Tag Archives: birthday

Marilyn Monroe and Acts of Political Bravery


On June 1, 2020, Marilyn Monroe would have turned 94 years old. Though she died at the tragically young age of 36, Monroe was refreshingly candid and unbothered by the concept of aging. “I want to grow old without facelifts,” she told an interviewer, saying she couldn’t wait to retire to Brooklyn when her career was over. If things had been different, her genes tell us that she likely would have been alive today (despite her mother’s difficult life, she lived into the 1980s and her older half-sister Berniece is still alive, turning 101 in July). But sadly, a long life was not to be, and she lives on as a young, vibrant woman frozen in time.


The image of her skirt blowing up on the subway grate, her wide, flashy smile, and her version of “Happy Birthday” sung JFK have become synonymous with that era of American popular culture. But Marilyn Monroe remains one of the most misunderstood figures of Hollywood history. The real woman behind the image was the polar opposite of what her public perceived her to be. A quiet introvert with a sweet disposition, Monroe loved children, books, animals, and writing poetry. She disliked crowds and was happiest when she could be at home with a book. Her difficult childhood had precluded her from graduating high school, but she desperately tried to make up for it by enrolling in evening UCLA extension courses as an adult, while working at the studio during the day.

She was also fiercely political and had a strong moral compass with activist instincts, and a keen interest in current events. Growing up during the Depression in a series of foster homes including time spent at an orphanage, Monroe naturally empathized with the underdog and easily saw societal ills, often relating them to the struggles of her own life. On the set of All About Eve in 1950, she relaxed between takes by reading her book, The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. Those on set warned that she shouldn’t read the autobiography of a muckraker around the studio heads, as in era of McCarthy it might destroy her burgeoning career.


Reading Ulysses, that she was indeed reading for pleasure at the time, as photographed by Eve Arnold.

Monroe was one of the first stars to openly defy the studio system, brazenly violating her contract to study at the Actor’s Studio in New York. When she came back, she demanded director approval and had created her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. She knew her power–she knew that she was the biggest box office draw that Twentieth Century Fox had, and could use that as leverage to break an unjust and exploitative system. When she married Arthur Miller in 1956, she found herself caught up in the maelstrom of anti-communist fervor, as Miller was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names. Monroe was unafraid to use her power and her time with the press to voice her support for Miller’s cause.

Deeply concerned about the nuclear post-war world in addition to the witch hunts going on in the United States, Monroe closely followed the founding of SANE, the committee that advocated anti-nuclear testing policies and ultimately complete nuclear disarmament. When a Hollywood chapter was founded in 1960, Monroe became a founding and active member. She told a reporter during the era of SANE’s founding “My nightmare is the H-bomb. What’s yours?” She used her many media connections to push for Democratic and pro-peace policies that she believed would make a more just world. Below is a letter she wrote to Lester Markel of the New York Times with her ideas on presidential candidates for 1960.

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An oft-told story is one in which Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald get an engagement at the all-white Mocambo Nightclub by phoning the club and telling them that she’d be there at the front table every night. While it seems that the story didn’t concern Fitzgerald’s booking at the Mocambo (several other Black performers had played there before, and Monroe was out of town during those dates), Monroe did indeed help Fitzgerald, her favorite singer, play the Tiffany Club in East Hollywood, and she took a front table every night she could.


Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe at the Tiffany Club, 1954.

The two developed a deep friendship, and Fitzgerald herself said about her after Monroe’s death: “She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Marilyn Monroe’s politics have long been hidden away or skimmed over in biographies and studies of her life. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps her political activities are antithetical to the Marilyn Monroe people think they know, and the general public would prefer to keep her one-dimensional and easy to digest. But the truth reveals a person dedicated to causes of justice and righteousness, who was not afraid to use her power as a weapon for social change.


Happy Birthday Marion Davies (January 3, 1897)


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Backlots is 3!

3 years ago today, on St. Patrick’s Day of 2011, I decided to create a film blog. I was studying in Paris, and in need of a creative outlet in English that related to my love of classic film. I had no idea what it took to maintain a blog, and no idea how long it would last. But 3 years later, here we are.

What has happened in these past 3 years has been nothing short of remarkable. Backlots has won the CMBA Award, has been profiled in Slate Magazine, and has been honored to receive press credentials to some of the pre-eminent classic film festivals in the world. The blog has featured interviews with some of the key figures in the classic film world today, such as actress Joan Fontaine and authors Victoria Wilson and Kendra Bean.

Maintaining a blog for 3 years takes perseverance, stamina, and an abiding passion for what you do. I love writing this blog, and I have been blessed with the most supportive, intelligent, interactive audience I could ever have hoped for. Some of you I have had the pleasure to meet in person, and some of you I have spoken to only through comments–but my appreciation for each and every one of you is boundless, and I am proud to have you as readers. It is thanks to you that Backlots has become the site it has.

So here’s to you, dear readers, and I can’t wait to see what the next 3 years have in store!

P.S. A bit of housekeeping–stay tuned in the next couple of days for a post about the TCM Classic Film Festival in April. News is coming fast, and we’re expecting the full schedule any day now!

A Q&A With Joan Fontaine in Honor of Her 96th Birthday


By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

October 22 marks the 96th birthday of Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine, an actress with the exceptional talent and intelligence to become a veritable Hollywood legend. Graced with a delicate, porcelain beauty, Joan captured Hollywood’s heart early on and with her formidable acting talent became the youngest performer ever to win a Best Actress Oscar, a record that was not broken for 44 years.

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo in 1917, she moved to Saratoga, CA with her mother and older sister Olivia when she was 17 months old. Joan grew up in Saratoga (with a year back in Japan during her high school years) and acted in local productions before heading off to Hollywood as a teenager. She started in several small pictures, before her career suddenly took off and began to soar  with her triumphant performance in Rebecca (1940), for which she earned her first Academy Award nomination. She won the Oscar the following year for her role in Suspicion, and a third nomination came in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She replayed many of her roles on radio and later took to the stage, notably in Tea and Sympathy and The Lion in Winter, among others, establishing herself as an extremely versatile performer.

Today, Joan lives in Carmel, CA and enjoys life at home with her 4 dogs (she is a lifelong animal lover) and a large garden. She moved to Carmel from New York City in the mid-1980s as she was just beginning to retire from a long and rewarding working life, and it was from Carmel that Miss Fontaine very kindly and generously agreed to answer some questions for Backlots. It is a great honor for me to be able to share them with you, and I hope that you will enjoy her answers as much as I greatly did.

A very happy birthday to Joan, and many more to come!


       You have a very unique name—Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland. I understand that the name de Havilland comes from Guernsey. How did your parents come to choose de Beauvoir as your middle name?

My parents paid tribute to a close family friend killed in service.

Shortly after the her arrival in California.

      Your autobiography mentions that you have reaped many benefits from being born in Japan, and there have been few drawbacks. You mention the inquisitions into Japanese-born people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as one of the drawbacks. What are some of the benefits you have had due to your Japanese birth?

Another culture. The wide world opening up.

      Another question about Japan—having spent some time there as a teenager during the Depression, as well as time at home in the United States during the same period, what were your perceptions of the similarities and differences between Japan and the United States during that difficult time in history?

I was in school, so I wasn’t exposed during that time (Japan). And in the U.S., I was working, so again I wasn’t exposed to the hard times that so many were experiencing.

      You began your career at a relatively young age, and acted alongside some of the most established stars of the period while you were still in your teens. Before your 25th birthday you were an internationally renowned Oscar winner. As a naturally introverted young person, were you aware of any stress or overwhelm due to all the attention that you received?

We were all actors doing a job. Everyone was professional. I respected them and they gave me respect. After the Oscar, things did change, they seemed intimidated.

Winning the Oscar for “Suspicion” at the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony.

      Taking into account your international background, did you identify more as a British actress or as an American actress? I know that you officially became an American citizen in 1943. How, if at all, did that affect your identity within the industry, both within yourself and among your peers?

British. The parts I was given were for a British “lady”. I was cast because I was a young British actress. After becoming an American citizen, really nothing changed. By that time I was established.

With Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom Fontaine was paired twice. In addition to securing Fontaine her first Academy Award nomination, the first film the two made together, “Rebecca,” was Hitchcock’s debut picture in the United States and the only Hitchcock film that has ever won Best Picture. Fontaine is also the only actress that has ever won Best Actress for a role in a Hitchcock film, for “Suspicion” the following year.

      You are an extraordinarily versatile performer, appearing in films, on television, on the stage, and on radio. Which medium gave you the most pleasure, and for what reasons that you can pinpoint?

I have always enjoyed stage work. You can feel the audience reactions and are able to adjust your performance accordingly.

      Like you, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area (born and raised in Oakland). As you are a person who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved back to the general area as an adult, I am very interested in your perspective on how things have changed. Can you tell me a bit about how the demographics, attitudes, pace of life, and landscapes were when you were growing up, as opposed to the way they are now?

This area has grown so much, it is almost unrecognizable.


The coastline along Carmel, CA, a place I consider to be among the most beautiful spots in the country.

      I understand that you have a love for animals, especially dogs. If I am correct, you have 5** of them! Can you tell me a bit about your passion for animals and how it began?

Animals, all kinds, are one’s friends. As a child, Mother never allowed me to have pets. As an adult I found them to be loyal friends.

      (**NOTE: I was under the impression that Joan had 5 dogs, but she crossed out 5 and wrote 4. One of her dogs unfortunately died, so she now has 4.)

At home with one of the many dogs Joan has had over the years.

      You are a very multi-talented individual. In addition to your gifts for acting, you have also been an interior decorator, a licensed pilot, a cook, a balloonist, and an author. What do you consider to be your crowning achievement in life, regarding your work, your personal life, or your many hobbies?

Receiving the Oscar. Adopting a Peruvian girl.

Joan with her two daughters Martita (adopted from Peru) and Debbie, feeding the pigeons in Paris.

Rita Hayworth and Her Dance

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Today marks what would have been the 95th birthday of Rita Hayworth, the legendary screen goddess best known today for her seductive portrayal of Gilda in the 1946 film of the same name. Beautiful, long-legged, and mysterious, she was Columbia’s biggest star of the 1940’s and became a pin-up girl during the war years with a popularity rivaling that of Betty Grable. Her popularity as a sex symbol became so overwhelming that many lost sight of exactly who she was, and from whence she had come. As with the vast majority of sex symbols, she became objectified, and her career prior to her 1946 portrayal of Gilda was almost completely forgotten and her background washed away. The sex symbol image bothered her. “I’ve never really thought of myself as a sex symbol,” Hayworth once said, “more as a comedienne who could dance.” Today, on her birthday, I would like to go back to Rita Hayworth’s origins and focus on what was important to her in her life and career–dance.

Rita Hayworth’s background was almost exclusively in dance. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino into a well-known Spanish dancing family (her father was Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, and her mother was an American former Ziegfeld girl of Irish and English descent), she began dancing under the tutelage of her father when she was 4 years old. Eduardo soon realized that his daughter had an exceptional talent, and he eventually took her south from their home in Chula Vista, CA to the Mexican city of Tijuana where they performed as a dancing duo. Shy, quiet and self-conscious offstage, Margarita came alive when she danced and audience members often noticed the dichotomy between the fiery creature dancing onstage and the silent girl they witnessed offstage. The experience dancing with her father in Tijuana certainly honed Margarita’s dancing abilities, and it was there that she learned the ins and outs of show business, something that would help her when she soon went to Hollywood.

During her years working in Tijuana with her father.

Rita’s Hollywood career began in a small role in a movie entitled Under the Pampas Moon, and from there her roles increased in frequency if not in quality, until Hollywood finally noticed her in the late 1930s. After some Hollywood grooming which included painful electrolysis to raise her “ethnic” hairline, she was paired with dancing great Fred Astaire with whom she starred in 2 movies, You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier.

In You Were Never Lovelier, Rita and Fred danced what I consider to be one of the most phenomenal and challenging technical routines in movie history. The “Shorty George” number from this film truly demonstrates how skilled Rita was as a dancer, and how easy it was to watch her, still a relative novice at this point, in lieu of Fred Astaire. All eyes draw toward her, and she is the star of this complex routine. In spite of his legendary partnership with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire always called Rita his favorite dancing partner. He recalled how gifted and quick she was in learning the most advanced routines–often learning the steps in the morning, mulling over them during lunch, and after lunch performing the dance without a single mistake.

Rita also seemed to have a propensity to use dance when life became difficult for her. She was always an intensely insecure person, and this caused problems in her relationships. Orson Welles recalled that, when they married in 1943, he would often set her up with a record of Spanish music in a private room, and just let her dance out her anxiety. Her experiences with her father in Tijuana seemed to be the catalyst for both her affinity for dance and her anxiety. According to Barbara Leaming in her biography If This Was Happiness, the situation brought out the worst in Eduardo in regard to his relationship with his talented pre-teen daughter. Leaming conducted interviews with Orson Welles in which he revealed years of physical and sexual abuse Rita endured at the hands of her father. As can be expected from these early traumas, Rita’s relationship with her father was severely damaged and it is almost certain that her many destructive relationships with men were results of these cruel experiences. Yet this seemed to only solidify her tendency to use dance as an outlet and means of expression during hard times, one upon which she relied for her whole life.

At the end of her life, when Rita was unable to communicate due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease, her daughter Yasmin often put music on and watched as Rita’s feet began to move rhythmically, as if she were remembering her life as a dancer. Her ability to dance was one of the last things to go–a glimmer of solace in the terrible world of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Happy birthday Barbara Stanwyck!

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Today marks what would have been the 106th birthday of the legendarily versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, who left her indelible mark on nearly every genre known to film. With a career spanning nearly 60 years, Stanwyck’s versatility proved to stretch beyond the confines of film and in later years she became equally at home on the small screen, starring in such projects as The Big Valley and the TV movie The Thorn Birds, along with her own hit television series.

She was born Ruby Catherine Stevens in Brooklyn, to a lower class family with 4 older children. When Ruby was 2, her mother was killed when a drunken stranger pushed her off a trolley car, and her father subsequently abandoned the family to dig the Panama Canal. With her older sister Millie as her guardian, Ruby lived a chaotic and poverty-stricken childhood in a series of foster homes, from which she often tried to escape. Her only comfort was in her brother, Malcolm Byron (called “Bert”). Bert later became a sometime actor, a troubled soul who was supported both financially and emotionally by his sister throughout his life, a devoted repayment for the comfort he provided her in their difficult childhood.

As a chorus girl, circa 1924.

Perhaps due to the chaotic nature of her childhood, Ruby was never a good student, and dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work as a package wrapper in a Brooklyn department store. After going through several different menial jobs, she finally landed a job as a chorus girl, taking after her sister Millie. She was spotted by the producer of a play called The Noose, and she was given a part in the play, under the new name of Barbara Stanwyck, and soon took another job in Burlesque. In later years, film actor Pat O’Brien, who had seen Stanwyck in Burlesque, recalled with sadness that “one of the greatest stage actresses of our time was embalmed in celluloid.” This is a testament to yet another dimension of Stanwyck’s versatility that would soon make itself apparent in motion pictures.

After marrying a volatile actor named Frank Fay, Stanwyck moved with her husband to Hollywood so that she could expand her horizons to film. She began in such small movies as Ladies of Leisure (1930),  Ten Cents a Dance (1931), and Shopworn (1932). From those early roles, one stands out–her magnificent performance in Baby Face (1932), which tells the story of a poor bartender’s daughter who escapes her life in a bar and moves to the big city, where she sleeps her way to the top. A monumental and risky film for its time, it stands out as one of Stanwyck’s best performances of her career, and was one of the main impetuses for the implementation of the Hays Code.

Baby Face.

Stanwyck’s career quickly took off, and by the middle part of the decade, she was a bona fide star. She consistently made wise career choices, and hence one is hard pressed to find a Barbara Stanwyck movie that is not top notch. Though most of her roles in the 1930’s were dramatic, solidifying her reputation as a skilled dramatic star, the 1940’s saw her taking marvelous comedic parts, and with such films as Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, she proved to audiences that she was equally adept at comedy. She further expanded her horizons in 1944 when she accepted the role of murderous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir Double Indemnity, securing her reputation as a noir actress. Her 4 Academy Award nominations are indicative of her myriad skills–her first nomination was in 1937 for Stella Dallas (a drama), followed by Ball of Fire (1941, comedy), Double Indemnity (1944, noir), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, suspense).

From Ball of Fire.

Stanwyck was known in Hollywood as one of the most likable actresses in the business. She developed a close friendship with William Holden when they acted together in Holden’s first film, Golden Boy, and he credited her with truly building his career to what it became. They remained lifelong friends.

She never distinguished herself or held herself above anyone else on her sets–crew members recall that she knew all of their names as well as their children’s names, and frequently asked about them. Marilyn Monroe said that Barbara Stanwyck was the only member of Hollywood’s Golden Age who helped her and was kind to her. She was known as “Missy” to her friends and coworkers, and often her chairs on the set said “Missy” instead of the standard “Miss Stanwyck.”

Her personal life was rocky at best. An early relationship to Al Jolson ended in lifelong physical and psychological damage to Stanwyck, and her marriage to Frank Fay dissolved due to intense abuse. She married actor Robert Taylor in 1939, and the marriage lasted until 1951, constituting arguably the longest relationship in her life. After her marriage to Robert Taylor, her film career began to decline and she turned to television with a series entitled The Barbara Stanwyck Show that lasted for 1 season. But television proved to be her forte in later years, with a starring role on The Big Valley and guest spots on numerous high ranking television shows in the 1960’s through 1980’s. Her role in The Thorn Birds earned her another Emmy, and proved to audience that after all these years, she still had it.

A smoker since the age of 9, Stanwyck’s health took a turn for the worse in the late 1980’s, and she died in 1990 from acute emphysema and congestive heart failure. She never won an Oscar, and has been called the greatest actress never to have done so. She was awarded an honorary statuette shortly before her death, and dedicated it to her lifelong friend William Holden.

Happy birthday, Missy!

Happy birthday, Olivia de Havilland!

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Left: Olivia de Havilland in “Alice in Wonderland” at age 16, and right: Olivia recently at the César Awards in Paris.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Today marks the 97th birthday of the wonderful Olivia de Havilland, one of the last surviving icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the last principal cast member of Gone With the Wind. The recipient of 5 Academy Award nominations and 2 Oscars (earned for her roles in To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949), the Presidential Medal of the Arts and, recently, the coveted Légion d’Honneur from former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Olivia de Havilland is a true legend and a treasure to the industry.

The powerful final scene of The Heiress, which, in my opinion, singlehandedly won her the Oscar.

Born in Tokyo, she moved to the United States at the age of two and a half and grew up in Saratoga, CA. She acted in local plays before making her big break in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by Max Reinhardt. Hollywood followed and she rose to stardom at Warner Brothers (with a loan out to David O. Selznick for a little picture called Gone With the Wind, earning her her first Oscar nomination for the portrayal of the mild and kind Melanie), subsequently breaking out of her contract via a landmark ruling that is still discussed in entertainment law books today, a ruling known as the de Havilland decision. Without a studio contract, she had the freedom to choose her own roles and chose wisely, accruing both of her Oscars after her tenure at Warner Brothers.

After a rocky marriage to the novelist Marcus Goodrich, Olivia relocated to Paris in 1953 with her 3-year-old son Benjamin. She wanted to pursue a fledgling romance with Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, whom she had met at a film festival shortly before. They soon married and had a daughter, Gisèle, in 1956. Though the marriage ultimately didn’t last, Olivia and Pierre remained the best of friends and shared the same house for many years after the divorce. It was Olivia who was taking care of him when he died in her house in the 1990’s. Not long before, her son Benjamin had also passed away at her home, from complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

With Benjamin, shortly after their move to Paris.

Contrary to the enormous fame she attained at the height of her stardom in the 1930’s and 1940’s, she maintains a relatively low profile nowadays, making her home in the same modest Paris townhouse that she has occupied since she first moved to Paris in 1953. Since the death of her son, she has been very involved with the American Cathedral in Paris, whom she credits with providing her enormous support in dealing with Benjamin’s long and difficult struggle with cancer. She is also enormously active in the Anglophone community as a whole, often hosting benefits and fundraisers at her home for the American Library and the American University in Paris.

As many of you know, I had the great pleasure to meet Ms. de Havilland at the American Library in Paris 2 years ago when she was introducing I Remember Better When I Paint, a documentary she recently narrated. I found her just the way I hoped she would be–sweet, modest, demonstrative (she held my hand as we talked), and incredibly beautiful. Age seems to have nothing on her, she looks just as beautiful now as she did in her Hollywood days. It was an indescribably great honor to meet her and she signed my copy of her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, that she wrote in 1962. Always the social butterfly, she stayed long after the event was over, talking to people and ignoring the whispers in her ear that her taxi was outside. After a good 3 or 4 ignored whispers, the organizers finally told her that it really was time to go, and she disappointedly sighed “Oh, they’re making me leave!”

Well Olivia, we hope you never leave! Here’s to 97 more!

Backlots is 2!

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

In 2011, having received various enthusiastic requests for a blog by which I could impart my passion for classic film to a wider audience, I decided it was time to heed the advice. After a few false starts and WordPress fumbles, that which we now know as Backlots was born in Paris on March 17, 2011. My first post was a lighthearted re-telling of Little Nellie Kelly, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. I remember feeling like a novice, and fearing that no one would read. I was soon proven wrong!

It’s hard to believe that it has been 2 years since that evening, and wow, what a 2 years it has been for Backlots! I am extraordinarily proud of this blog, and I truly treasure my time here on the site researching, writing posts, and reading all of your wonderful comments. It has become quite a fruitful endeavor, as Backlots has a pretty impressive list of achievements in its 2 years on the web.

Here is a list of some of the blog’s accolades and achievements over the past 2 years:

-Inducted into the Classic Movie Blog Association, Large Association of Movie Blogs, Classic Movie Hub, and Vintage Association of Motion Picture Blogs

-Elected Board Member of the Classic Movie Blog Association

-Winner of the CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion: “The Final Scene of The Heiress” (2011), nominated for the CiMBA Award for Best Blog Design (2012), nominated for the CiMBA Award for Best Blog Event: The Dueling Divas Blogathon (2012)

-Official Member of the Press for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Cinecon, Noir City, Noir City X-Mas, and Silent Winter

-And of course, have met and had meaningful discussions with countless fellow bloggers and readers of the site, for which I am most grateful of all.

I am so grateful to you, dear readers, for allowing Backlots to continue through your support and lovely comments, and the passion you share with me. I was so thrilled with your enthusiastic voting for the Carole Lombard Filmography Project, and your encouragement throughout the monumental (and probably slightly crazy) task that I face, wading through all of Carole Lombard’s movies. You are the reason I keep going!

Thank you, and please don’t be a stranger! I love to get comments, and I have gotten to know many readers through them. Here’s to many more years!

See you next time, and thanks again for these 2 years of joy!

PROFILE: Clara Bow

During the Silent Film Festival, I promised that I would do a profile of Clara Bow, who I think is probably one of the most alluring personalities to come out of the silent era, and beyond. As today, July 29, is her birthday, there is certainly no better time for a profile! Hers was a true rags-to-riches story, rising from the very lowest depths of poverty, abuse and trauma to being the most popular film star of her day, receiving 8,000 fan letters a week and earning the highest salary in all of Hollywood–$35,000 per week. For this reason alone she is a fascinating character–add that to the charming, exuberant, and adorable persona she exhibited onscreen, coexisting with an irresistible sex appeal, and you have the definition of what it means to be a star.

She suffered greatly throughout her life due to memories of her difficult childhood, and battled serious mental illness for much of her adult life, its trigger likely a combination of genetics from her mother (a paranoid schizophrenic) and a life that was beyond tolerable. However, through it all, she is remembered not for her troubles and struggles (as so many are), but for that singular “je ne sais quoi” that was her trademark onscreen.

Born on July 29, 1905 during an intense heat wave that was expected to kill her and her mother alike, Clara Bow’s parents never bothered to give her a birth certificate. Her mother was a diagnosed schizophrenic who was institutionalized when Clara was 16 after an attempt to kill her, and her father was a deadbeat alcoholic who some thought was mentally challenged, prone to abusive outbursts at his wife and daughter. One doesn’t have to look too deeply to notice what might have caused Clara’s later problems, but none of this deterred Clara, who was intent on becoming an actress. She applied for the Brewsters’ magazine “Fame and Fortune” contest in 1921, and to her surprise, won first place.

After a small part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922) that was cut out of the final print, Bow got her first real part–as that of a tomboy in Down to the Sea in Ships, which was released in 1923 and documented life in the whaling community. She was only 16 at the time and got 10th billing, but received considerable acclaim for her role and from there, her career took off.

“Down to the Sea in Ships,” 1923

She was signed to Preferred Pictures in 1923 and stayed with them until 1925, making such pictures as Grit (1924) and Helen’s Babies (also 1924) before signing with Paramount, where she made her biggest splash. The public immediately took to her bubbly, almost childlike presence onscreen that was juxtaposed with an intense sexuality, and she became the biggest box office draw in the business. She made 8 pictures in 1926 alone, and at the peak of her career during this period she was receiving 8,000 fan letters a week, more by far than any other Hollywood personality at that time. 1927 saw even bigger success, with It and Wings becoming the movies that defined her as a star. It provided her with the nickname “The ‘It’ Girl,” a name by which she is still known today.
Wings has the distinction of being the first film ever to win Best Picture.

It, 1927

Wings, 1927

With the popularization of sound after The Jazz Singer (1927), Clara Bow’s career looked uncertain. The studios were eager to make fewer and fewer silent films in preference for “talking pictures,” which spelled bigger profits for the studios but major problems for many silent stars. The main issue with Clara Bow was her strong Brooklyn accent that the studio found distracting and not suitable for sound movies. With her career in serious jeopardy, Clara managed to tone her accent down a bit for the sake of keeping work, and even sang some musical numbers.

However, even with these modifications, Clara was simply not cut out for sound films. Her career waned, and she made her last film in 1933, entitled Hoop-La. Clara married cowboy actor Rex Bell, later to become Lieutenant Governor of Nevada, in 1931, and the couple had 2 sons, Tony and George, to whom Clara devoted her recently unemployed life to raising. Shortly thereafter, she began to experience symptoms of a mental illness, which, after a stay at the Institute of Living, was diagnosed as schizophrenia, the same disease that had plagued her mother. As schizophrenia is strongly genetically linked, it is highly likely that she inherited it from her mother, and doctors pinpointed the beginning of the illness to the night when her mother tried to kill her. Numerous tests and treatments were tried on Clara, but eventually Clara tired of them and voluntarily left the institution, spending her last years alone at her home in Culver City. She died of a heart attack in 1965, at the age of 60.

On her birthday, I remember her vivacious, active spirit that graced so many films of the silent era, and all that she gave to the movies. She is one of the great icons in movie history, and it is always a pleasure and a joy to watch her onscreen or simply to see her in photos.

Happy birthday, Clara!

Clara Bow and family–son Tony, husband Rex Bell, and son George.