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Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Days 3 and 4–The Nitrate Prints: LAURA (1944) and BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

The 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival is coming to a close, and what a weekend it’s been. When I return home tomorrow I will write a wrap-up post summarizing my experience, but I would be remiss if I didn’t write a post today discussing the nitrate prints that festivalgoers were treated to at the Egyptian Theatre these past few days.

Nitrate film stock is known for the shimmering quality it lends to the picture, and for its unique accentuation of line, shadow, and light. It was used in the film industry through 1952, and then due to safety issues owing to its extreme flammability (it holds its own source of oxygen, and keeps burning when thrown in water), it was no longer produced. Many nitrate films were destroyed when the stock went out of production, but we’re lucky that many were also rescued. When one watches a nitrate film, one is essentially watching an “original,” the film equivalent of holding an original photograph. Very few theaters are licensed to show nitrate nowadays, because of the heightened risk of fire. In the Bay Area, where I live, only the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto is equipped to show it.

Going into the festival, one of my most anticipated screenings was Black Narcissus (1947) on nitrate. One of the most beautifully photographed movies of all time, with some of the most vibrant colors we’ve ever seen on film, I knew that it was going to be a magnificent viewing experience. What I was not particularly prepared for, however, was Laura (1944).

I debated whether or not I should go to Laura. It was programmed opposite Twentieth Century, one of my all-time favorites starring one of my all-time favorite actresses, Carole Lombard. It pained me to choose, but ultimately I decided that nitrate needed to take priority.

I’ve seen Laura many times, but was not prepared for what happened when I saw when Gene Tierney onscreen. The nitrate accentuated the lines and shadows of her face, her big, expressive eyes, and the porcelain skin under her jet-black hair. Tierney, whom I consider to be one of the most beautiful faces ever to grace the screen, was so exquisite on nitrate that tears fell from my eyes.

I must stop for a moment to discuss the print. I had a discussion with a few people afterward who were distracted by the pops and scratches on the nitrate print, which had come from the Academy as a “for your consideration” copy for the 1945 Academy Awards. The print did pop and some key lines were covered up. For me, that didn’t matter. We were there (at least I was there) to get the visual of the nitrate. Granted, I have seen this movie before and don’t necessarily need to hear the lines, but I came up with this comparison. When you look at an antique, made by a prominent designer who is known for a certain style, you don’t factor in the fact that it might have scratches on it in your analysis of the style. You look at the style in and of itself, and while the scratches might be an inconvenience, it’s really not what you’re there to look at. That’s my view of the nitrate print of Laura. I saw what I was looking for, and the rest came with the territory of looking at an old film.

With Black Narcissus, none of this was an issue. The print was beautiful, the nitrate was beautiful. Black Narcissus is a movie that has sent a chill up my spine since the first time I saw it. The story of British nuns trying to run a convent in the Himalayas, dealing with cultural differences and a dangerously unstable member of their order, the photography is breathtaking, and the ending is, to this day, considered to be one of the scariest moments in the history of British cinema.

One of the standout nitrate moments for me in Black Narcissus were when Deborah Kerr’s character, Sister Clodagh, has a flashback to when she was a young girl in love in her native Ireland.

The sparkling of the sea in the background, combined with the lines in Deborah Kerr’s hair and the serene, muted colors, brought me to tears during this scene.

The frightening penultimate scene of the movie became even scarier, if that’s possible, as the nitrate highlighted the character’s gaunt, red-tinted eyes and sick pallor.

And finally, at the end, the shot of the green leaves as the rain falls on them.

If you have never seen a film on nitrate, you owe it to yourself to find a theater near you that screens nitrate film. Or better yet, come to the TCM Classic Film Festival next year. There are only a select few theaters in the country that have a license to show nitrate, and The Egyptian Theatre’s retrofit to nitrate capabilities means that the TCM Festival will likely be showing nitrate from now on. It is one of the greatest filmgoing experiences you can have.

I’ll wrap up after I return home tomorrow. See you then, and thanks for reading!

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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.”

SHE DID IT ALL HERSELF: 100 Years of Olivia de Havilland

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100 years ago today, Olivia de Havilland was born.

5 years ago this past March (and in the very wee infancy of this blog), I was studying abroad in Paris and heard that the great Olivia de Havilland would be introducing a movie she had recently narrated, a documentary about Alzheimer’s called I Remember Better When I Paint, at the American Library in Paris.

I was ecstatic. This was at a point in my studies where I was becoming quite homesick, and had spent the past few weeks binging classic movies at the Rue Christine in order to give myself a taste of home and comfort. I had become a huge fan of Olivia de Havilland over the past few years, had seen nearly every movie she ever made, and the fact that she would be appearing at the American Library while I was there in Paris seemed almost too good to be true.

She was 94 then, and I had no idea what to expect. Her onscreen persona had been a strange and appealing combination of sweetness and vulnerability, paired with a lion’s strength and an iron will in her eyes. Her life had been a series of triumphs and challenges in the extreme–from rocky relationships with her sister Joan Fontaine and first husband Marcus Goodrich, to loving and beautiful ones with her two children and her second husband, Pierre Galante. She won two Oscars and was nominated for three more. Her childhood had been difficult in many ways, and she overcame it to become one of Hollywood’s brightest superstars and a powerful advocate for the rights of entertainment workers who almost singlehandedly destroyed the studio system. This was a woman of enormous strength.

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She was born in Tokyo, Japan on July 1, 1916, the first of two daughters to Lilian and Walter de Havilland, a British couple living abroad in Tokyo’s international district. Her sister Joan was born in 1917. In the aftermath of World War I, in March 1919, she moved with her mother and younger sister to San Francisco. Her parents were separating, and Walter stayed behind to work in Tokyo while Lilian moved with the girls to a warmer climate that would be better for their health. They soon moved from San Francisco to a smaller town an hour south, the village of Saratoga, CA. Lilian became involved with the owner of a San Jose department store, a man named George Milan Fontaine, whom she married when Olivia was 8. He was immensely strict with the girls, his harshness prompting at least one runaway attempt. They weren’t allowed any extracurricular activities, but Olivia was beginning to show a talent for drama and disobeyed her stepfather’s orders by joining the school play.

When Fontaine found out, he gave her an ultimatum. “You will either give up the play,” Olivia recalled him saying later, “or leave this house forever.” Olivia chose the latter, and at the age of 16, she left home.

I had invited several European friends, all fans of Olivia de Havilland, to come with me to the American Library to hear Olivia introduce the movie. They flew in, two from Sweden, one from Italy by way of England, the afternoon of the movie and after cramming all of our stuff into my tiny apartment near Parc Monceau, we headed over to the library. Shortly after our arrival, we saw a regal, perfectly arranged shock of white hair sticking up from the front row of chairs. It was Olivia. She was sitting perfectly straight, talking and smiling with the people introduced to her, a perfect lady. She stood up whenever she was introduced to someone, leaping out of her chair faster than someone half her age. We watched her in awe. Essentially shunned by her family, left to fend for herself at 16 years old, she had forged her own path, never looking back and creating a livelihood entirely on her own, standing tall and maintaining her dignity all the way through her life. Even at 94 years old.

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In a local production of Alice in Wonderland, shortly after she left home.

Despite the difficulties she encountered as a teenager living on her own, Olivia received a full scholarship to Mills College based on her exemplary grades. But at the same time, she auditioned and got the role of understudy for Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt, to be performed at the Hollywood Bowl and various other places in California. Olivia decided to do the play in order to build up her resume and perhaps get more scholarship money for Mills, but after going onstage several times as the understudy, Max Reinhardt was so impressed with her that he selected her to go to Hollywood with him to make the movie version.

And thus began the career of Olivia de Havilland. She was signed to Warner Bros, where she made an impression not only with the acting talent that had so impressed Max Reinhardt, but also with her huge, winsome brown eyes and distinctive voice, perfectly suited for recording with the equipment in the mid-1930s.

 

When the program was to start at the American Library, the producer of I Remember Better When I Paint, Berna Huebner, went to the podium and introduced Olivia, who would introduce the movie. Her words were loving and kind, speaking of a woman whom she had clearly come to love as a dear friend. Then Olivia came up to the podium and began to talk about the movie. I was so profoundly struck by the sound of her voice, I could barely pay attention to anything but the beautiful deep tones that were coming out of her mouth. Her voice was like melted chocolate, rising and falling dramatically with each clearly enunciated word, articulated slowly and deliberately. I have never heard a voice like hers in my life. It seemed to come from an era that is long gone–and of course it does.

During her years at Warner Bros, Olivia was often cast in damsel-in-distress roles, paired a whopping nine times with Errol Flynn. Their feelings for each other were palpable onscreen and off, but Flynn was married and Olivia refused to be the “other woman.” Still, Olivia continued to speak giddily about Flynn even in interviews many decades later, and it was clear that the love had never faded.

In 1938, she persuaded Jack Warner to loan her to Selznick International for a movie that Selznick was making based on the hit novel Gone With the Wind. Warner was reluctant, but finally allowed her to go, and Olivia signed on to play the shy, demure, ever-trusting Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.

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Cast members sign the contracts for Gone With the Wind.

It became the role of her lifetime. Above anything else, Olivia de Havilland is remembered as Melanie Hamilton, playing the character to nuanced perfection. She received her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress against costar Hattie McDaniel, with McDaniel winning the Oscar and becoming the first African-American actress to do so. De Havilland took it very much in stride.

People were very attached to Melanie, but they knew I wasn’t a supporting actress. They knew that Hattie was, and they were not tricked, and they were not deceived, and they voted for Hattie.

-Olivia de Havilland, Academy of Achievement, 2006

Back at Warner Bros, she was beginning to tire of being the damsel-in-distress, finding those parts too limiting and itching to expand her repertoire. She had been nominated for an Oscar again in 1942 for her performance in Hold Back the Dawn, but had lost to her younger sister, who had come to Hollywood and started acting under the name Joan Fontaine. Joan and Olivia eventually became fodder for the press, who scavenged for stories and contributed to the crumbling of their sibling relationship, which had never been strong. But on Oscar night, Olivia was extremely gracious and proud of her younger sister, and the press captured it.

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In the wake of her second Oscar loss, Olivia started refusing scripts from Warner Bros, resulting in suspensions that were then tacked on to the end of her contract. She seemed forever destined to the roles that she hated–and saw no light at the end of the tunnel for her career. She became very depressed, and consulted her agents to try to help her. The agents called a lawyer, who informed her of an obscure California law restricting the duration of time that a worker can be held under contract to seven years.

She went to court, and after an appeal, she won in a unanimous decision of the California Superior Court. The De Havilland Law, as the decision is now called, had and continues to have huge implications for workers in the entertainment business. It limited the power of the studios over their stars, and gave stars greater freedom to seek projects that they felt suited them, and set a precedent for workers in the music and sports fields. Most recently, Jared and Shannon Leto of the band Thirty Seconds to Mars sued in response to a musical contract issue, and won based on the De Havilland Law. They wrote Olivia personally to thank her.

From then on, Olivia’s career soared. In 1946, she played the role of a mother who gives up her illegitimate child and then tries to adopt him back in To Each His Own. The role finally won her her first Oscar. In 1948, she received another Oscar nomination for playing a mentally unstable woman whose treatment in a mental institution is documented in The Snake Pit, one of the first serious treatments of mental illness on film. Then in 1949 came another role of a lifetime, the role of a simple embroiderer set to inherit a large fortune who is courted by a man of questionable intentions in The Heiress, for which she won her second Oscar. Olivia’s metamorphosis from naïve, schoolgirlish embroiderer to bitter, jaded woman getting her revenge stands as one of the most brilliant transformations in film history.

At home, her life was becoming difficult. She was on the brink of divorce from Marcus Goodrich, whom she had married in 1946, and with whom she had had a son, Benjamin. They finally divorced in 1953, and shortly thereafter Olivia moved to France with Benjamin. Life got better in France–she married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, with whom she had a daughter, Gisèle. She continued to work, though more sporadically now than before, and focus her energy on raising her children. She wrote a witty memoir in 1962 called Every Frenchman Has One, recounting anecdotes of living as a foreigner in France.

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With her two children: Benjamin (left) and Gisèle (right).

Benjamin, a prodigious mathematician, grew up to be a statistical analyst and died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993. Gisèle became a respected journalist like her father, and currently lives in the Los Angeles area.

Olivia became an American citizen in 1943 and has long been dedicated to the bastions of American culture in Paris, devoting her time and resources to the American University, the American Library, and the American Cathedral. It was her commitment to the American Library that brought I Remember Better When I Paint to France, and Olivia de Havilland to me. After her introduction, she sat down and watched the movie with the crowd–delighting in the movie as a simple member of the audience. It was a memorable moment. I watched one of the towers of the entertainment world sitting on a simple folding chair, laughing at a movie’s funny parts and furrowing her brow at the sad parts, just like the rest of us.

After it was over, we prepared to leave. Olivia was taken by the arm by one of the library staff, and accompanied out of the main room. But just as we were about to head out the door, we saw that shock of white hair again–this time behind the library desk, as Olivia chatted with the audience members who had come to see her. She had somehow broken free of the library staff member who was supposed to lead her to her car, and she was simply interacting with those who had loved her for so many years.

Just in case, we had brought things for Olivia to sign. I had brought my copy of Every Frenchman Has One, and my friends and I excitedly positioned ourselves in the crowd. She talked with us for several minutes, asking us where we had gotten our long out-of-print books and interacting in just as charming and gracious a way as she did on the screen.

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When it finally came time for her to leave, she went unwillingly. “They’re making me leave!” she exclaimed. It took her another good few minutes to get out the door, and when she did, we saw that she had come to the event alone at 94 years old.

And so it has always been. She did it all herself.

Happy 100th birthday, Olivia. There is no one more deserving of this special birthday than you.

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KNOWLEDGE IS POWER: The Subtle Messages of BORN YESTERDAY (1950)

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A few days ago, as I spent a sick afternoon at home, I was pleased to discover the delightful Born Yesterday (1950) playing on TCM. This is a movie that has always fascinated me–Judy Holliday’s performance as the dim-witted Billie Dawn won her an Oscar for the Best Actress of 1950, in the face of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, both nominated for the roles of their careers. Holliday’s win has always been a bit of an enigma, so much so that in the process of trying to “figure her out,” I’ve developed a real fondness for Judy Holliday and her all-too-brief career. To me, she’s one of the most underappreciated and underutilized comediennes of the era, and her early death was a huge loss to the industry.

Holliday’s Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday stands out as her best-known role, a part she originated on the Broadway stage before signing on to reprise the role in the movie. On the surface, the movie is a fluffy comedy about a rather intellectually dull woman who studies with a tutor to expand her mind. It seems to be standard code-era fare. But upon a deeper examination of the plot, and of the character of Billie Dawn, one is hit with some powerful messages about women’s rights, and the political climate in which the movie was made.

Billie Dawn is a poorly-educated New Yorker, living with her gangster fiancé on a long-term business venture in Washington, D.C. Billie often embarrasses Harry with her ignorance, and in order to make a better impression on his business contacts, Harry engages a tutor, Paul (William Holden), to teach Billie the ways of the world. The two get on swimmingly. Billie loves learning, and Paul respects her mind and her autonomy in a way that Harry doesn’t. In interacting with Paul, and in learning more about the way the world works, Billie comes to the realization that Harry abuses and takes advantage of her, and she must leave him.

Advocating for a woman’s right to educate herself, and for her right to leave an abusive relationship, was forward-thinking in 1950. Despite women taking the jobs of overseas men during WWII and the resulting spike in women’s employment in the postwar years, the prevailing thought in 1940s and early 1950s American media continued to be that women should be subservient to their husbands, and that education for women was futile. Few movies challenged this view, with the perhaps singular exception of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy Woman of the Year, released 8 years prior. In Woman of the Year, we are presented with a mirror image of Billie Dawn, in Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of the very educated, self-reliant Tess Harding, who becomes involved with Spencer Tracy’s meat-and-potatoes, sports-enthusiast Sam Craig. They fall in love, and at the end of the movie (spoiler alert), we see Tess trying to eschew her intellectual gifts for domestic life with Sam, trying (and failing) to make him breakfast in the final scene. Sam encourages her to simply be herself, and not change for him. Tess had fallen victim to the same views that plagued the majority of women of that era, and many were not as lucky as she was.

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Here, with Born Yesterday, we see a shift in the narrative. “It’s a new world, Harry,” says a business associate of Harry’s, late in the movie. “Force and reason are changing places. Knowledge is power.” When Billie returns to Harry, newly educated, she encounters his brute force as he beats and yells at her. With her newfound sense of confidence and power from her education, she sees him for what he is and leaves him for Paul. An empowering message for women of the early 1950s, often trapped in abusive or unfulfilling marriages.

The “knowledge is power” theme of Born Yesterday is especially meaningful when viewed through the political lens of the late 1940s and early 1950s. McCarthyism was at its peak, with many in Hollywood as its targets. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the raw, ignorant fears of the American populace regarding communism, while the defenders of the Hollywood Ten and other blacklisted individuals fought against the base ignorance of McCarthy’s followers. In its own subtle way, Born Yesterday takes sides, and fights against the core ideology of McCarthyism by asserting that “knowledge is power,” and that brute ignorance is destructive and harmful.

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead the Committee for the First Amendment, organized to support the Hollywood Ten.

In a side note, Judy Holliday was blacklisted herself in 1952. When testifying before the subcommittee, she took on the distinctive voice and persona of Billie Dawn, confounding those asking her questions and, possibly, saving her career. Despite being blacklisted from certain media for 10 years, she ultimately returned and everything got back to normal–she worked in films and on the stage until shortly before her death in 1965.

While today’s world has changed in its attitudes toward women and education, we are currently faced with an epidemic of anti-intellectualism in our politics, reminiscent of the McCarthy years in its prideful ignorance. It is significant that the movie takes place in Washington, D.C., and extols the virtues of knowledge and education in the very location where our government is centered. We might do well to remember the message of this movie in this day and age, when knowledge and expertise are all too disposable in our political system.

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Highlights From the TCM Classic Film Festival

Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur in a scene from THE MORE THE MERRIER, 1943.

The TCM Classic Film Festival came to a close last night, and I am currently fighting off a tremendous case of sleep deprivation following my flight home at 6:15 in the morning. Despite my lack of sleep, I still feel the elation of the festival in every fiber of my being.

What a weekend it was. Attendees come from all over the country and the world, and every year it feels like a family reunion–except, as a friend of mine put it, for the fact that “everyone likes each other.” Those of us who are regular attendees can hardly walk 10 feet across the Roosevelt Hotel lobby in less than half an hour, because everyone we see is a close friend whom we haven’t seen in a year. It’s truly unlike anywhere else.

As expected, the highlight of the festival was the screening of The More the Merrier at the Egyptian Theatre. The pure joy and infectious laughter of the crowd was something very rare and unique to festivals like TCM–this level of excitement is not something one encounters at the standard neighborhood movie theater. It reminded me of just how special this festival is, and why we keep coming back year after year.

The More the Merrier is a movie that we had been fighting tooth and nail to bring to TCM for some time now. Along with my fellow fans of the movie, I was slightly concerned that it wouldn’t get much of a showing, owing to the fact that it was scheduled opposite Shanghai Express and Love Me or Leave Me. We shouldn’t have worried. The theater was packed, and the audience enjoyed themselves more than at any other screening I attended, 9:00 in the morning or not.

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Another highlight for me was the wonderful Midnight, starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. The movie was introduced by Bonnie Hunt, who lauded it as one of her favorites, and then backed up her claim by staying to watch it with us. She is a charming presenter, filled with humor and a down-to-earth air about her. As with The More the Merrier, the audience was enthusiastic and involved, laughing out loud at the perfect Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett script about a chorus girl who gets caught up in a millionaire’s scheme. My favorite line: “When I married, I didn’t realize that in the Czerny family there was a streak of… shall we say, eccentricity. And yet, I had warning. Why else should his grandfather have sent me, as an engagement present, one roller skate covered with thousand island dressing?” Claudette Colbert is a gem, and John Barrymore does a hilarious scene on the telephone in which he pretends to be Ameche’s wife and daughter.

Barrymore died a mere 3 years later. While he showed a talent for comedy early on, he never truly became known as a comedy star–something that may have come had he lived longer. His performances in Midnight and Twentieth Century 5 years earlier are world-class.

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On Friday night, I went to see Angela Lansbury interviewed before a showing of The Manchurian Candidate. The line to get in was one of the longest I have ever seen in any of my years attending the TCM Festival. I knew it was going to be packed, so I got there over an hour early. By the time I arrived around 6:45 for the 8:00 interview, the line had snaked around to the side of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, up the stairs, through Hollywood and Highland center, and almost around to the back of the complex. Despite my early arrival, I was number 293 in line.

Angela Lansbury is one of the most versatile and prolific actors alive. She has excelled phenomenally in every medium she has attempted, becoming a legend of film, a legend of the Broadway stage, and a legend of television in equal measure. Very few people achieve the level of stardom that she has, even in one medium–and she has conquered them all. TCM festivalgoers know this, and the level of respect that she has earned among this crowd is immense.

Trying to contain an interview with Angela Lansbury within the confines of one single movie is futile. Lansbury’s career is so immense and far-reaching that a focus only on The Manchurian Candidate gives the impression of a big elephant in the room–the rest of her career. While interviewers have set guidelines to follow, and interviewer Alec Baldwin had to bring her back to The Manchurian Candidate at some point, there were moments where Angela Lansbury clearly wanted to talk about her early career in film, and about her roles as Mame Dennis in Mame and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. She is prime material for a lengthy interview, along the lines of what TCM does every year–last year with Sophia Loren and this year with Faye Dunaway. And judging by the line I stood in, number 293 over an hour before the interview, there is a Grauman’s Chinese Theater-full of people who agree.

The Hollywood home movies were a joy. We were treated to behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of The More the Merrier (which obviously made me happy), footage from Marjorie Morningstar, and home movies of the Nicholas Brothers, presented by Fayard Nicholas’ son, Tony. Tony’s daughters and grandchildren were there as well, and we had a nice surprise when one of the grandchildren, who looked to be about 9 years old, did an impromptu tap routine. It is comforting to know that the out-of-this-world talent of the Nicholas Brothers is being passed on through the generations.

The reasoning behind my current sleep deprivation is the fact that I was originally scheduled to fly home last night. But when I saw the schedule and realized that Network was playing on Sunday night, I changed my flight to early the next morning. There was no way I was going to miss it.

As I have mentioned before, I consider Network to be one of the most timely, prescient and telling movies ever made. It was a thrill to hear audiences gasping with recognition at lines such as “We are talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television,” recognizing the eerie parallels with today’s election news cycles. There were some people who laughed all the way through the movie, something that I felt to be a recognition of the absurdity of the story. But upon leaving the theater, a friend of mine expressed that she was upset that people laughed during the movie, that it trivialized the brilliance of it. I’m not sure which one of us is in the right, but I think it was unexpected for us both.

Once again, a remarkable festival. Here are some things that I would like to see next year:

  • A Conversation With Angela Lansbury
  • More pre-Codes. Double Harness, the William Powell pre-Code that showed on Friday morning, filled up quickly and left many people disappointed. It was rescheduled for Sunday, and filled up yet again. Every year, the pre-Codes fill up. This, to me, means that the TCM Film Festival crowd has a special affinity for this era.
  • As an addendum to the previous point, I would love to see a showing of Ladies They Talk About (1933). Combining Barbara Stanwyck with pre-Codes would be a surefire hit for the festival.

Thank you, TCM, for a wonderful festival this year. I can’t wait for next year’s “family reunion!”

Patty Duke (Anna Pearce): 1946-2016

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Patty Duke with Helen Keller, whom she portrayed in The Miracle Worker (1962).

I was shocked and saddened today to learn of the death of Patty Duke, the actress and activist whose legacy spanned the entire scope of the entertainment world and beyond.

At 16 years old in 1963, Patty Duke was the youngest person to win an Oscar up to that time, for her extraordinary work playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, a role she had also originated on Broadway. Years later, she became president of the Screen Actors Guild, only the second woman to hold the post in the history of the organization. All the while, she battled a debilitating case of bipolar disorder, a challenge that she outlined in her autobiography and over which she ultimately gained control, to become one of the most prominent and active voices in the push for mental health awareness.

I was lucky enough to meet Anna (as she liked to be called) when she came to San Francisco in 2009 to play in the touring production of Wicked. She impressed me mightily. Down-to-earth, sweet, kind, and smart as a whip, she embodied the spirit of how to come through some of life’s biggest challenges without a trace of bitterness.

Born Anna Marie Duke in 1946, she entered show business at a very young age, represented by a couple named the Rosses. Although it was under their supervision that she garnered the role of a lifetime in The Miracle Worker, the Rosses were the very definition of nightmare managers. Changing her name from Anna to “Patty” in order to make her more marketable as a child star, and the couple became increasingly manipulative and abusive toward her as she grew. The torment she suffered at their hands probably led, she later said, to the manifestation of the illness that defined much of her life.

After her breakthrough role in The Miracle Worker and winning the Oscar for the film version in 1963, she was given her own TV show, The Patty Duke Show, that showed her in quite a different light. Playing a typical teenager living at home with her parents and little brother, the show depicted a life that was anything but typical for the young actress. Nonetheless, the show may be how most people, that is, baby boomers and those of us who grew up with Nick @ Nite, remember Patty Duke. As “identical cousins” Patty and Cathy Lane, she displays a versatility and ability for a nuanced performance that is remarkable for the teenager that she still was. In several episodes, the plot calls for one “cousin” to impersonate the other. In her performance, Patty Duke makes clear, in a way that is somewhat intangible, that she is playing a character doing an impression. We, as the audience, can make a distinction between Duke’s portrayals of “Patty” and “Patty playing Cathy,” through small but distinct trademarks that she weaves into the characters. That type of dramatic nuance rarely existed in sitcoms of the early 1960s, and especially not when it came to standard teenage fare that The Patty Duke Show aimed to be.

Toward the end of the show’s run in 1966, she finally managed to extricate herself from the tight grip of the Rosses and take control of her own career.

Shortly after the wrap of The Patty Duke Show and in the wake of her newfound independence from the Rosses, she began filming Valley of the Dolls in the role of Neely O’Hara, a character loosely based on Judy Garland. The director was terrible and the material mediocre, and its critical failure left Duke ashamed of having been involved with it at all. But the movie has become a camp classic, and she came to embrace in later years. During the run of Wicked in 2009, Duke participated in a wonderful event at the Castro Theatre in which she was interviewed prior to a screening of Valley of the Dolls. I was in the audience that night, as her wit and intelligence shone through as she told the story of working with Judy Garland herself, originally cast as Helen Lawson, in the early days of filming Valley of the Dolls.

By the time of Valley of the Dolls, her health was starting to spiral out of control, and it affected her work in the 1970s and 1980s. In spite of erratic appearances at awards shows and in public, she managed to continue to work, and work effectively. She married actor John Astin in 1972, and had two sons, Sean and Mackenzie. In 1985, she was named president of the Screen Actors’ Guild and presided over difficult and tumultuous times for the organization. After finally receiving a mental health diagnosis in the mid-1980s, she spoke of the feeling of relief that it gave her. “I thought ‘thank God,” she later said. “It has a name.” She wrote her autobiography, Call Me Anna, in 1987 that dealt in detail with the diagnosis and her harrowing childhood. It was eventually made into a TV movie, and she retired from her position as the president of the Screen Actors’ Guild in order to produce and star in it herself. She stabilized her own condition shortly following the diagnosis and became a voice for mental health, the likes of which had not been seen before her.

Her marriage to John Astin dissolved around the time of her presidency of the Screen Actors’ Guild, and on the set of a TV movie in 1985 she met her future husband, Mike Pearce, to whom she would remain married for the rest of her life. They adopted a third son, Kevin, in 1988, and on March 15 celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

I’ve had the great fortune to have met many well-known people from the classic film world, but since I met Anna in 2009, she has held a truly special place in my heart. I am often asked for stories about the people I’ve been able to meet, and I have always said that my experience with Patty Duke is the most treasured of all. The sheer force of her personality, her warmth, and her affection were contagious, and I felt her love of life radiating from her. It is difficult to know that she is gone now, but her contributions to the industry will live on, as will my memories of her.

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With your author in 2009.

Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

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Earlier this week, I received confirmation that Backlots will once again be covering the TCM Classic Film Festival in late April. This will be my 4th year at the festival, and I couldn’t be happier and more honored to be taking part in this special event.

The TCM Classic Film Festival is now in its 7th year, and has grown to become perhaps the biggest film festival in the world that focuses solely on classics. Classic film fans the world over flock to Hollywood during the week of the festival (generally in mid- to late April), to see their favorite films on the big screen, preview state-of-the-art restorations, and attend discussions and interviews with leading figures of the film world.

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Sophia Loren at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, interviewed by her son, Edoardo Ponti.

Holders of the highest pass level are given the red carpet treatment, quite literally, as they walk the red carpet alongside the stars, filmmakers, and other Hollywood celebrities into the highly coveted opening night movie. In previous years, the opening night movie has been a Technicolor musical, usually celebrating a significant anniversary in the festival year, shown with members of the cast in attendance. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of The King and I, a movie that fits all the criteria for TCM’s opening night traditions, and early talk among film fans online was that this would likely open the festival, possibly with Rita Moreno in attendance.

However, TCM issued a surprise announcement a few weeks ago, shaking up our expectations for the opening night movie, and announced that All the President’s Men (1976) would open the festival. This being an election year, it is a meaningful choice and we now have new criteria by which to predict future opening night movies.

As for The King and I, that movie will be shown during the festival proper, along with such draws as The Song of Bernadette (1943), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and a special presentation of the silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), among many others.

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One of the highlights of the TCM Festival for fans is the appearances made by classic Hollywood legends. Every year, a major classic film star makes an appearance and has an interview, often with Robert Osborne. Last year, the guest was Sophia Loren, and this year the festival continues with the Italian theme with the appearance of Gina Lollobrigida, who will present two of her films, her Golden Globe-nominated Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968) and Trapeze (1956).

Another event that draws a crowd is the yearly footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre  (now officially TCL Chinese Theatre–but always Grauman’s to classic film fans). In 2016, the honors will go to Francis Ford Coppola, who will place his hand and footprints in the famed forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in front of a mass of fans and press. This is often the highlight of the festival, and festivalgoers often start lining up early in the morning just to secure a spot.

It promises to be a fun year. If you would like to attend the festival, there are still limited passes available. Go to http://www.tcm.com/festival and I hope to see you there!