Searching for Mary Poppins in 2018

 

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When I first heard that there would be another Mary Poppins movie made in 2018, I wasn’t sure what to think. Being a lifelong devotee of the original film, I was hard-pressed to imagine anyone who could fill the gigantic shoes of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, or if anyone even had the right to try. Early mumblings in the classic film community about Mary Poppins Returns were skeptical, cautious. Some said they wouldn’t see it. Some said they were willing to give it a chance, but held low expectations.

I always fell somewhat into the second camp. I brightened to hear that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be playing the Bert character (perfect casting, I felt), but I remained on my guard. I was convinced that remaking Mary Poppins at all was a futile effort.

I went to see the film yesterday afternoon at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley. I went in with an open and curious mind, looking forward to seeing how the filmmakers and actors handled the seemingly insurmountable task of a Mary Poppins remake. But immediately, I understood what this movie is about. Mary Poppins Returns is not a remake at all–but rather a piece of much-needed escapism for 2018 audiences, in a world that desperately needs it.

Movies have always served the social needs of their time. In moments of national crisis, they have served to allay fears, provide comfort, or commiserate with worries. Frequently, the messages were subtle. In 1944, at the height of World War II, Meet Me In St. Louis brought wartime viewers back to 1903 St. Louis, when things were easier, life was slower, and there was no war. Though the film takes place 40 years prior, the message was clear. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was really for the soldiers, and the American people as a whole.

Mary Poppins was released in 1964, as the United States faced dire challenges. With the Vietnam War heating up, the Civil Rights Movement at its peak, Russia and the United States facing off and John F. Kennedy recently assassinated, adults and children needed to be taken away from their circumstances. Mary Poppins‘ fantastical escape into 1910 London and a land of chalk drawings, cartoons, and magical nannies provided just that opportunity.

So it is, too, with Mary Poppins Returns. On most days, we are pummeled with the stress of a neverending news cycle, and the realities of a world that frequently feels like it’s crumbling beneath our feet. A retreat into escapist entertainment is very much in line with the cinematic and cultural history of the United States, and very necessary.

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In 1964, the merging of cartoon and real-life characters was a state-of-the-art production process. Though not a new technology, it was a difficult one, imperfect and rarely used, and emblematic of a large budget production. Reviews upon its release commended the mixing of live action and animation as “immense,” and the Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer noted that Disney had been trying to perfect the process for the past 40 years, and dared to shoot 400 Mary Poppins scenes using it.

In 2018, we have long since moved on. Computer animation is the norm now–we have seen the rise of Pixar, of Avatar, and other processes that try to make moviegoing seem as true to life as possible. Mary Poppins Returns goes the other way. Using a similar cel animation process combined with live action that was advanced and awe-inspiring in 1964, director Rob Marshall has created an air of nostalgia and simplicity. The effect is that the audience is thrown back to a time when moviemaking didn’t have to feel true to life, when suspension of disbelief was valued over meticulous true-to-life detail. And for many of us, that means a throwback to our childhood moviegoing experiences–evoking memories of the cel-animated Disney movies that defined the studio through the 1990s and early 2000s. Worries are tossed to the wind, and the audience is engulfed by pure fantasy.

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In these trying times, we as a society would do well to learn once again how to appreciate escapist entertainment such as the kind Mary Poppins, and Mary Poppins Returns offers. It is a cultural necessity in our efforts to deal with daily life, and a panacea that this troubled world dearly needs.

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How Popcorn Saved the Movies

 

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Apologies for the delayed post, readers. Holidays and other necessities of living have gotten in the way of a timely posting since the California wildfires of early November. We’re still recovering as a state but the good news is that we’ve had some rain, the smoke has cleared, and the fires have been put out. Thanks to everyone for your beautiful comments and concern.

In other news, I went to see Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma this evening at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley (if you haven’t seen Roma, please rush out. It’s a breathtaking achievement, and takes much influence from prior cinematic movements–I may make a post about this later.) As I waited for the film to start, my mind wandered as I ate my box of popcorn. I ruminated on the origins of popcorn as a movie theater snack, and how it came to be. The story is actually quite an interesting one, with roots in the political and social history of the United States.

Popcorn was a popular street food at fairs and carnivals going back to the 1800s. It was a cheap, tasty treat, a luxury that people from any social class could afford. This, along with its messiness and noise, made it particularly loathsome to those in the burgeoning movie theater business. When the first movie theaters were built, the managers directed their advertising and aesthetic to the highbrow, theatergoing clientele. As the movies were silent and intertitles were used to convey speech, audience members had to be literate, which made movies most accessible to members of the educated upper classes. Patrons dressed in their best clothes, carpets were rolled out in the theater foyer and the audience was expected to be on its best behavior, just as they would be at any other theater. Any distraction such as munching or snacks spilled on the floor was unacceptable, and as such, there was no popcorn or any other food sold in the theater, nor was anything allowed in.

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The Embassy Theatre in Seattle, WA shows Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, 1930

Then sound came to the movies. In the years between 1927 and 1929, between the release of The Jazz Singer and the time when sound became industry standard, the movie business went through upheavals in just about every department. Hand cranked cameras had to be replaced with synchronized sound devices. Actors with vocal problems lost their careers. Theaters had to convert their auditoriums to be conducive to sound. And because the need for intertitles disappeared, the movies began to attract a different, less literate, more common crowd. That crowd would frequently show up at the door with a bag of popcorn, which had to be checked along with coats and hats.

The coming of sound happened to coincide with the first signs of the Great Depression. The combination of rising costs due to theater renovations for sound, and a stock market that was starting to spin out of control, was a death knell for many small town theaters. All over the country, theaters closed their doors due to their financial inability to make the changes needed to stay in business.

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The Cabrillo Theatre in San Diego, CA

However, people still flocked to the movies. The common man needed to escape from the world of breadlines and unemployment, and for a few cents he could do just that at a movie theater. Some particularly clever theater owners saw a way to keep the doors open for those needing entertainment. They tossed aside their hesitancy to allow snacks, and began to allow outdoor popcorn vendors to pay for space inside the theater, getting customers in the door to see a movie and bringing in the extra fees brought by the vendors. Eventually, theaters began to sell popcorn themselves. Using the extra money from popcorn sales, theaters were able to satisfy their clientele and survive the Depression. Other theaters caught on and began selling popcorn, saving themselves from the brink of closure. Eventually they added concession stands that included candy and drinks, and their profits skyrocketed.

The 1940s confirmed popcorn as the ultimate movie snack. World War II saw a decrease in the amount of candy and drinks that could be sold, due to the strict war era rationing requirements on sugar. Because of this, theaters heavily pushed popcorn as the snack to buy, and it has stuck ever since. Now, it is an absolute necessity. Due to the complex web of distributors and studios that go into bringing a film to your local theater, none of the money from ticket sales actually goes to your theater. The theater only earns money through the sale of concessions, of which popcorn is still the biggest sell.

So next time you go to the movies, be sure to get a bag of popcorn, support your theater, and remember this history as you eat!

California Fires Are Burning Hollywood History

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Image of the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles, courtesy of ABC7 New York

As I write this post, I’m looking out the window into a haze of smoke, blowing down to the Bay Area from the Camp Fire in Chico. California is fighting several severe wildfires right now, and as of this writing, the entire city of Malibu is evacuated, we have over a dozen dead, and more who have lost everything. The fires this year and over the past few years have been devastating and tragic, and the smell of smoke in the air has become all too familiar.

And now, the fires are threatening Hollywood history at both ends of California.

Yesterday, I was sad to learn that the Western Town at Agoura Hills’ Paramount Ranch has burned in the Woolsey Fire. Purchased by Paramount in 1927, the Paramount Ranch has been used continuously as an outdoor movie set for 90 years. It has served as the filming location for The Sign of the Cross (1932), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and Morocco (1930), and the Western Town was famously the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman between 1993 and 1998, as well as the current show Westworld.

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A tweet from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area states: “We are sorry to share the news that the has burned Western Town at in Agoura. We do not have any details or photos, but it is our understanding that the structures have burned. This area is an active part of the incident and we cannot access it.”

Farther north, in Chico, the Camp Fire is threatening Bidwell Park, the location that served as Sherwood Forest in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). As of right now, the park is safe, but the fire remains unpredictable.

In the absence of a proper Sherwood Forest in the area around Los Angeles, Warner Bros decided to move production of The Adventures of Robin Hood up to Chico, a town in far northern California near Mt. Shasta. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland spent many hours in lower Bidwell Park (the park is divided into an upper and a lower section), the area chosen to serve as the legendary forest where Robin Hood woos Maid Marian.

One of the wonderful things about the classic Hollywood community of yesteryear was their ability to rally and come together when times were tough for any of them. They were all there for each other–donating time, money, and resources to their fellow industry workers as needed. Right now, times are tough for the communities that have given us our movies. If you are able to help financially, volunteer, send supplies, or simply keep the communities in your thoughts, I know it would be much appreciated and a gesture very much in the spirit of classic Hollywood. Here is how you can help:

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Hannah Darden for the Sacramento Bee outlines what is needed. Here are some places she suggests:

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From Danny Clemens of ABC7 in Los Angeles:

Thank you for helping to keep our classic Hollywood heritage alive, and the people and animals who live in those communities safe.

Coverage of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX Wins 2018 CMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series

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Hello dear readers,

Just a quick note to let you know that Backlots’ coverage of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX won the CMBA Award in the category of Best Classic Movie Series. It has been a marvelous run–and it’s not over yet! Stay tuned for more coverage as we wait to see if the United States Supreme Court will take up the case. If so, I will go to Washington, D.C. to watch the proceedings and report further.

Thank you for your diligent readership and for your support as we watch to see what happens. And thanks to the CMBA and the members of the Classic Movie Blog Association for their acknowledgment of my reporting.

Happy Sunday, happy reading and happy movie watching!

Backlots Up for Three 2018 CMBA Awards

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Each year in September, the Classic Movie Blog Association gives out awards for standout classic movie writing online during the past year. I’m happy to say that this year, Backlots is nominated for three CMBA awards–one for “Standing Up for What’s Right: The Friendship of Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker,” “Judy Holliday and the Hollywood Blacklist: Testimony to SISS, 1952” and the series on the Olivia de Havilland case against FX. I’m thrilled that Backlots is nominated alongside some of my favorite classic movie blogs, including The Lady Eve’s Reel Life and the fascinating Critica Retro, a Brazilian blog written in Portuguese.

The CMBA Awards are a great way to bring the classic film community together. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of what everyone is writing from day to day, but every year when the award nominations come out, I love reading the other entries and gaining insight into what the stellar classic film bloggers in the CMBA have been thinking about this past year.

Backlots has won the award a few times before–in 2011 “The Final Scene of The Heiress” won in the category of Best Classic Film Discussion, in 2012 Backlots won for Best Blog Design, and in 2013 “A Q&A With Joan Fontaine In Honor of Her 96th Birthday” won in the category of Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker. I am encouraged in my writing by all your wonderful comments, and by all your support over the past 7 years of Backlots’ existence.

Thank you for your continued engagement and readership!

Olivia de Havilland Case Will be Filed With Supreme Court Within the Next Week

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Hello dear readers, the month of September seemed to whiz by so quickly that Backlots went without an update. But here we are at the beginning of October and I’m here to report that we have movement on the Olivia de Havilland case. De Havilland’s lawyer, Suzelle Smith, has informed me that the petition will be filed with the Supreme Court in the next 7 days–probably Friday or Monday.

The reason for the delay (the petition was originally to be filed in September) is the fact that the Supreme Court asks for 40 copies of the brief and the appendix, all bound. This is a massive undertaking, and Smith is working diligently to meet the demands of submitting to the highest court in the country.

This naturally segues into the elephant in the room–if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, what will this mean for de Havilland’s case? The main takeaway is that Kavanaugh has tended to lean on the side of corporate interests. Not only is FX a big and powerful company, but it has the backing, financial and otherwise, of other big and powerful companies. De Havilland’s case is one of a private citizen versus staggering amounts of corporate money. Based on Kavanaugh’s judicial record on corporations alone (and not even taking into account the other issues that may factor into his decision-making), Kavanaugh would tip the scales against de Havilland, should the Supreme Court decide to take the case.

I will keep you posted as I hear more from Suzelle Smith, and I will update with what seem to be Olivia’s chances with the court after the final Senate vote on Kavanaugh.

Talk to you soon!

Olivia de Havilland Case Headed to the Supreme Court

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Armed with the rejection of the California Supreme Court in her case against FX, Olivia de Havilland is to file her case with the United States Supreme Court this September.

This is a huge undertaking, and while the SCOTUS only takes a small fraction of the thousands of cases filed with them every year, this one may be of special interest to them–it would be only the second right of publicity case ever filed with the court, and would seek to clarify the case of New York Times v Sullivan. That case established the standard of “actual malice” (publishing of information that is knowingly false or with reckless disregard for truth), and said that newspapers could not be sued for libel unless they had actual malice. Lawyer Suzelle Smith says “The issue for the SCOTUS is whether or not the First Amendment creates an absolute immunity from suit for publishers of docudramas or whether that format like all others is governed by the actual malice of New York Times v Sullivan.”

I have been following de Havilland’s suit closely since the beginning, and was a member of the press at the appellate court hearing in March. If the Supreme Court takes the case, I will go to Washington, D.C. and hear it. Backlots’ readers have been extremely interested in this suit and helped to set a record for the number of amicus letters sent in support of a case at the California Supreme Court (a whopping 90 letters). It has meant so much to me and I know it means a lot to Olivia and her legal team.

While the US Supreme Court does not accept amicus letters, Suzelle Smith tells me that the best thing that Backlots readers can do right now would be to go to the article where the filing was originally reported and leave supportive comments in the comment section. Here is the article, and I will continue to keep you posted as things progress.

On behalf of everyone involved, thank you for all you have done, and continue to do, to preserve integrity in docudramas dealing with living people.

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