Tag Archives: classic film

Movies and an Unmanageable World

Dear readers, if you’re at all like me, you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. Unimaginable things are happening in this country and the world, and in our current digital landscape, there seems to be no escape. Each day we’re bombarded with images, sounds, and feelings of helplessness, as we come to terms with a world over which we have little control.

In previous posts, I have discussed the power of movies to heal and to transport. Many of us have been feeling the past few weeks very strongly, and protests, marches, and demonstrations are frequently followed by desolation and depression when nothing happens. In view of this, I polled “classic film Twitter” to learn people’s comfort movies, to help with feelings brought on by the powerlessness we have in our world today. Here are some suggestions from the classic film Twittersphere.

My question: “Classic film fans–what are the movies that you watch to cheer up, and why? Mine is THE THIN MAN. No matter what’s going on, it always makes me happy.”

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@Shannon_Of_Oz says:

The Wizard of Oz. Always. It meant so much to me growing up. And at 32 it still does. Heroes can wear ruby red slippers and you can always go home again. Everything about it is absolutely superb, even the mistakes. I could go on and on about Judy Garland too.

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@celluloidsoul says:

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Anxiety, stress, pain, (multiple viewings while recovering from surgery)… there’s no balm more calming than ’s voice in this performance. The entire cast is perfect. It just takes me somewhere else whenever I feel lost or distressed.

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@Scifilia says:

Thin Man as well. It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, My Man Godfrey, Arsenic and Old Lace. So I guess movies where clever people say clever things, wear fabulous clothes, perform some physical comedy, and live happily ever after. It’s like comfort food.

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@earnehaffey says:

The Gay Divorcee leaves me with that wonderful carefree feeling of being on vacation. And just once I want to go to a gala night on the esplanade 😁

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@NancyEB says:

I go for the comedies: the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, the Road pictures with Hope and Crosby. My dad, who has since passed, introduced me to the classic comedians and I feel like he is still with me when I watch these movies.

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@scarlettboulev2 says:

Bringing Up Baby. Can’t watch that without laughing!

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@awellreadsnark says:

Princess Bride because it’s hilariously funny, sweet, has amazing sword fights, and in the end good triumphs over evil and true love wins. What could be more delightful?

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@claresmith1888 says:

His Girl Friday. Funny, smart, poignant and the gorgeous Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Makes everything better.

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@EmilyJS7 says:

When Christmas stress is getting to me, I watch The Bishop’s Wife with David Niven, Loretta Young, and Cary Grant. The overall message is so important but there are so many little things to make you smile like the refilling bottle, decorating the tree, and skating in the park.

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@Decervelage says:

I grew up in an era where WPIX in NYC’s Sunday line-up was Sherlock Holmes, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chan, Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys, Universal or Hammer horror films, and then Kung Fu Theater at noon. Glorious times for a young film nerd.

 

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In polling Twitter, I was fascinated by the repeat film suggestions. The two most suggested movies for when you need a boost of spirit, given no parameters by decade or genre, were The Thin Man and Bringing Up Baby, two screwball comedies from the 1930s. This is, perhaps, not surprising. In the midst of the Depression, movies aimed to do exactly that–provide a means of escape from a reality that was grim, and a future that was uncertain.

I don’t know how to fix what’s happening, but let’s start by caring for ourselves and each other, with the help of the movies. I hope that your favorite movie will inspire you to take action against what is going on–you can start here.

Now I open it up to you, readers–what are your favorite movies to watch when you need to remove yourself from the chaos of the world? I look forward to hearing from you!

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Backlots at the TCM Classic Film Festival–And Lara in Attendance for SHOW PEOPLE (1928)

Dear readers, I have been keeping mum on news about the TCM Classic Film Festival until I got confirmation of some news of my own. That confirmation arrived in my inbox two days ago and was made public today…so here I am to let you know that Backlots has press credentials for the TCM Classic Film Festival, and (my own news) that I will be in attendance to introduce the Saturday night screening of Marion Davies’ Show People (1928).

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Each year, the TCM Classic Film Festival brings together classic film fans from around the world, many of whom know each other already, due to the powers of the internet. It often feels like one big family reunion, where everyone speaks the language of classic film–complete with in-depth references to Barbara Stanwyck’s pre-codes, Ann Miller’s hair, and who should have played Ashley in Gone With the Wind. Nowhere else on earth could these conversations occur at the depth at which they do at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and for many attendees, meeting others with similar interests is a rare and welcome occasion.

This is Backlots’ 6th year covering the festival. This year will be different, as my appearance at Show People means that I will be a very busy person during TCM Festival week. But I will do my utmost to bring you coverage as I have in all previous years–with a live Twitter feed and a blog post every night as I’m able.

Please stay tuned for more updates as I have them!

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Decision in Olivia de Havilland vs. FX

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This afternoon, a decision came in for the case of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX, which I have been following closely here. The appeals court has decided to “reverse and remand” the case to lower court, overturning the decision of lower court judge Holly Kendig and giving the case to Feud.

A statement by Ryan Murphy says “The reversal is a victory for the creative community, and the First Amendment. Today’s victory gives all creators the breathing room necessary to continue to tell important historical stories inspired by true events. Most of all, it’s a great day for artistic expression and a reminder of how precious our freedom remains.”

As I have made clear in other posts, the day is great only for docudramas that want to tell half-truths and outright lies, planting seeds of gossip and rumor in viewers’ minds that grow to create a warped lens through which they view history. Ryan Murphy doesn’t have a particular interest in keeping those seeds of gossip and rumor at bay–he profits from this era where no one really knows where the truth lies. Not only do these half-truths and outright lies make Olivia de Havilland’s life difficult, but also mine. As a film writer and historian, I and others like me have to be the ones to untie all the knots that Feud has created.

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After the decision was released, I told myself that I would read the opinion with an open mind. Perhaps the justices would say something that I hadn’t thought of. But as soon as I opened and read it, it was clear to me that this case had been decided on erroneous legal precedent. The Guglielmi case, to which the author of the opinion, Justice Anne Egerton, refers frequently, is only applicable to dead people. California Civil Code 3344.1 exempts docudramas and dramatic interpretations from right of publicity claims if the person is dead, but the statute from which it branches, California Civil Code 3344, does not exempt them from right of publicity claims if the person is alive. If they had used a deceased celebrity, they would be protected under the Guglielmi decision. Not so with a living person.

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From the decision. This is not correct. De Havilland was within her legal right to challenge a historically inaccurate portrayal. If it had been accurate, she wouldn’t have been able to touch it. But it wasn’t, so she can and she did.

The decision also references Sarver vs. Chartier, also known as the “Hurt Locker” case. But once again, this doesn’t have anything to do with the de Havilland case at hand. In this particular instance, Sarver agreed to let people film him and the resulting character in the movie was a composite, so he had no case and it was thrown out of court. De Havilland did not agree, and the character was not a composite. I believe that the appeals court may be misconstruing “raw materials of life” in Sarver to mean something that it doesn’t.

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In reference to this part of the decision, in addition to the comments about Sinatra’s drinking not being defamatory or offensive, I think the court is giving too much credit to the average, reasonable viewer of Feud. In a previous post, I discussed my talks on Marion Davies, and how I frequently have to spend far more time debunking myths propagated by The Cat’s Meow than those myths are worth. Far too many people watch docudramas and believe they’re telling the truth–then, no matter how many facts are provided to disprove them, they keep believing the more exciting story. This ruling allows producers of docudramas to exploit that tendency, rewrite history, and put the onus on the historians to correct it.

We do know that there had been a draft opinion before the oral arguments, and it looks as though the case will proceed to a higher court. A statement from Suzelle Smith, de Havilland’s attorney, reads in part: “Miss de Havilland, her many fans all over the world, and actors in similar situations are rightly disappointed in this Opinion.  The Opinion does not properly balance the First Amendment with other important rights.  This case appears to be destined for a higher court, and we will be preparing the appropriate petition for such review.”

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!

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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