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The Motion Picture & Television Fund: Looking Out for the Film Industry

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Mary Pickford breaks ground on the new Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, 1941.

Every Wednesday this month, Turner Classic Movies dedicates its programming to highlighting the Motion Picture & Television Fund, one of the great treasures of the film industry. Securing the livelihoods of countless people who work or have worked in motion pictures, the MPTF operates a hospital, a senior home for those who need those services, and a general fund to help elderly people remain in their homes or to provide a safety net for former film workers who have fallen on hard times.

The programming consists of movies introduced by the people who were a part of them, now residents of the Motion Picture Country House. I was thrilled to hear about this tribute, as I find that few people outside of the world of film and television know much about the MPTF, truly a labor of love and dedication to, as the slogan says, “Taking Care of Our Own.”

 

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The history of the MPTF is a storied one. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin (the same group that created United Artists) saw a need to provide a fund for those working in movies who were down on their luck. To start it, they created a simple coin box system, in which people could donate their spare change to help their fellow Hollywood folk. In 1921, the fund was incorporated as the Motion Picture Relief Fund, with Joe Schenck serving as its first president, and Pickford serving as vice-president. No one served in an advisory capacity for very long–as an egalitarian organization, and one by the film industry and for the film industry, presidents served on a rotating basis and came from varying Hollywood backgrounds, including Harold Lloyd, Jesse Lasky, and Marion Davies.

Pickford campaigned tirelessly for the fund, gathering donations and organizing events and programs that would serve as benefits. The 1929 stock market crash combined with the coming of talkies to Hollywood had left many of the film colony without work, and the fund was needed now more than ever. She noted, to her frustration, that there were 20,000 people working in films, but only 400 people were signed up as contributors to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In order to streamline her campaigning, she instituted the Payroll Pledge Program in 1932, in which a very small portion of an person’s paycheck from working in the movies went to the fund–much like a social security program or insurance policy for Hollywood workers. In the midst of the Depression, the Motion Picture Relief Fund saved 75 people from being evicted and purchased groceries for 2,500.

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Even as early as 1924, the need for a specialized senior care facility was on the minds of Pickford and those invested in the Motion Picture Relief Fund. In order to raise money for the construction, in 1939 Jean Hersholt (president of the fund at the time) came up with the idea of having a radio show in which many big name celebrities would appear, who would all donate their salaries to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The plan worked, the radio show was a smash hit, and construction on the Motion Picture Country House (“house” instead of “home” because, as Pickford said, Hollywood people always consider themselves “between engagements”) began in 1941. Operations started in 1948, and among its more prominent residents over the years have been Norma Shearer, Bud Abbott, Mary Astor, Mack Sennett, Donald O’Connor, Joel McCrea, Edna Purviance, and countless others. Today, it is home to more than 100 long-term residents, and operates 6 outpatient facilities across Los Angeles.

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The dining room at the Motion Picture Country House today.

Upon a visit to the Motion Picture Country House a number of years ago to see a friend, it was clear what remarkable and important work the MPTF does. My friend is valued and respected, getting care that goes above and beyond the call of duty. I came away from the visit with a deep sense of appreciation for the MPTF and everything the organization does for the industry. I’m happy to see that TCM is helping to shine a light on their work.

Be sure to see residents of the Motion Picture Country House every Wednesday in September on TCM, introducing movies they had a part in. For more information on the activities of Mary Pickford surrounding the Motion Picture Relief Fund, please see Cari Beauchamp’s article for the Mary Pickford Foundation, from which much of this piece was drawn, by clicking here.

If you would like to donate to the current Motion Picture & Television Fund, you can do so online at http://mptf.com/donate or by mail:

MPTF Foundation
PO Box 51151
Los Angeles, CA 90051-9727

Thanks for reading!

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Merry Christmas from Backlots!

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From beautiful, unseasonably warm New York City, where I have spent the past week engulfed in research, I wish you a very happy holiday! Here are some photos of classic Hollywood stars celebrating.

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The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic, 1954

Marion Davies founded her children’s clinic in 1926, and every year she sponsored a party for the patients and their families, which included entertainment for the children and a Christmas turkey and groceries for the parents. Here in 1954, she celebrates with the children and Santa Claus, played by her husband, Horace Brown.

During the war, many celebrities participated in fundraising activities for the war effort. In this scene, Bette Davis plays a mother teaching her onscreen children the value of war bonds.

Judy Garland sings “Silent Night,” 1937.

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Claudette Colbert with her Christmas wreath, 1932.

Angela Lansbury sings “We Need a Little Christmas,” from the original Broadway cast recording of Mame.

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Colleen Moore sings Christmas carols.

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Lucille Ball with a wreath in the late 1930s.

Here’s to a wonderful day today, and see you next time!

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival Comes to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

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Hello, dear readers! I usually make it a point to post at least once a week, but due to an inordinately busy schedule over the past few days, that goal has eluded me. But here I am, ready to post about one of the things that has been occupying my time away from the blog.

In the quaint Niles district of Fremont, CA lives the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, a little theater with a huge heart. It celebrates an integral part of this town’s heritage–one of which few people are aware. When visitors come to Fremont, little do most people know that it was here that one of the top early film companies, Essanay Studios, flourished and produced a multitude of films in the early 1900s. Charlie Chaplin produced many of his early films here. Broncho Billy Anderson, the first Western star, was born out of Essanay Studios. It was a major focal point for the film industry, and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum aims to educate the public about its history through tours, films, and festivals.

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This weekend will be the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, an annual occasion that celebrates not only the legacy of Broncho Billy in Niles, but also the art of silent film as a whole. I have been busy volunteering and preparing for this festival, and I am happy to say that it’s going to be a great one this year. The opening night movie will be The Big Parade, the 1925 King Vidor epic that I consider to be among the top 5 silent films ever made. It will be followed by many other great features and shorts throughout the weekend, including a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus and the rarely seen 1928 comedy The Spieler, starring Alan Hale and Renee Adoree.

Sunday is the real kicker. Following group of her films, the festival will be graced with its guest of honor, the beautiful and talented 95-year-old Diana Serra Cary–the former Baby Peggy.

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Between 1920 and 1924, Baby Peggy-Jean Montgomery was the toast of Hollywood. At the height of her fame, her film grosses equaled those of Charlie Chaplin, and she was one of the top three child stars of the silent era along with Jackie Coogan and Baby Marie. In 1924, her career took the turn of far too many Hollywood child stars–her stardom waned after her money was squandered by her father. She was relegated to vaudeville, and ultimately returned to Hollywood to work in bit parts to pay the bills. Later on, wanting to rid herself of the pain of Baby Peggy, she reinvented herself as Diana Serra Cary–becoming a prominent author, film historian, and activist for children’s rights. It was as Diana Serra Cary that she wrote a biography of former Hollywood rival Jackie Coogan, and that she became active in A Minor Consideration, an organization that advocates for children in the entertainment industry. And at 95 years old, she’s still going.

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Diana Serra Cary today.

Now for the big news. I will have the unparalleled honor of interviewing Diana Serra Cary onstage at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival on Sunday. If you are in the area, please come out and see Circus Clowns, Peg O’ the Mounted, and the 2013 film Broncho Billy and the Bandit’s Secret in which Diana Serra Cary has an appearance at the age of 94. And see my Q&A with her between films! It promises to be a great day.

Here is the site for ticket information. You can reserve them online, or buy them at the door. I look forward to seeing you there!

CMBA FABULOUS FILMS OF THE 50’s BLOGATHON: Auntie Mame (1958)

 

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Hello again readers, it is a rare occasion when I make two posts in a single day, but in addition to being Memorial Day (necessitating my post about the Hollywood Canteen this morning), today is the last day of the CMBA Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon and I am signed up to cover one of my favorite films of all time. Far be it for me to pass up a chance to talk about Auntie Mame, so I am writing my second post of the day and I can’t wait.

Auntie Mame is a unique piece of art. More than just a film, it is a beautiful character study, a celebration of eccentricity and love of life. Mame Dennis is a true bon vivant, a woman who is so in love with life that it sometimes causes her trouble. She is also sublimely affectionate, maternal, and caring, traits that are seemingly the antithesis of what Mame Dennis stands for, but ones that strangely fit her character. Though Mame does get married, romantic love does not drive the plot. Instead, it centers around loving life, celebrating all that it has to offer.

The original novel of Auntie Mame was written by Patrick Dennis in 1955, and was based on the eccentricities of his much beloved aunt, Marion Tanner. Tanner was known around New York for her red brick house at 72 Bank Street, which often served as a haven for radicals, struggling artists, and other Bohemian personalities. Much like Auntie Mame and her home at 3 Beekman Place, Marion Tanner welcomed strangers into her home for parties and a safe haven, a practice that very much worried her nephew. When he wrote Auntie Mame, she delighted in the comparison, and often brought it up in conversation with guests at her endless parties.

Rosalind Russell, the stage and film star who would ultimately become Auntie Mame’s first and most highly respected interpreter, had her own connection to the character. Shortly before its publication, Russell was sent a copy of the book by the author. When she picked it up to read, she could hardly believe what she was reading. “It’s the Duchess,” she said to her husband, “Someone has written the Duchess.” “The Duchess” was the name that the Russell family had given to Rosalind’s older sister Clara. A stylish, larger-than-life character who knew and loved everyone of importance, Clara gave off an air of royalty that spurred the nickname. For Russell, this character was simply a fictionalized version of the sister she knew and loved so well. The book took on a further significance for Russell in that Clara had died too young of a stroke not long before, and the story brought back a flood of memories that were hard to shake. After the book was published and she was asked to do Auntie Mame on Broadway, she immediately agreed, basing her interpretation on the character traits of her sister.

Rosalind Russell as a child (bottom right) with her siblings. Clara is at the top with the large bow.

The show ran for 639 performances from October 31, 1956 to June 28, 1958. Rosalind Russell and Peggy Cass were nominated for Tony Awards, and Peggy Cass won for her portrayal of frumpy assistant Agnes Gooch. Warner Bros. latched onto the idea of a film, with Russell and Cass reprising their roles, and the film was released in December of 1958. Several other cast members of the original Broadway show appeared in the film, including Jan Handzlik, the boy who played Patrick.

The plot of the movie is not particularly important–it is a character-driven narrative that puts emphasis on celebrating individuality. A young boy, Patrick, is sent to live with his eccentric aunt after his father dies, leaving him an orphan. He arrives at the door of 3 Beekman Place, to find his Auntie Mame giving a wild party–having forgotten that her nephew was supposed to arrive that day. But she welcomes him with open arms, and immediately takes him under her wing as her surrogate son. Complicating matters is Mr. Babcock, the representative from the Knickerbocker Bank that Patrick’s father assigned to make sure “that crazy sister of mine doesn’t do anything too goddamned eccentric.” Mame and Mr. Babcock don’t agree on how to raise Patrick, but ultimately Mr. Babcock has the upper hand and sends Patrick to elite, snobbish private schools, turning him into one of the snobs that Mame detests. At school he falls in love with Gloria Upson, an empty-headed, vapid, country club girl that he intends on marrying. Mame objects to Patrick marrying a girl with “braces on her brains,” but instead of telling him that outright, she hosts a family dinner for the girl’s conservative parents in which she lets her eccentricity out in full force. The girl and her parents are deeply offended, and leave in a huff. Patrick sees that they are unwilling to accept how he was raised, and he reverts back to being the loving nephew of his loving Auntie Mame.

The movie is quite long, covering the period from the 1920s through the end of the Depression as well as Mame’s marriage to her husband Mr. Burnside and her eventual widowhood, but the charming and delightful characters make the time rush by. Rosalind Russell is undoubtedly the star of the show, but there are great performances by many members of the supporting cast. Peggy Cass repeats her Tony-winning performance and gives a hilarious interpretation of Agnes Gooch, the assistant who ends up pregnant out of wedlock (or is she?), and the actors who play Gloria’s conservative parents are fantastic. Adding to the show-stealing performances is the marvelous Joanna Barnes, who has a gift for playing rather unlikable characters to perfection. Here is one of my favorite scenes from the movie.

Director Morton Da Costa was known for being a master of the “in” shot, a method of focusing in on the character at the end of a scene by spotlighting the face while fading the rest of the scenery to black. The technique undoubtedly comes from Da Costa’s years in the theatre scene, as the effect is very theatrical and unusual for film. This was used very nicely in many scenes in Auntie Mame, as well as in another Da Costa triumph, The Music Man, four years later.

Shirley Jones in The Music Man (1962). At the end of the video, watch for Da Costa’s signature “in” shot.

Auntie Mame received wide critical acclaim upon its release. Rosalind Russell and Peggy Cass were both nominated for Oscars, and Rosalind Russell won a Golden Globe for her performance. The film was additionally nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing at the Oscars.

The film’s opening theme.

As for Marion Tanner, the basis for Auntie Mame, she saw the film’s release and lived a very long and full life for a long time afterward. Sadly, she and her nephew had a falling out due to worries about her carefree lifestyle, and they spoke rarely in her later years. She died in 1985 at the age of 94, and never lost her enthusiasm for life. “I do believe in people, you know,” she liked to say.

Thanks for reading!

JUNE ALLYSON: Not Just the Girl Next Door

Upon glancing at TCM’s schedule for this month, I was thrilled to see that the network is paying tribute to the wonderful June Allyson as their featured Star of the Month. In addition to her status as one of the most charming and charismatic stars at MGM, I have a special connection to June Allyson that makes me especially happy to see her honored this month. I will talk about that later in this post.

Known for her sweet, girl-next-door image, June Allyson reigned as one of the top stars of MGM in the 1940s and 1950s. In contrast to her wholesome, suburban persona onscreen, the girl who was born Ella Geisman grew up in poverty, raised by various relatives in the New York City projects. Despite a childhood accident that rendered her unable to walk for several years without a steel brace, she became a seasoned dancer and eventually began to land gigs in nightclubs and acting roles in musical short subjects with Vitaphone Pictures. In 1938, at the age of 21, she got her first Broadway role in Sing Out the News, and her first starring role came 3 years later in George Abbott’s production of Best Foot Forward.

Due to her performance in the Broadway show, MGM asked Allyson to appear in the film version that was in pre-production in Hollywood. She agreed, and made the trip west. Upon her arrival, she found that Best Foot Forward was going slower than expected, and she was cast in a tiny role in Girl Crazy (1943) to keep her occupied. This is June Allyson’s first appearance in a feature film.

Best Foot Forward came to fruition later the same year, and when Arthur Freed saw her screen test, he demanded that she be put under a long-term contract immediately. Allyson thrived at MGM, using her cherubic face, wide smile, and arrestingly husky voice to her advantage in such films as Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Good News (1947) and Little Women (1949).

With Peter Lawford in Good News (1947)

The trailer for Little Women (1949)

In 1945, June Allyson married heartthrob Dick Powell, much to the chagrin of Louis B. Mayer who thought Powell was bad for her studio image. She was placed on suspension, but she and Powell remained married until Powell’s death in 1963 and the couple adopted 2 children together. After Powell’s death, Allyson was invited to appear alongside old MGM rival Judy Garland on “The Judy Garland Show,” marking one of the most delightful episodes of the series.

Acting on a lifelong interest in medicine, in later life June Allyson committed herself to educating the public about gynecological and urological diseases in seniors, eventually founding the June Allyson Foundation for Public Awareness and Medical Research. She continued with this work until she died in 2006, at the age of 88.

Now for my connection to June Allyson. I was lucky enough to have met this wonderful woman in the summer of 1998, when I was 12 years old. My very obliging mother had taken me  halfway across the country to attend the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, MN, and June Allyson was the guest of honor that year. I remember her so vividly. Her spirit filled the room, her voice was warm, her character gentle and sweet. She loved children, so my sister and I were subject to great affection. I remember several big bear hugs, and she interacted with me with great tenderness and love. I felt that we were dear friends. I’ve carried that beautiful memory of June Allyson with me always, and I miss her dearly.

Don’t forget to tune in to TCM tonight for an evening with June Allyson! Showing tonight: Two Girls and a Sailor at 8:00 EST, Best Foot Forward at 10:15, and Good News at midnight.

TWO KATHARINES: The Childhood of Katharine Hepburn and the Shaping of an Icon

Today marks what would have been the 107th birthday of an incomparable legend. Katharine Hepburn, a persona so beloved and respected to have reduced hardened prop men to putty in her hands during her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973, was a force to be reckoned with and everybody knew it. When Katharine Hepburn walked in the room, there was no question as to who was in charge. This was an individual who fought for what she wanted, demanded what she needed, and in the process singlehandedly redefined what it means to be a woman in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn at the rehearsal for her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973.

Hepburn famously said on an interview with Barbara Walters “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” Katharine Hepburn broke many molds during her lifetime, and defied societal expectations in a generation in which women were still expected to be subservient to men. And she didn’t do it alone.

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, the mother of Katharine Hepburn and a pioneer of women’s rights in Connecticut.

From her earliest childhood, Katharine Hepburn was taught to live the way she wanted to, and not give credence to what others might think. This attitude was instilled in her by her mother, the passionate suffragette and famed leader of Connecticut women’s rights groups Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn. Houghton Hepburn served as the president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association and, after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, founded the American Birth Control League with fellow activist Margaret Sanger, the organization that later became Planned Parenthood.

In later life, the younger Katharine would remember her mother taking her along to suffrage rallies as a toddler, teaching her that the women there were doing all they could to fight for her future. Due to her mother’s work, the Hepburn family endured intense hostility from the neighbors–neighborhood children were often not allowed to play with the Hepburn children, and bricks were thrown through their windows on several occasions. But through it all, Mrs. Hepburn persevered, and passed on to her daughter the attitude that rights must be fought for and earned.

Katharine Hepburn with her mother and siblings.

Young Katharine never let go of the lessons of her childhood, and throughout her life fought many personal and professional battles, fighting hard and not backing down until she won. In her desire to be comfortable, she insisted on wearing pants almost exclusively, a practice seldom exercised in her generation. In her stalwart determination to not be restricted by what other people thought, she is widely credited with popularizing pants for women. In 1947, at the height of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, Katharine Hepburn was one of the founding members of the Committee for the First Amendment, formed to protect and support the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Evoking her mother, and the women who fought for equal rights for women when she was a child, she delivered a speech written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo at the Hollywood Legion Stadium during a Progressive Party rally. Her own risk of being targeted by the Hollywood blacklist not holding her back, Katharine Hepburn once again stood up for what she believed in.

Her mother must have been proud.

Many thanks to Margaret over at The Great Katharine Hepburn for hosting this blogathon!

New Feature Coming to Backlots!

Backlots will be watching and reviewing titles from the Warner Archive Collection as part of a regular feature on the site.

Readers, I am proud to announce some good news regarding the site. Beginning next month, I will  be adding a new and exciting feature to Backlots, one that I hope will prove informative, entertaining, and that will keep Backlots firmly rooted on the pulse of what is new and exciting in classic cinema.

As part of a new collaboration with the Warner Archive, I will be watching and reviewing several titles from the collection each month for a feature entitled “Treasures From the Warner Archive.” I will provide backstories on the films, explore trivia bits, and perhaps host a few quizzes, polls, and competitions related to the Warner Archive titles over at the Backlot Commissary. I do hope that you, the reader, will participate in discussions in the comments section or at the Commissary, because I would love to hear from you! I will also be taking requests as to which films my readers would like to see reviewed, so please be sure to stay in touch if you have a specific Warner Archive title you would like to see reviewed.

The first two films are on their way, and I am pleased to announce that the first entry in this feature will be analysis of Polly of the Circus (1932), starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, followed shortly thereafter by a post on The Woman in Red (1935), an oft-cited but rarely seen Barbara Stanwyck film.

Polly of the Circus.

The trailer for The Woman in Red.

The Warner Archive Collection is a real treasure for classic film fans. Established in 2009, it aims to manufacture classic titles on demand for consumers, focusing on films that have never before had a DVD release. Its library has been growing exponentially as it acquires the rights to release films from other collections, and its Netflix-type streaming system, Warner Archive Instant, is bringing classic films to a demographic that is accustomed to watching movies on the computer. It is a true honor to collaborate with such an innovative and forward-thinking company.

Keep your eyes peeled for the first installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!