to terms with the drowning death of their son and the suicide attempt of their other son, Ordinary People is stark and raw, filled with inner rage under a meditative surface, and featuring spectacular performances from Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton.

Ordinary People came at a difficult time in Moore’s life. Her much younger sister had just recently died of a drug overdose, and her son was troubled with drugs as well (he would die later that year). Thus, it is not difficult to imagine Moore living the role of Beth Jarrett, a mother going through the hardest time in her life. Beth emotionally distances herself from her surviving son, and comes off stone cold, uncaring and heartless.

Moore said later in an interview with the Archive of American Television that an interpretation of Beth Jarrett as heartless and brittle was not seeing the character at all. She was a victim, she said, and a woman “who wanted to do the right thing and was taught ‘how to do the right thing,’ and never let it spontaneously erupt.”

While starkly different from her groundbreaking roles on television, Ordinary People is very much a continuation of Mary Tyler Moore’s trend of empowering female characters. With her nuanced performance, she turns a woman who could, on the surface, be written off as an emotionless person, into a powerful examination into the complex emotions surrounding motherhood, death, mourning, and fear.

Ordinary People is often difficult to watch due to the built-in tension, but it is a triumph of acting prowess. If you would like to watch it, it is available on Netflix and to rent on Amazon. This is truly Mary Tyler Moore at her best and most vulnerable. She was a force of good for women in the entertainment world, and will be painfully missed.

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At the Academy Awards with Jack Lemmon, where she was nominated for Ordinary People.

Happy Birthday Marion Davies (January 3, 1897)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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