Tag Archives: classic movies

The Activism of Myrna Loy

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In 1947, Myrna Loy sued the Hollywood Reporter for $1 million.

The charge was an accusation printed in the then right-wing paper that Loy was a Communist, an accusation fueled in part by the actress having been vocal and active in left-wing politics since the 1930s. In addition, Loy’s role in William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives had implicated her in the United States’ growing anti-Communist fervor that was threatening livelihoods in Hollywood and beyond.

After Loy brought suit against the Hollywood Reporter, the paper was forced to print a retraction, but Loy didn’t stop there. She sent off a missive to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the governmental body investigating alleged Communist infiltration into the United States, that had subpoenaed many of her colleagues in the entertainment industry. The message read simply “I DARE YOU TO CALL ME TO TESTIFY.”

They didn’t dare, and Loy was left alone from then on.

Such was the dynamism of Myrna Loy. Born on August 2, 1905, from her earliest days in Radersburg, Montana where she was born Myrna Williams, she was surrounded by passionate left-wing personalities and progressive politics. After her mother moved the family to Los Angeles following the death of Myrna’s father, the young girl became involved in the film industry when Cecil B. DeMille found her dancing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and cast her in a small role in The Ten Commandments. Her career was rocky at first, but by the late 1920s and with the help of a name change, Myrna Loy became an established star. As she became familiar with the Hollywood landscape, she noticed the inequality afforded to black actors in Hollywood, and began to advocate for their rights within the industry. At one point, she approached her bosses at MGM with the issue. “Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant?” she asked. “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

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An early portrait of Myrna Loy.

In 1932, Loy was active in the election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and remained a champion of his ABC programs throughout his presidency. Onscreen, she became known as the witty and intelligent Nora Charles in The Thin Man series and her screen image quickly became that of the “perfect wife.” But Loy never identified with that characterization and spent her time offscreen tirelessly advocating for the New Deal. She never personally met Roosevelt, something she deeply regretted, though she made many trips to the White House and developed a close and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In later life, faced with Reagan’s election and the undoing of much of Roosevelt’s legacy, she wrote in her autobiography, Being and Becoming: “Can you imagine how all of us who worked for years with Mrs. Roosevelt and her socialist programs feel now, to see them wiped off the map?”

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Later in life, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Loy invoked the ire of Adolf Hitler by speaking out publicly against him in 1938, to the point that Hitler banned all her movies in Germany. Between 1941 and 1945, she worked full time for the Red Cross, entertained the troops, appeared at war bond rallies, and essentially retired from Hollywood. Loy only made one movie during the war period–The Thin Man Goes Home. She continued to work with the Roosevelts on reforms, and in 1945 Loy was invited to the meeting to ratify the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.

The following year was an important one for her–she went back to working regularly after her wartime hiatus and made The Best Years of Our Lives, considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1940s and also the impetus for the Hollywood Reporter to accuse her of communism. Managing to stave off those accusations, that same year, she was appointed to UNESCO, the United Nations department of culture, as the US ambassador. Over the next few years she became increasingly involved, attending conferences all over the world and representing UNESCO on official radio programs, then also signing on with the American Association for the United Nations where she spoke at conferences on behalf of women’s rights.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Loy had been working with UNESCO for more than a decade. She had managed to balance her career in Hollywood with her political work, and begin a new chapter of her career on the stage while at the same time throwing her support behind Adlai Stevenson in his presidential campaigns. When Stevenson didn’t run in 1960, Loy worked hard to stump for Kennedy. During the Kennedy campaign, he invited her to be part of his Conference on Constitutional Rights and American Freedom, where she met Hubert Humphrey and immediately befriended him. After Kennedy’s election, her closeness with Humphrey led to Loy’s involvement with the National Council Against Discrimination in Housing, where she worked throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

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Being interviewed at the UN, 1950.

Loy made huge strides in the organization. She found that though President Kennedy had signed the Housing Act of 1961, “we had uncovered massive evidence that eighty percent of federally sponsored housing was operated on a segregated basis.” Though Kennedy was never able to fulfill the promises of the Housing Act, Loy’s work led directly to Lyndon B. Johnson addressing the matter in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Having finally seen some measure of success in the fight against housing discrimination, 1968 saw Loy back in Hollywood to make April Fools, and also to fight for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign. She was unable to make the Democratic National Convention because of work, but she had fought hard for his nomination, especially in Oregon. She wrote: “I flew into every nook and cranny of Oregon…I shared so many meals with so many civic groups and political organizations that Eleanor Roosevelt’s wistful complaint haunted me: ‘I get so tired of all those chicken dinners.’” When Humphrey, her old friend who had gotten her involved in the NCDH, got the nomination, she found herself campaigning for him too. Not only because she liked him as a person, but also because she was worried about “the attack by Nixon and the Republicans on the judiciary.”

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With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

On the subject of the Vietnam War, Loy identified with the college students who protested against the war and considered herself to be getting “more radical” as she aged. She said that if work commitments with April Fools hadn’t prevented her from going to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, she surely would have been arrested along with the antiwar protesters outside.

As Loy reached her upper 70’s, she started to receive honors for her tremendous career onscreen. From time to time, reporters would also ask her about her political activities, and one such response from Loy in 1980 simply sums up Loy’s political philosophy: “Politics is part of my life…It’s everybody’s privilege to choose party, to be a part of government…and I’m seriously interested in solving our problems. Also, I believe in the U.N. It has seen some rough times, but it’s still surviving.”

Myrna Loy died at the age of 88 in 1993, but she was a political fighter to the end. As we live in these political tumultuous times, it is tempting to think what she would be doing today. We can be sure that she would be campaigning for the Democratic nominees, and vocally denouncing current White House policies on immigration and human rights. As an actress, she was among the best there was. But it was as an activist that Myrna Loy had her most lasting impact on the world, and I believe that it is as an activist she would like to be best remembered.

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At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

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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!

TCM Classic Film Festival Gears Up for April

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It’s getting to be that time of year again–when film fans from around the globe descend on Hollywood Boulevard to attend the TCM Classic Film Festival, a classic Hollywood celebration of epic proportions. This will be the 10th year of this highly anticipated festival, held between April 11-14, and many exciting films and events have already been announced.

THE 2nd ANNUAL ROBERT OSBORNE AWARD–KEVIN BROWNLOW

Last year, Martin Scorsese was bestowed with this film preservation award named for Robert Osborne, beloved journalist and TCM host who passed away two years ago. This year, the award will go to the eminent preservationist and historian Kevin Brownlow, of whom it may be said that he has done more for the preservation of silent film than anyone in history. He won a special Academy Award several years back for his work, interviewed legions of silent film stars, and is known for his generous and humble spirit. He has helped me enormously with my Marion Davies book, and I couldn’t be prouder to say that I know him–as a person and as a professional. This is a most deserved honor.

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BILLY CRYSTAL HONORED WITH HAND AND FOOTPRINT CEREMONY AT GRAUMAN’S CHINESE THEATRE

The featured movie on opening night of what we affectionately call the “TCMFF” is going to be When Harry Met Sally, with Billy Crystal in attendance. The following day, Crystal will be honored with a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese*

The TCMFF prides itself on bringing the biggest stars from classic Hollywood to the festival. Now that the majority of those stars have passed away or can no longer travel, TCM has expanded its outreach to include stars of popular films from the 1980s and 1990s. There is still a debate within the classic film community around what defines a classic–I wrote a blog post about it several years ago. But I must say that I have always loved Billy Crystal–first becoming aware of him as an Oscar host, then a fan of his comedy routines and when I discovered When Harry Met Sally, it became one of my favorite films of the 1980s.  So on a personal level, I’m delighted that he’s going to be there.

*By the way, the official name of the theater is now TCL Chinese Theatre. But really, it will always be Grauman’s.

ANNOUNCED FILMS

I have heard a number of people say that this year’s lineup is one of the best that the TCMFF has ever had. A friend of mine mentioned that he’s having trouble creating a list of priority films, as he wants to see them all. The actual schedule hasn’t been released yet, so we’re not yet dealing with the yearly agony that comes with schedule conflicts. But if there’s one thing we can count on at the TCMFF, it’s that two or more movies that you desperately want to see will be playing at the same time. Here are some of the movies showing this year that I hope will not conflict with each other:

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

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It Happened Here

Holiday

The Sound of Music

A Woman of Affairs

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The Clock

For a full list of announced films, here is the link to the site. It is updated regularly when new movies are added.

Passes to the TCMFF sold out unusually early this year. It is a comfort to know that the TCMFF remains popular, but at the same time, I can no longer tell my readers that they may buy a pass if they are in town. However, here are your options if you would like to attend:

  • Get on the waitlist for a pass. It frequently happens that a passholder is unable to attend, and their pass goes back on sale. If you want the all-out festival experience, including all the parties, VIP entrance to the movies, and all the souvenirs, you would splurge on the Spotlight Pass. But personally, I have found the sweet spot to be the Classic Pass. All your basic festival needs are covered, you get full access to all screenings (except the opening night movie), and to Club TCM where there are panels and discussions. And it’s a quarter of the price of the Spotlight Pass.
  • Show up to the theater for the movies you want to see, and position yourself in the standby line. You won’t have guaranteed entrance, but if the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, you will be given the opportunity to purchase individual tickets.

Aside from the screenings, and perhaps even more than the screenings, one of my favorite parts of the TCMFF is connecting with readers and fellow bloggers. The classic film community is tight knit and devoted, but we are spread out all over the world, connected through the power of the internet and modern technology. For many of us, the TCMFF is the one time a year when we get to spend time with our community. I’m grateful to have been a part of it for so many years.

Thanks for reading, and hope to see you in Hollywood!

Supreme Court Declines to Take Up Olivia de Havilland Case

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I received confirmation this morning from Olivia de Havilland’s counsel, Suzelle Smith, that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of Havilland v FX, Olivia de Havilland’s petition to the court to allow her case against FX to go to trial.

It is a disappointing decision, but de Havilland has fought an enormous battle, persevering until the very last recourse. That type of persistence is a quality that she has always had–and clearly continues to have at the age of 102. May we all learn from her, and may we all be so fortunate as to live to see the day when we can act on her example.

From the email this morning: “One day someone else who is wronged for the sake of Hollywood profits will have the courage to stand on the shoulders of Miss de Havilland and fight for the right to defend a good name and legacy against intentional, unconsented exploitation and falsehoods. Miss de Havilland hopes she will live to see the day when such justice is done.”

I want to thank all of you for following this case, and my coverage of it. It has been a true learning experience to do this kind of work, and to examine meticulously the inner workings of a lawsuit of this caliber has been an enormous privilege. While this outcome isn’t what we had hoped, the response to this case in the record number of letters sent to the courtrooms has proven that Olivia de Havilland continues to be loved and supported by people all over the world.

On behalf of myself, everyone involved in the case, all the newspaper and magazine outlets devotedly following the case since the beginning, Olivia de Havilland’s counsel, and everyone who has rooted for truth in media–thank you.

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Supreme Court to Decide Whether to Take Up Olivia de Havilland Case Today

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Hello readers, just a very quick update for those following the Olivia de Havilland case. Today, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not they will take up her petition. If you would like to follow the case on the SCOTUS blog, here is the link to the petition page. I will update as more information becomes available.

For more information on what this petition is about, to fill in those new to the blog, here is a list of my full coverage on the case.

I will be following the page throughout the day to provide updates as they come in.

Thanks for reading, and for following this fascinating piece of legislation.

UPDATE: No order was released today on the Olivia de Havilland case–there will be additional orders released on Monday, January 7 and perhaps some on Tuesday.

Searching for Mary Poppins in 2018

 

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When I first heard that there would be another Mary Poppins movie made in 2018, I wasn’t sure what to think. Being a lifelong devotee of the original film, I was hard-pressed to imagine anyone who could fill the gigantic shoes of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, or if anyone even had the right to try. Early mumblings in the classic film community about Mary Poppins Returns were skeptical, cautious. Some said they wouldn’t see it. Some said they were willing to give it a chance, but held low expectations.

I always fell somewhat into the second camp. I brightened to hear that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be playing the Bert character (perfect casting, I felt), but I remained on my guard. I was convinced that remaking Mary Poppins at all was a futile effort.

I went to see the film yesterday afternoon at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley. I went in with an open and curious mind, looking forward to seeing how the filmmakers and actors handled the seemingly insurmountable task of a Mary Poppins remake. But immediately, I understood what this movie is about. Mary Poppins Returns is not a remake at all–but rather a piece of much-needed escapism for 2018 audiences, in a world that desperately needs it.

Movies have always served the social needs of their time. In moments of national crisis, they have served to allay fears, provide comfort, or commiserate with worries. Frequently, the messages were subtle. In 1944, at the height of World War II, Meet Me In St. Louis brought wartime viewers back to 1903 St. Louis, when things were easier, life was slower, and there was no war. Though the film takes place 40 years prior, the message was clear. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was really for the soldiers, and the American people as a whole.

Mary Poppins was released in 1964, as the United States faced dire challenges. With the Vietnam War heating up, the Civil Rights Movement at its peak, Russia and the United States facing off and John F. Kennedy recently assassinated, adults and children needed to be taken away from their circumstances. Mary Poppins‘ fantastical escape into 1910 London and a land of chalk drawings, cartoons, and magical nannies provided just that opportunity.

So it is, too, with Mary Poppins Returns. On most days, we are pummeled with the stress of a neverending news cycle, and the realities of a world that frequently feels like it’s crumbling beneath our feet. A retreat into escapist entertainment is very much in line with the cinematic and cultural history of the United States, and very necessary.

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In 1964, the merging of cartoon and real-life characters was a state-of-the-art production process. Though not a new technology, it was a difficult one, imperfect and rarely used, and emblematic of a large budget production. Reviews upon its release commended the mixing of live action and animation as “immense,” and the Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer noted that Disney had been trying to perfect the process for the past 40 years, and dared to shoot 400 Mary Poppins scenes using it.

In 2018, we have long since moved on. Computer animation is the norm now–we have seen the rise of Pixar, of Avatar, and other processes that try to make moviegoing seem as true to life as possible. Mary Poppins Returns goes the other way. Using a similar cel animation process combined with live action that was advanced and awe-inspiring in 1964, director Rob Marshall has created an air of nostalgia and simplicity. The effect is that the audience is thrown back to a time when moviemaking didn’t have to feel true to life, when suspension of disbelief was valued over meticulous true-to-life detail. And for many of us, that means a throwback to our childhood moviegoing experiences–evoking memories of the cel-animated Disney movies that defined the studio through the 1990s and early 2000s. Worries are tossed to the wind, and the audience is engulfed by pure fantasy.

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In these trying times, we as a society would do well to learn once again how to appreciate escapist entertainment such as the kind Mary Poppins, and Mary Poppins Returns offers. It is a cultural necessity in our efforts to deal with daily life, and a panacea that this troubled world dearly needs.

California Fires Are Burning Hollywood History

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Image of the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles, courtesy of ABC7 New York

As I write this post, I’m looking out the window into a haze of smoke, blowing down to the Bay Area from the Camp Fire in Chico. California is fighting several severe wildfires right now, and as of this writing, the entire city of Malibu is evacuated, we have over a dozen dead, and more who have lost everything. The fires this year and over the past few years have been devastating and tragic, and the smell of smoke in the air has become all too familiar.

And now, the fires are threatening Hollywood history at both ends of California.

Yesterday, I was sad to learn that the Western Town at Agoura Hills’ Paramount Ranch has burned in the Woolsey Fire. Purchased by Paramount in 1927, the Paramount Ranch has been used continuously as an outdoor movie set for 90 years. It has served as the filming location for The Sign of the Cross (1932), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and Morocco (1930), and the Western Town was famously the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman between 1993 and 1998, as well as the current show Westworld.

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A tweet from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area states: “We are sorry to share the news that the has burned Western Town at in Agoura. We do not have any details or photos, but it is our understanding that the structures have burned. This area is an active part of the incident and we cannot access it.”

Farther north, in Chico, the Camp Fire is threatening Bidwell Park, the location that served as Sherwood Forest in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). As of right now, the park is safe, but the fire remains unpredictable.

In the absence of a proper Sherwood Forest in the area around Los Angeles, Warner Bros decided to move production of The Adventures of Robin Hood up to Chico, a town in far northern California near Mt. Shasta. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland spent many hours in lower Bidwell Park (the park is divided into an upper and a lower section), the area chosen to serve as the legendary forest where Robin Hood woos Maid Marian.

One of the wonderful things about the classic Hollywood community of yesteryear was their ability to rally and come together when times were tough for any of them. They were all there for each other–donating time, money, and resources to their fellow industry workers as needed. Right now, times are tough for the communities that have given us our movies. If you are able to help financially, volunteer, send supplies, or simply keep the communities in your thoughts, I know it would be much appreciated and a gesture very much in the spirit of classic Hollywood. Here is how you can help:

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Hannah Darden for the Sacramento Bee outlines what is needed. Here are some places she suggests:

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From Danny Clemens of ABC7 in Los Angeles:

Thank you for helping to keep our classic Hollywood heritage alive, and the people and animals who live in those communities safe.