Tag Archives: classic film

Hollywood and the Office of War Information, 1942-1945

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The other day as I was eating breakfast, I began to think (as normal people do) about wartime food rationing. Today, few people blink an eye when eating an omelette or a cookie, which consist almost entirely of foods rationed during wartime, but when the United States entered World War II and began limiting the availability of many goods, the content of meals was an everyday concern.

Rationing, enacted by the United States government in response to the increased military needs of wartime, was not an easy sell to the American public. In order to convince the public to accept rationing, and other wartime necessities in the eyes of the government, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt had to get creative. The Office of War Information was tasked with making the American people believe that the government was doing what was best for them and for the world. To achieve that goal, they turned to Hollywood.

From the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, the Office of War Information had played an integral role in maintaining American support for the war effort. Formed by executive order in June of 1942, it partnered with Hollywood almost immediately as an image liaison to the general public. As OWI director Elmer Davis said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized.” Roosevelt agreed–the medium of motion pictures were a powerful tool, he felt, and the restrictions on the film industry were much lighter than other industries, allowing for maximum utility. He instructed the OWI to implement a Bureau of Motion Pictures, which would serve as a New Deal stronghold and would influence the content of nearly all of Hollywood’s output during the time of its existence. The Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, released by the BMP in June of 1942, underscored that World War II was to be seen as the common man’s war, that the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear) were at stake for the whole world, and this was to be shown in the films screened in American theaters. Soon, the Manual for the Motion Picture Industry became the go-to book for employees working in wartime Hollywood.

From banning re-releases of Gunga Din and Kim due to the government’s anti-imperial stance, to forbidding the international release of The Palm Beach Story (Americans would be viewed as too silly, they said), the OWI’s influence on the industry was far-reaching. By the end of 1942, nearly all major studios were allowing the OWI to examine their scripts and story treatments, toward the end goal of “Will This Picture Help Win the War?” Short films began to appear touting the war effort, often featuring major stars. Here is a Warner Bros short film featuring Bette Davis encouraging Americans to buy war bonds instead of Christmas presents.

Chuck Jones and the Leon Schlesinger Unit at Warner Bros produced “The Point Rationing of Foods” for the Office of War Information, to sell the concept of rationing to the American people. The United States had begun rationing almost immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The change was introduced gradually, with the government rationing one item at a time, but by the end of 1943, most everyday items were rationed.

In order to prevent hoarding and people selling goods on the black market for a higher price, the government instituted price ceilings for rationed items, as seen in “Prices Unlimited.” Here, we also see how ration boards worked, and the government’s idea of what would have happened if rationing were not implemented.

After Republicans made major gains in Congress in the 1942 congressional election, the House of Representatives voted to defund the entire Domestic Branch of the OWI for 1944, seeing it as just a mouthpiece for Roosevelt’s policies. Funding was ultimately restored, but with severe restrictions, and the office was officially closed with the end of the war in 1945. With the rise of the Red Scare coinciding with the end of the war, many of those involved with the BMP and the OWI in Hollywood were targeted for being communists, and several employees admitted to having belonged to communist front organizations. Elmer Davis, who became a journalist after the war, was vocal in his defense of his colleagues in the wake of invasive investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. In his book, But We Were Born Free, he blasts McCarthy and the HUAC hearings as “a master class of obscene innuendo.”

In signing the Executive Order ending the OWI, President Harry S. Truman credited the OWI with an “outstanding contribution to victory,” and while its underlying morals of propaganda are controversial today, the OWI’s work is considered to be an important part of American mobilization on the home front.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) on Women in Political Life

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Last night, I was pleased to see that KQED, my local PBS affiliate, was showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for their weekly Saturday night movie program. I have always loved this film, and deeply respect the emotional integrity and intelligence it brings to the screen.

It’s hard to imagine that at one time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was very subversive and controversial. Today, its message of resilience is so universal that any overt political message is overshadowed to the modern eye. But when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered at the National Press Club in Washington, many senators were present and a large group of them walked out, offended at the governmental corruption the film depicted. Joseph P. Kennedy tried to prevent the film’s release in Europe, as he felt it would encourage the Axis powers. At the time of the film’s release, government had not yet acquired the reputation of corruption that we now take so for granted. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington changed that to a large extent.

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The film’s influence on the decline of the studio system is well-documented. United States v. Paramount Pictures et al struck down the studios’ practice of block booking (wherein a theater had to purchase 5 films to show 1), because so many theaters opposed to purchasing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its foreshadowing of the McCarthy era, and the political control of media outlets and the information they disseminate to the public, has, deservedly, been analyzed many times. This is part of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s lasting legacy. What I want to talk about is something that is not often discussed–the complex and subtle commentaries on women in politics that exist within the film.

In the Roosevelt era, women were just beginning to gain a foothold in American political life. The film’s references to “96 men” when referring to the makeup of the Senate (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states), is not an accurate picture of the Senate in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was conceived in an election year where a number of high profile races were taking place, one of which was an Arkansas race between Republican C.D. Atkinson and Democrat Hattie Caraway. Caraway, the incumbent, had been the first woman ever elected to the Senate. Much like the fictional Jefferson Smith, she had been appointed to the Senate (following her husband’s death), then was reelected in her own right the next year. In spite of tough opposition in 1938, she won another reelection with a landslide 89.6% victory over Atkinson.

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Senator Hattie Caraway in her office.

Senator Caraway’s presence is ignored in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps for several reasons. While the movie was filmed in early 1939 after Caraway’s victory, the script was written prior to the election. The screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly, likely did not want to predict the outcome. And even after her victory, pointing out a woman in the Senate may have felt too political, regardless of the fact that Caraway was indeed in the Senate. Or, perhaps, they were trying to create a completely unrecognizable governmental body.

Whatever the reason for leaving Senator Caraway out of the picture, a true female political force is indeed revealed in the movie, through the character of Saunders, played to perfection by Jean Arthur.

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Saunders, whose first name we learn is Clarissa, is Jefferson Smith’s fast-talking legal secretary. She is a bit cynical and jaded, a true Washington insider, but maintains a sense of humor. Whip-smart and experienced, she scoffs at the newbie Jefferson Smith, who has been appointed from some unnamed western state when the previous senator died, and she lectures him on congressional procedure when he gets too optimistic about his bill to open a boys camp at Willet Creek. Saunders is respected by men, and is considered their equal. At one point, Smith pries her first name out of her and he lets it sit for a moment, repeats it, then goes back to calling her Saunders. When he mounts his famous filibuster against the Willet Creek Dam Project at the end, she coaches him from the gallery, walking him through the entire process. She is smarter than anyone else in the room, and more strategic. It is clear that in a just world, she would have been the one named replacement senator.

In Jean Arthur’s gutsy characterization of Saunders, we see a strong, intelligent woman whose gender relegates her to work as a political secretary rather than a politician, and who directs a marathon filibuster from the balcony to which she is relegated as a bystander. The characterization can be read not only as a commentary on the general situation of women in the United States, but also as a call for women to be accepted as full and participating members of public life.

The film ends ambiguously, with Jefferson Smith taken out of the Senate chamber after fainting, and the corrupt Senator Paine confessing to his crimes. I like to think that perhaps following this ambiguous ending, for Saunders too, there is a political future.

This last midterm election, the United States elected a congressional body with the highest percentage of women in history. Somewhere, Hattie Caraway is cheering, and Saunders is finally no longer on the sidelines.

 

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STRONG AND TENDER: The Story of Carole Lombard and Bess Peters

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When Carole Lombard received an Oscar nomination for My Man Godfrey, she was asked where her talent for screwball comedy came from. On the surface, Carole’s own early life had been much like the one her character Irene Bullock lived. She was likely expected to answer that the role came naturally to her because of her youth. But instead she replied with a surprising answer–the character of Irene Bullock, she felt, had a sense of tragedy about her. She never specified what that tragedy was that she saw in Irene Bullock, in much the same way that Carole rarely spoke about the complexities of her childhood experiences in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Those childhood experiences, the good and the bad, served as the underlying inspiration for her portrayal of Irene Bullock and also formed the foundation of her bond with her mother, Bess Peters.

This past weekend, I attended Kimberly Truhler’s pre-code Style and Sin lecture at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. These presentations are extremely popular, drawing crowds from the classic film world and the style world alike, as Kimberly delivers talks on the fashion of pre-code Hollywood and how it has influenced the styles of today. This past weekend focused on the fashion and films of Carole Lombard, with a double feature following of Virtue and Twentieth Century. I knew that I couldn’t miss it, so I came down to Los Angeles for the event.

As Kimberly spoke about Carole Lombard’s childhood, it dawned on me that very little has been written about the strong bond that existed between Carole Lombard and her mother. It was a bond that grew out of a hardship barely visible to outsiders, but that marked Carole in ways that she rarely let show.

Bess Peters gave birth to her daughter, born Jane Alice Peters, in Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 6, 1908. She was the third and youngest child of Bess and her husband, Frederic “Fred” Peters, whose family had become wealthy selling hardware. Bess was from a prominent Fort Wayne family herself, with old money that merged with Fred’s new to provide a very comfortable home for Jane and her two older brothers, Frederick Jr. and Stuart. The three grew up climbing trees and playing sports, with Jane right alongside her older brothers and showing great promise as an athlete.

The elder Frederic Peters had suffered an elevator accident before he married Bess, and it left him with a permanent leg injury and horrendous headaches that affected him so much that his moods changed and he turned violent. While it is not known what happened inside the home, the family was terrified of his headaches. It is thought that Fred was abusive to Bess, and the children witnessed it. “Contrary to the general notion,” Carole said in an interview with Sonia Lee in 1934, “I haven’t had an easy time. I had a horrible childhood because my parents were dreadfully unhappy in their marriage. It left scars on my mind and on my heart.”

Eventually, Bess left with the children. Their trip to California in October of 1915 was discussed in the Fort Wayne press as an extended holiday that included the whole family, but Fred Peters ultimately stayed in Indiana. Carole said in 1932 that her mother needed the rest. They planned to stay in Los Angeles for 6 months, but they found that with the combination of the favorable climate and Fred’s headaches back in Indiana getting worse and worse, they seemed destined to stay.

Jane thrived in California, her tomboyish energy and skill in sports earning her the respect of the neighborhood boys. Her tree-climbing and fence-scaling ruined her clothes, but Bess never discouraged her from it. In a Screenland profile, Bess’ parenting style was described as “100 years ahead of her time.” She cheered her daughter on in anything she tried, and encouraged her to find her own path, wherever that might lead her. Bess’ children were the only connections she had in California, and she needed them as much as they needed her.

Jane was particularly close to her mother, and that closeness remained all their lives. Even when Jane grew up and became Carole Lombard, she clung to Bess and missed her terribly when they weren’t together. When she was with friends, Carole would often think of her mother out of the blue. “That Bessie,” she would announce, “Is she terrific! Do you adore her? Let’s call her up.” And she would telephone her mother, including all her friends in the call. Carole and Bess saw each other nearly every day. Adela Rogers St. Johns noted that theirs was an unusually close bond, even as far as mothers and daughters went.

After Bess and the children left Fort Wayne, Carole rarely if ever saw her father again. Her parents had gone through what Carole referred to as a “Victorian divorce,” never officially divorcing but never again considering themselves husband and wife. She regarded herself as Bess Peters’ child and never thought much about her father. When he died in 1935, she did not attend the funeral.

Bess was an unusual woman, exceedingly tolerant and non-judgmental of her daughter or anyone. Her family had been a bit aristocratic and stuffy, while she was always sophisticated and adventurous. She was proud of Carole’s career and what she had done for herself, having once been an aspiring actress herself. She watched her daughter rise to comedic excellence and international fame, watched her receive an Oscar nomination and become one of the most respected actresses in Hollywood–not only for her work, but also for her vivacious and loving personality. “She is satisfied with the sincere friendship and love that her children offer her,” wrote Screenland magazine about Bess, “and she refuses to block with advice, tears or commands any course they wish to follow.”

Bess Peters with Carole and Clark Gable at their wedding, 1939.

When the United States became involved in World War II, Carole immediately wanted to help. For most film stars, the way to help with the war effort was to entertain the troops and raise money, by traveling to bond rallies in various American cities. Being a native daughter of Indiana, the natural place for Carole to go was Indianapolis, and there she went in mid-January of 1942, raising over $1 million in bonds during her time there. Bess was there with her, lending her daughter support and cheering her on as always.

To get back to Los Angeles on January 16, 1942, Carole and Bess boarded TWA Flight 3 which would leave from Indianapolis and refuel in Nevada before heading to its final destination. The details of what happened that night are well known. If you are curious, I would recommend reading Robert Matzen’s excellent book Fireball, but what is relevant here is that due to blackouts and severe lack of visibility, TWA Flight 33 crashed violently into Mount Potosi in the Sierra Nevadas, killing everyone onboard. The crash site where Carole and Bess died together is now a de facto cemetery, virtually untouched since the night of the crash 77 years ago.

In her memorial of Carole Lombard, Adela Rogers St. Johns  wrote of the “strong and tender” Carole, remarking on her close relationship with Bess as evidence of who she was as a person. At the close of her section about Bess, she writes: “Someone said to me this morning that it seemed so awful that her mother should have been killed, too. I can’t feel that, knowing them. It would have been so awful for the one that was left.”

Podcast Announcement for JUDY (2019)

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On Wednesday night, I went to San Francisco for an advance screening of Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger, out in theaters today. This has been a highly anticipated event for many months in the classic film community, and I have many thoughts to share about the movie, Zellweger’s performance, and what the movie means for Judy Garland’s legacy. This coming week, I’m going to be on a podcast with Tony Bravo of the San Francisco Chronicle, where we will discuss this most recent biopic and our thoughts. I will post a link to the blog as soon as I have it.

For now, I’d just like to share a bit of what Judy Garland has meant in my life.

Judy was my entrée into the world of classic film. At the age of 10, I listened to my first Judy Garland cassette in the car on the way up to Sacramento for New Year’s Eve. I still remember that car ride–the first moment I heard Judy sing outside of The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was “Dear Mr. Gable,” and within the first 5 seconds, I was in inexplicable awe.  By the time we reached Sacramento, I was head over heels in love and admiration–and over the span of 2 hours, I had become so protective that when our family friend laughed at the situation (a 10-year-old choosing a Judy Garland tape to listen to in the car), I got upset–not for myself, but for Judy.

This was the first song on the cassette that made me fall in love with Judy Garland.

By 11, I had seen all her movies. She was brought up any time I could find an excuse to fit her into a conversation. In addition to her powerful, emotional voice, I was drawn to her outrageous humor, her laughter in the face of troubles, and a pathos and sensitivity that were so vibrant you felt you could reach out and touch her. All of these things were somehow relatable to me, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand how anyone could not feel attached to this amazingly powerful person.

At 12, my mother took me to the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, MN, where Judy was born and lived for the first 6 years of her life. I ended up going back to the festival 4 times, and at 13 won a trivia competition that landed me an interview with NPR. Many of my most treasured memories from that era have to do with Judy, and the friendships I have made rank among my longest and most lasting.

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After I had exhausted Judy’s entire filmography, I began to branch out into the filmographies of her costars, and their costars. I developed interests in the people who were nominally and marginally part of her life, until I was well versed in classic Hollywood in general. In 2011, I started this blog after friends advised me to create an outlet.

In essence, if you enjoy Backlots, you have Judy Garland to thank. I am grateful that she came into my life, 46 years after her death, and that the same pathos and sensitivity I felt when I was 10 I still feel today when I listen to her recordings. She is a constant and ever-present part of my soul.

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Thanks to Tony and the San Francisco Chronicle for the podcasting opportunity, and following the podcast I will flesh out my thoughts for Backlots.

Talk to you next week!

Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford and Other Classic Film Adventures in Europe

Readers, I returned to the United States on Tuesday after 2 weeks in Europe, and as my jet lag seems to finally have been conquered, I wanted to write to you about the lecture and the other classic film-related things I did while abroad. It was an absolutely magnificent trip, filled with many wonderful surprises.

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Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

My trip began in Oxford, where I stayed at Lady Margaret Hall with a side trip to Bruern, a small town in the English countryside. At Bruern I attended a lovely dinner with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and other guests of the lecture, one of whom happened to be a retired British Supreme Court justice. It was fascinating to talk to him about Olivia de Havilland’s case, and the differences between intellectual property law in the US and in Britain. I learned that in Britain, the press is much more legally restrained than in the United States, where the courts tend to do whatever they can to defend the freedom of the press. I also had wonderful chats with Olivia de Havilland’s daughter, Gisèle Galante Chulack, son-in-law Andy Chulack, and other fascinating people from varied walks of life. It was very intellectually stimulating, and I came away from the evening with many new perspectives on law, life, and politics.

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Flower gardens of Bruern, near the cottage where I stayed overnight.

The next day, the other guests and I returned to Oxford for the lecture. Gisèle gave a beautiful introduction, after which Suzelle Smith and Don Howarth took the podium to talk about the history of the case. Suzelle and Don are Oxford fellows, and go to Oxford every year to talk about various cases that they have argued. They were proud to show me, too, a gate in front of Lady Margaret Hall that is named for them.

They spoke about the cases that Olivia de Havilland v. FX was based on, including Eastwood v. National Enquirer and Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting, and demonstrated the legal precedents that provided evidence for de Havilland’s argument. As I have noted here before, much of the case was terribly misrepresented in the mainstream press, and huge amounts of corporate money was thrown into FX’s defense. One of the judges on the 3-judge panel at the appellate court had served as legal counsel for NBC, and before being appointed to the appellate court had worked for the same law firm that was representing FX against Olivia de Havilland. Ideally, an appellate court judge would be unbiased, but as we know, the legal system doesn’t always work that way.

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Lawyer Suzelle Smith presents the lecture.

The whole event was warm, positive, and communal. I very much felt like I was part of a family, one of dedicated and passionate people trying to advocate for truth in media and corporate accountability. I am currently in the beginning stages of a soon-to-be-determined project about the case. I’m not yet sure what it’s going to look like, but I will be sure to keep you posted as it progresses.

From Oxford I headed to London, where I spent several days exploring. I discovered that the BFI Southbank was playing Letter From an Unknown Woman during my stay, part of their series of free matinées for seniors. Well…I’m far from a senior, but I was happy to pay the nominal fee for non-seniors to attend what I consider to be one of the screen’s greatest dramas.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman tells the story of obsession and rejection in 19th century Europe, with Joan Fontaine playing a girl madly in love with a pianist, whose undying love continues into adulthood. She ultimately finds that the pianist, a charming and uncommitted womanizer played by Louis Jourdan, couldn’t care less about her. If you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend finding a copy along with a box of kleenex. It was one of Fontaine’s personal favorite projects, and this tragic melodrama shows her acting skill to a tee–as she plays the same character from girlhood through adulthood.

I ended up being the only one there under 80, and I shared the situation with my Twitter followers, as it was simultaneously amusing and par-for-the-course. I received a reply from the proprietor of Knebworth House, Henry Lytton Cobbold, who was rather impressed at someone who would give up an afternoon in London to see Letter From an Unknown Woman. He invited me up to the house to talk about Joan Fontaine, and see some paintings of hers that were there. I decided to go for it, despite the fact that I had a train out of London the next afternoon.

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I awoke at 6 AM, arriving at Knebworth House at 8, in order to make the most of my time before heading back to London for my train. What I found was a magnificent 15th century castle, updated in the Gothic style, which has served as a filming location for such major movies as The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It has also housed major rock concerts by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Henry Lytton Cobbold is the 19th generation to live there, and he is also a filmmaker and devoted Joan Fontaine fan. He knew her well from the 1980s until the end of her life, and she willed him two portraits upon her death. Those are the paintings Henry was inviting me to see.

The portraits were absolutely beautiful, and after we had seen those (and a room full of Joan Fontaine posters), we went through binders of photos, documents, and letters that Henry has in his possession. I interviewed Joan Fontaine in September of 2013, shortly before she died, and this interview was the last one she ever gave. Our mutual connection provided the fodder for much enthusiastic conversation as we pored over Henry’s collection. I could have stayed there an entire week, as we both noted–I was in my element in a way that I rarely experience.

After several hours at Knebworth House, I reluctantly made my way back to London, where I caught a train to Paris. I wanted to write about going to see a film at my beloved Christine 21 Ciné (which I call the “Rue Christine”), my favorite movie theater in the world. I spent many a homesick hour there while living in Paris 8 years ago, losing myself in My Man Godfrey and Mildred Pierce for the price of 3 euros. Sadly, though, the Rue Christine is on a summer schedule and the movies playing during my brief time in Paris didn’t grab my attention. So alas, no Rue Christine this trip. But you can read about my connection to this theater, and the other theaters of the 6ème arrondissement here.

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The last few days of my trip were spent with a good friend in the south of France. This friend is a close relative of Marion Davies, and I have become very close to her over the past few years of my research. Together we watched Lights of Old Broadway, the movie I introduced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. Lights of Old Broadway is a delightful comedy, one of the many early films in which Marion plays a dual role. Here, she plays actual twins, separated at birth and adopted by two very different families–one from the aristocracy, and one from the poor slums of New York. The movie showcases Marion’s skill as an actress, as she plays each twin with really astonishing nuance. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that the character of Fely, the twin from the slums, is very much like Marion Davies in real life. Anne, the aristocratic twin, is soft and refined, but Marion still inserts just a touch of the real Marion Davies in her, too. It’s a complex interpretation, and Marion’s acting style in this movie really deserves an analysis all its own.

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I began my journey home on June 24, and finally arrived home in the afternoon of June 25. It has been a busy, classic film-filled few weeks, and I feel that there is going to be more to do than ever in the coming months. I will be sure to keep you posted on my Olivia de Havilland project, and anything else that comes of this trip.

Thanks for reading!

TCMFF Day 3: The Festival Audience

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Apologies for the lateness of this post, readers. For the past month, I’ve been busy with much planning, for events film-related and not, to the point where I’ve neglected my coverage. More news about upcoming (and now past) events on another post. But in the meantime, here is the latest installment of Backlots’ coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

On the third day of the festival, I started the morning bright and early with a screening of Double Wedding, the 1937 William Powell/Myrna Loy vehicle that was filmed contemporaneously with their more famous Thin Man series. While waiting in line, I received a tweet from a fellow festivalgoer who was incredulous at how long the line was.

One of my pearls of wisdom, as someone who has been coming to the festival for 8 years, is to always line up for 1930s movies at least an hour and 15 minutes before start time. The TCMFF audience absolutely lives for 1930s fare, and those movies always sell out. In my previous post, I discussed the popularity of the pre-codes–but any film made in the 1930s is guaranteed to have a very long line.

True to my own word, I made my way over to the Egyptian Theatre and lined up for Double Wedding at 7:45 AM, in preparation for a 9:00 start time. I’m glad I did–when all attendees were let in, the theater was packed. Illeana Douglas, introducing the movie, started off with a question.

“Does anybody know how many movies Myrna Loy and William Powell made together?”

Without the tiniest pause, a thunderous reply from just about every member of the audience reverberated throughout the Egyptian Theatre: “FOURTEEN!!!!”

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This was not unexpected. The TCM Classic Film Festival crowd is a group of the smartest, most passionate movie lovers in the world, and William Powell and Myrna Loy are particular festival favorites. Many of us have been studying the careers of Powell and Loy, independently and together, for decades, and the question of how many movies they made together is akin to asking a mathematician if they know what 6 x 6 is.

Entering the festival is like entering an entirely different world, one that a friend of mine called the “TCM vortex.” In prior festival years, I have made posts about the unique experience of watching a movie with the TCM festival crowd. But this experience at the start of Double Wedding has inspired me to talk about the audience itself–who comes to the festival, and why.

Festival attendees come from nearly every state, as well as Canada, Mexico, Australia, Sweden, and Norway. Many festivalgoers come several days in advance–not for sightseeing in Los Angeles, but for spending time with friends from previous years, and to soak in as much of the “festival vibe” as they can, even before the festival starts.

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If I had to describe the festival using one relatable life experience, it would be summer camp. Friends are made there for life–they room together, eat together, and gather together at predetermined spots for events or just for fun. There have been known to be movie musical sing-a-longs in line, and exaggerated imitations of Katharine Hepburn circa 1973–and those experiences remain injokes from year to year. Friends are an integral part of the festival, due to the fact that for many classic film fans, it’s difficult to find like-minded individuals during the rest of the year. For those of us who are lucky to have found like-minded individuals online, tangibility is limited. The bloggers, for example, all virtually interact with each other throughout the year, but only at the TCMFF do we get to sit down over coffee or lunch and discuss film blogging or the intricacies of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Ladies They Talk About.

This clip, of Katharine Hepburn preparing for the Dick Cavett Show in 1973, has become fodder for countless imitations and injokes among the bloggers at the TCMFF.

Schedules are compared, negotiated, and changed based on what friends are doing. This year my friend and I experienced a serious roommate dilemma over whether to see The Opposite Sex poolside or Road House at the Egyptian. We went back and forth, negotiating and compromising, until we finally decided that she would go poolside, I would go to the Egyptian. This is not atypical.

Some of us are fortunate to live in areas where classic films are shown regularly, but many festival attendees come from parts of the country, or the world, where one has to drive hours to see a classic film on the big screen. Not only does the festival give many attendees a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it gives everyone friends and memories that last a lifetime.

TCMFF Day 2: The Power of the Pre-Codes

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As any longtime festival attendee knows, a seat at one of the pre-code films at the TCM Classic Film Festival is akin to a ticket for the hottest show in town. Passholders line up hours in advance, hoping to secure a good line number–if they’re lucky and get there early enough, they might even be able to sit next to their friends. “Early enough” for a pre-code film? It can be as much 2 hours early.

For years, I have questioned why the festival didn’t simply put the pre-codes in a larger theater to accommodate the huge crowds that flock to them. It seems natural that, given the numbers that they track, those movies made between 1929 and 1934 should always be at a large theater like the Egyptian or Grauman’s Chinese. But they’re always in the considerably smaller Chinese multiplex theaters. This festival, I brought the question up in conversation with someone in line, who informed me that the multiplex theaters are the only ones that can play 35mm. I have not been able to verify that, but if true, I suppose it makes sense.

Whenever I introduce a new friend to classic movies, I always start with a pre-code. They’re modern in a way that has a tendency to make people change their minds about what they think classic movies are. Frequently, people outside the film world believe classic movies to be wholesome goodness, where people overact and speak in outdated slang, where women are submissive and there’s never a hint of sex. But when they’re confronted with something like Baby Face, it’s a new world.

Because of the difficulties in enforcing the Production Code of 1930, which aimed to sanitize the movies, studios were finding loopholes in the self-policing code and making movies that they knew would sell–namely, movies with strong sexual themes and independent women. Sell they did, and sell they continue to. Very little has changed in the minds of the viewing public between then and now–even today’s sophisticated audiences, when exposed to pre-code Hollywood, go wild. They seem to tap into something primal in our natures

This year I attended two pre-codes, Merrily We Go to Hell and Vanity Street. Both were textbook pre-codes, with Merrily We Go to Hell strongly suggesting an open marriage and Vanity Street condoning crime and adultery. The former was directed by the great Dorothy Arzner, one of the predominant female directors in early Hollywood and the most prolific of the 1930s. In Cari Beauchamp’s introduction of the film (marvelously capped by the line “Enjoy the hell out of Merrily We Go to Hell,”) she traced the biography of Arzner and how it was largely by luck and chance, meeting the right people (several of them women) at the right time, that Arzner was able to rise up the ladder in Hollywood and become the respected director that she ultimately became.

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The story of a young woman who marries the man she loves only to find out that he’s an alcoholic prone to cheating, Merrily We Go to Hell refuses to allow the wife, played by Sylvia Sidney, to be the victim. Instead, she’s a woman with a spine and self-respect. When her husband, played by Fredric March, cheats on her and then tells her to block the door so he can’t leave, she opens the door wide for him. When he returns, she is packed to leave. She remains, on the condition that she, too, be able to have affairs. The result is an open marriage, and they live this way until the wife finally leaves for good, returning all his letters and starting her life anew. The ending, however, was a bit disappointing–I can just see the studios tacking it on at the last minute to make the audience feel better about marriage in general.

After the movie, the general consensus among the audience members I talked to was just that–it was a fantastic movie, empowering and strong up to the very last scene. All the actors did a magnificent job, especially, in my view, Sylvia Sidney. If you haven’t seen it, it is definitely worth scoping out for a hearty dose of pre-code goodness.

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Vanity Street was quite different in its approach. Instead of a marriage drama, this was a crime drama, almost a pre-code noir. It deals with a young woman who breaks a window to be sent to jail (“They feed you there,” she says, reminding us that this is the height of the Depression). She befriends the policeman who arrests her, and he takes pity on her situation, bringing her back to his apartment to stay while and helping her land a chorus job. But the chorus ends up bringing her trouble, as she is ultimately implicated in a murder.

In its style, I would compare Vanity Street to something like Three on a Match or Virtue, with Charles Bickford and Helen Chandler playing the main roles. In a supporting role is Mayo Methot, best known as Humphrey Bogart’s first wife. This one was presented once again by Cari Beauchamp, who has made a name for herself as one of the festival’s most loved presenters. The TCM Festival crowd is known for its passion and extensive movie knowledge, and from Cari Beauchamp’s presentations, I always come away with new stories from behind the scenes.

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One of the things I learned from this presentation is that Helen Chandler, whose movie career was cut short by mental illness and addiction, was cremated in 1965 and her ashes have never been claimed. This made me very sad and being the person I am, I got to thinking–what would it take to claim her ashes and give her a proper burial? If no one has claimed her ashes since 1965, then she belongs to us, the people who work to keep her memory alive. If any of my readers work in this industry and have any advice, I would love to hear from you on how we might get a campaign like this started. I will keep you all posted.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for day 3!