Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted on Backlots! I’ve been very busy with activities related to Captain of Her Soul, which is now out as of September 27. I wanted to share a few things I’ve been up to, and some upcoming events, so you might have some context as to why Backlots has been inactive for a while.
-Mrs. Dalloway’s and Larry Edmunds, two premier bookshops in Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA respectively, have had me in for presentations on Marion Davies. You can order signed copies of the books from them!
-I presented at the Annenberg Community Beach House on the book
-I traveled to Silver Spring, MD to present Show People and The Cardboard Lover at the AFI Silver
-The book was featured at the Mechanic’s Institute CinemaLit series in San Francisco, where I presented on Show People, The Red Mill, and even The Cat’s Meow, where we discussed what really happened to Thomas Ince.
-There have been lots of podcasts and virtual events that I have enjoyed immensely. Here is one, with Kendahl Cruhver of Watching Classic Films
Here are some upcoming events:
-Marion Davies will be the Star of the Month on TCM in January. Stay tuned here for some fun things I have planned!
-January 13: I’m going back to Washington, DC to present at Lost City Books.
January 19: Presentation at the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
-February 4-12: I will be presenting at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater for a Marion Davies retrospective. Check the calendar here.
-February 25-26: The Kansas Silent Film Festival! I will present on Marion Davies at the cinema dinner and introduce Little Old New York.
So there you see why I’ve been inactive here for so long! If you haven’t gotten the book yet, you can order from the links above, or here. It makes a great holiday gift.
I’ll be back with more updates soon. See you then!
Day 3 of the festival was predominantly a pre-Code day for me. Pre-Codes are famously popular at the TCM Festival, but they’re almost always screened in the smallest theaters. The question of why is a point of contention among attendees–some think the organizers simply haven’t learned the audience’s trends, and others think that it’s a strategic marketing decision. Whatever the reason is, seeing a pre-Code at the TCM Festival requires a great deal of planning. To that end, I decided to skip the first block of movies to get in line for Three on a Match at noon. I haven’t seen Three on a Match much since I saw it on the big screen nearly 10 years ago. A rather bizarre movie, in my opinion, and immensely disturbing, but a fascinating pre-Code. It tells the story of three school friends whose lives take them in unexpected directions, and without giving away too much of the plot, the title Three on a Match comes from an old saying: “Three on a match means one will die soon.” The three women as adults are played by Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and Joan Blondell, and the young Ann Dvorak is played by a child actress named Dawn O’Day, later known as Anne Shirley. The screening sold out completely, and enough people were turned away that the movie was shown again on Sunday afternoon in one of the TBA slots. This is a recurring theme at every TCM Festival, so it’s difficult for me to believe that there’s not some strategy behind this.
Following Three on a Match, I took the shuttle to the Hollywood Legion to get in line for Baby Face. The movie started at 3–I was in line at 1:45. It is, after all, a pre-Code. And is it ever.
Often hailed as the film that singlehandedly overhauled the Production Code, Baby Face is one of the movies that I tend to show people who are unfamiliar with classic film, or under the impression that old movies are prudish or misogynistic. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers lives in a saloon in Erie, PA with her father who sells her to customers for sex. When he dies in a gas explosion, she leaves her home with her best friend Chico (Theresa Harris) to start a new life in New York. She is unapologetic about using her body to rise to the top of the business world, regrets nothing, and faces the world with a cold, ruthless ambition.
Baby Face required extensive editing and reshoots to comply with the Code as it existed in 1933, and even after those extensive edits, it pushed the limit of what was acceptable to the censor boards. Following its release, the Production Code was strengthened to include more oversight so that a film like Baby Face wouldn’t be seen as long as the Code was in effect. The original, uncensored film was lost for decades, until it was finally unearthed several years ago and restored.
I’ve seen Baby Face more times than I can count, but I never miss it when it’s playing on TCM or at a theater nearby. Barbara Stanwyck is a personal favorite of mine in anything, but this role seemed written for her talents. Bruce Goldstein introduced the movie at the Hollywood Legion, and he presented a revelatory program that included notes from the production office on what was ordered to be changed. After the movie, he showed a 5 minute reel comparing the censored and uncensored versions, including an alternate ending that punished Lily Powers for her actions in compliance with the Code.
I got back in line after that, for another pre-Code called Counsellor at Law, the personal pick of Leonard Maltin, who was receiving the Robert Osborne Award beforehand. The presentation of the award was a wonderful and loving ceremony to one of the most respected critics of all time. Maltin accepted his award with a genuine, sincere speech delivered without the use of notes. After the ceremony, Maltin went right into his introduction of Counsellor at Law, a rarely seen pre-Code from 1932. It is an unusual movie, in which John Barrymore plays an emotionally unstable lawyer who swings between extreme highs and devastating lows. The plot, deceptively thin on the surface, is the gateway into a character’s disturbed mind. If the film were made today, there would inevitably be discussions of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, and mental health triggers in a high stress workplace. John Barrymore plays the character to perfection, showing on his face the character’s joy in one moment, utter despair in the next.
I had originally planned to go back to the room and go to bed after Counsellor at Law, but at the last minute I decided to join my friends for the evening show of Singin’ In the Rain at Grauman’s (officially TCL) Chinese Theatre. Singin’ In the Rain was one of the very first movies I ever saw on the big screen, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. I nearly wore out my VHS copy as a child, and learned who Calvin Coolidge was from Lina Lamont at the age of 7.
As many times as I’ve seen this movie, there are often new things that I notice. The character of Lina Lamont was originally written for the talents and persona of Judy Holliday (Betty Comden and Adolph Green were good friends and longtime collaborators), and I can see so much of her in Jean Hagen’s performance. I’ve written about how their careers operated in tandem with one another–in addition to the Singin’ in the Rain connection, Jean Hagen was the understudy in Born Yesterday on Broadway, and the two were in Adam’s Rib together. I can’t help but imagine what Lina Lamont would have been if Judy Holliday had played her.
This viewing, I honed in on the brilliant character development that takes place in the opening sequence. Through Dora Bailey’s radio broadcast, the audience learns the backstory of nearly every important character in the movie in the first 10 minutes. Kathy Selden, of course, enters later. When Don tries to seduce her in the car and she pushes him off yelling “Don’t you touch me!” everyone in the audience of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre applauded. A relevant moment indeed.
Day 2 of the TCM Classic Film Festival was one filled with laughter. From the first moment the schedule came out, I knew it would be–with The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie on the agenda, there is no other possible outcome. I started the day with The Sunshine Boys, a wonderful screening introduced by Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Richard Benjamin as a featured guest afterward. Richard Benjamin plays Walter Matthau’s nephew in the film, an talent agent who represents (and barely tolerates) his ex-vaudeville comic uncle. He tries to reunite his uncle with his old comedy partner, played by George Burns, but there’s one problem…they hate each other.
Randy Haberkamp indicated in his introduction that Richard Benjamin’s performance is often overlooked in favor of the two stars. I find that to be very easy on the small screen, but viewing a film on the big screen can make all the difference. Richard Benjamin’s performance lit up the screen, as did his charisma with Walter Matthau. In his interview afterward, Richard Benjamin discussed how close he came with Walter Matthau in real life, which was very touching to hear.
The George Burns role was originally supposed to go to Jack Benny. Jack, however, had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was too sick to take on the strain of a new film. To replace him, he recommended his longtime best friend George Burns, who had not been in films since 1939. Jack died in late 1974, and George played the role to perfection, earning an Academy Award for his performance and revitalizing his career. A beautiful end to one of show business’ great friendships.
A wonderful crowd showed up for Tootsie, which is always an exceptionally fun movie to see on the big screen. I have always adored Tootsie, finding it to be unexpectedly deep in its social commentary and the acting is superb. There is hardly a single line that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Elaine May was an uncredited screenwriter on the film, and I can hear her influence clearly throughout the script.
It was especially fun for me to watch Tootsie with my friend Sara, a Jessica Lange superfan who was seeing it on the big screen for the first time. Jessica Lange won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance, which is so beautifully nuanced. She conveys complex emotions so clearly in her face–in the scene where she tells Dorothy she can’t see her anymore, you feel her pain viscerally.
Following Tootsie, I had an appointment with my friend Priscilla. Months before the fest began, we had discussed getting together to watch The Jack Benny Show sometime during the festival. We’re both ardent fans of Jack and we had bonded over that over Twitter. So we met poolside at the Roosevelt and watched the Peter, Paul, and Mary episode, laughing until our sides hurt. We then proceeded to watch Jack Benny for a good hour and a half together, and Priscilla showed me this sketch, which sent us into even more hysterical fits of laughter:
While some people come to the festival for the movies, many of us consider these kinds of moments an integral part of the experience. There certainly isn’t anyone in my non-classic film life with whom I can watch Jack Benny for hours on end, and I’m grateful to the festival for providing a place where we can be ourselves with like-minded people. It’s hard to overstate how much this part of the festival means to me, and to all of us who often feel that our interests don’t align with our peers in everyday life.
After our Jack Benny marathon, I went to the Doris Day centennial celebration panel at Club TCM. It was a lovely and loving discussion with several of Doris Day’s friends, discussing their personal histories with Doris Day and what she was like offscreen. In my view, Doris Day is one of the most misinterpreted personalities of classic Hollywood. When people think of her, they often think of a virginal girl-next-door, representative of a wholesome mirage of 1950s culture. In contrast, the real Doris Day was a passionate and vibrant woman who devoted her life to the wellbeing of animals. She had a frequently difficult life, surviving an abusive marriage, the death of a child, and a second husband who squandered all her earnings. In regard to her music, people know “Que Sera Sera” and other light songs (though I could write a treatise on why “Que Sera Sera” is not at all the light song it seems), but her career with Les Brown in the early 1940s established her as one of the top female vocalists of her era, a fact that is often overlooked when we remember Doris Day today. Her friends on the panel described a down-to-earth, loving, and generous woman who lived for animals and adored her fans. It was a moving and gentle tribute.
The next movie on the agenda was The Gay Divorcee, the first star pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie also features a 17-year-old Betty Grable, who performs a delightful number called “Let’s K-nock K-nees” with Edward Everett Horton, which nearly steals the film out from under Fred and Ginger. It’s been stuck in my head for a full day and I don’t have any particular interest in getting it out.
As I mentioned in a previous post, watching Fred and Ginger on the big screen is one of life’s great treats. One of the interstitials playing before movies throughout the festival this year is a clip of Fred Astaire preparing to jump on a couch in a scene from The Gay Divorcee. It fascinates me, and over the course of the festival I’ve been watching it closely to see what it is that he’s doing that I find so interesting. I think it’s the combination of grace and intense strength, especially in his upper body, a seemingly incongruous combination that Fred has in perfect proportion.
While watching The Gay Divorcee, I paid special attention to how Fred and Ginger moved, together and separately. One thing I noticed is that both “Night and Day” and “The Continental” are danced on a floor with white lines running down it. When Fred and Ginger dance together, their feet never land on lines. They dance over them, jump over them, but their dance routines are orchestrated around those lines and it’s a beautiful detail to watch.
I’ll be back tomorrow with more details from day 3!
“This California dew is a little heavier than usual tonight,” as Debbie Reynolds said in Singin’ in the Rain, and she might have been talking about this evening in Hollywood, where an unexpected downpour punctuates a full first festival day.
The fun kicked off this afternoon with “So You Think You Know Movies?” Bruce Goldstein’s exceptionally difficult TCM trivia game hosted in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It was a crowded and excited audience, filled with many veteran festival attendees. I ran into my friend Karen Hannsberry of The Dark Pages, and we formed a trivia team that consisted of several very knowledgeable people. Thanks to some great deduction skills on the part of Stephan Reginald in particular…we won the game! It was the first time I’ve ever come close to winning “So You Think You Know Movies?” We each received a nice TCM tote bag with a book, a DVD, and some magnets, and the thrill of having succeeded in some of the hardest movie trivia there is.
Following the trivia, several friends and I went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. Passover is still observed until Saturday evening and I’ve had a bit of a hard time finding good food options. Fortunately, California Pizza Kitchen had a few Passover-friendly options and my friends and I had a delicious meal as we caught up after many long years apart. It is an interesting phenomenon to be back at a festival like this, after 3 years where we’ve lacked mass socialization. I am very conscious of being “out of practice” with socializing, and it’s a strange feeling to want to talk to people without really being sure of what to say. I’ve expressed this to some of my friends, who admit to the same feelings. I’m glad I’m not alone.
My friends from dinner were all going to Jewel Robbery, so we got in line together and sat together in Multiplex 4. The introduction was by Cari Beauchamp, always one of the most popular presenters of the festival. She gave a detailed and engaging talk about the pre-Code era, and its implications for portrayals of women and their sexual freedom. At several points during the introduction, audience members clapped and cheered for her statements about women’s rights, and reacted with enthusiastic laughter at some of the letters from the Hays Office. It was a marvelous introduction fit for an audience that knows movies. A friend who was sitting near me remarked: “Every presenter at the festival should learn from Cari Beauchamp. Her introductions should be the high standard everyone tries to reach.”
The movie itself is pure joy. It tells the story of a woman who falls for a jewel thief after witnessing a robbery, and it is full of double entendre, innuendo, and all the glorious dialogue we expect from pre-Codes. In addition, there are several scenes featuring “drugged cigarettes,” clearly marijuana. In true pre-Code fashion, it’s not at all discreet–characters who smoke these cigarettes are seen laughing at nothing, on a ridiculous high that William Powell says will culminate in “a good appetite.” Something not able to be seen just a few years later, and rare even for this time period.
Afterward, I went up to the Hollywood Legion, a beautiful 1940s theater that was renovated in time for the 2019 TCM Festival. I saw Indiscreet there in 2019, and marveled at the uniqueness of this venue that radiates the 1940s. This evening, I saw A Star is Born, the original 1937 version of the story. I wondered what I would notice when I watched it on the big screen, and I found that my eyes were particularly drawn to the color blue. The 1937 A Star is Born is an early example of the 3-strip Technicolor process. Prior to the development of 3-strip technology, the 2-strip Technicolor process had a pastel quality to it, with limitations for blues and reds. Blues appeared green, reds appeared pink. In A Star is Born, we see a scene next to a sparkling clear blue swimming pool, one of the early times an audience could see a color like that on the screen. A dark blue umbrella and the dark blues of Janet Gaynor’s outfit accentuate the brightness of the pool. Putting myself in the place of a 1930s audience member, I can only begin to imagine what a thrill it must have been to see that brilliant color onscreen.
Now I’m back in the room, ready to prepare for another big festival day tomorrow. See you then!
This where the classic movie faithful converge. The greatest part of the weekend, for me, is reuniting with like-minded people, who speak the same classic movie “language.” Today I realized that this is my tenth festival, and each year I envy the people experiencing it for the first time. In prior years, I have discussed the unrivaled TCM audiences and the special experience of seeing a film here. One of my favorite stories is from several years ago, when Illeana Douglas was introducing Double Wedding and asked if anyone knew how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together. The answer boomed through the Egyptian Theatre, as the entire audience gleefully shouted “FOURTEEN!!!” This kind of enthusiasm is rare, and found in every theater of the TCM Festival. When you’ve experienced it, its absence is palpable anywhere else you go.
The official festival starts tomorrow, Thursday, but I arrived today to attend the media mixer in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The site of the first Academy Awards in 1929, the Blossom Room serves as the meeting place for panels and discussions during the TCM Classic Film Festival, a venue known as “Club TCM.”
The media mixer was an opportunity to hear from the five TCM hosts–Eddie Muller, Jacqueline Stewart, Alicia Malone, Dave Karger, and Ben Mankiewicz–on what they were most excited about for the festival, and to hear a special announcement that was teased to media last night.
The hosts all expressed an appreciation for the fans and an excitement for being back in person for the first time since 2019. Eddie Muller singled out the Doris Day centennial celebration as something he was looking forward to, and Jacqueline Stewart said she might “faint at the sight of Pam Grier” when she interviews her before the screening of Coffy on Sunday. Pam Grier is a special focus of the festival this year. The special announcement teased to the media was revealed at the end of the mixer–the fourth season of TCM’s podcast, “The Plot Thickens,” will focus on Grier.
Dave Karger is particularly invested in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, because Topher Grace is a family friend and Karger knows how special the movie is to him. Alicia Malone wishes she could see the pre-Codes, but she is going to make it a point to see Queen Bee, because it’s “Joan Crawford at her Joan Crawfordest,” in her words. Ben Mankiewicz said that the adrenaline rush of the festival immediately came back to him, a sentiment that many of us feel at this moment.
As with previous festivals, I will be enabling livetweets on the blog so that you may follow along with my activities in real time. Here is a rundown of my plans for the first two days:
FESTIVAL SCHEDULE PART I
Trivia with Bruce Goldstein: “So You Think You Know Movies?”
Jewel Robbery (1932)
A Star is Born (1937)
Bruce Goldstein is a mainstay at the TCM Festival, and his trivia show is one of the highlights of the festival for many people. Ruthlessly difficult and loaded with jokes and fun facts, it’s a great deal of fun that I never miss.
TCM did an interesting thing putting Jewel Robbery opposite E.T., the opening night film. On its own, Jewel Robbery would sell out in an instant. Pre-Codes are notorious sellouts at the festival, and Jewel Robbery stars Kay Francis and William Powell, some of the most popular of the stars for festivalgoers. In addition, the intro is by Cari Beauchamp, who gives some of the most popular introductions of the festival. But by scheduling it opposite the opening night movie, the festival organizers essentially increase the value of the film for the high level passholders–the theater will be filled with Classic passes, but only the most diehard Essential and Spotlight passholders will choose to go. It’s an interesting supply and demand issue, tackled TCM-style.
After Jewel Robbery, I will hurry up the hill to the Hollywood Legion Theatre to see A Star is Born. There have now been four iterations of the story (five if you count the inspirational material, What Price, Hollywood?), but the 1937 version holds a special place in my heart. To me, it’s the most tender and gentle. The 1954 version is big and glamorous, perfect for 1950s audiences and for Judy Garland’s enormous talent. But Janet Gaynor and Fredric March have a softness to them, and the early 3-strip Technicolor adds a meditative beauty that doesn’t exist in subsequent versions of the story.
The Sunshine Boys (1975)
Queen Bee (1955)
TCM Celebrates Doris Day
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
This is a day where I plan to laugh a great deal. The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie are both films where just about every line is funny–The Sunshine Boys embodies a rapid-fire, vaudevillian style, and Tootsie is intellectual and sharp. I do think Joan Crawford is at her Joan Crawfordest in Queen Bee, and I think it will be particularly fun to watch it with the festival crowd.
TCM Celebrates Doris Day will be a panel discussion in Club TCM featuring several of Doris Day’s personal friends and representatives from the organizations she founded, the Doris Day Animal League and the Doris Day Animal Foundation. It is sure to be a full house. Though Doris Day’s public image was as a wholesome, all-American girl next door, in reality she was a trailblazing woman who led a passionate, vibrant life devoted to improving the wellbeing of animals. She is a particular favorite among many TCM fans, and I’m very much looking forward to this talk.
I was talking to a friend the other day about movies that are simply meant for the big screen. A few years ago when I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the TCM Festival, I was blown away and moved to tears. Those bright colors, those beautiful faces. It was as though I had been watching a different movie every time I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at home, and I wondered how I could ever see it the same way again. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the big screen is a similar experience. There is a reason that audiences were transfixed by them during the Depression. The viewer is transported and taken into their world as they dance. For that reason, The Gay Divorcee is a must-see for me–especially during these difficult times with COVID and war raging, everyone deserves to be taken out of this cruel world and into Fred and Ginger’s. If only for that one moment.
Passes for the TCM Classic Film Festival go on sale to the general public today, and I have been happy to see that so many of my friends will be returning to Hollywood this year. After two of virtual festivals, the excitement of seeing our festival friends in April is palpable.
Since its inception in 2010, the TCM Classic Film Festival has been the crown jewel of classic film festivals––a five-day, multi-venue event where the community is as important as the movies. Affectionately known as the “TCMFF” by attendees, its audience is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else. Once, before a showing of Double Wedding, presenter Illiana Douglas asked a trivia question: “Does anybody know how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together?” The answer, immediate and enthusiastic, rang through the theater. “FOURTEEN!” shouted the entire audience together. It is a place for people with this level of enthusiasm to connect with each other and the movies they love.
Putting on a festival of this magnitude is a staggeringly expensive effort. Theater rentals, appearance and licensing fees, security, and transportation all contribute to a huge financial expenditure on the part of TCM. That cost is passed on to attendees in the price of festival passes, which has long been a sticking point for devoted fans who want to come, but have to choose between paying for a pass and paying the rent. Many fans who attend save all year for the experience, and this year prices have increased upward of 18%. The prohibitive price of the festival has been a touchy subject, and it is something I have definite opinions about, but I would like to put that discussion aside for the moment and focus on the passes that many fans are purchasing today.
In the interest of helping people get the most out of the festival as they consider a pass (or attending without a pass, an option I will address later), I thought I would do a rundown of pass levels and what they get you. Some people believe that Spotlight is the only way to get the “full” festival experience, and thus decide not to go if they can’t spend that much money. This is not the case. You can have a wonderful and fulfilling experience without the top level pass, and you should not let the price of the Spotlight pass deter you from the festival.
These are observations that I have gleaned from my eight years attending the TCMFF, and if anyone reading has advice to add, please feel free to comment below!
I will start from the lowest pass level and work my way up.
THE PALACE PASS
The Palace Pass, going for $349, is a great budget option for people looking to experience Los Angeles while in town for the festival. It gives you access to festival venues starting Friday, April 22, but it doesn’t give you access to any of the parties, the Chinese Multiplex or Club TCM (which hosts panel discussions and interviews). For people who have come into town specifically for the festival, restricted access might be a dealbreaker, but for casual festivalgoers who would like to go on day trips to explore the city while in town, and avoid being in a dark theater all day, this might be just the pass for you.
I have met many Palace Pass holders in line, and a few of them hadn’t read about the pass before they purchased it––but of those that had, and had made the informed decision to experience the festival this way, they are almost universally very satisfied with it.
THE CLASSIC PASS
The Classic Pass, going for $849 this year, gives you access to all festival venues, Thursday through Sunday. The only thing it doesn’t give you is access to the Opening Night Movie and Opening Night Party––everything else you can access. The difficult thing about the timing of pass sales is that the opening night movie has not been announced yet. This leaves fans gambling on whether or not the opening night movie will be worth the extra cost of a higher level pass. But there are other movies on opening night as well––and with a Classic Pass, you are guaranteed a movie to see on Thursday night.
Personally, I am a huge fan of the Classic Pass and recommend it to anyone looking for my suggestion. To my mind, it’s the best deal of the festival––and even though it’s still expensive by any standard, you get the core of the festival––all the movies except opening night, and everything at Club TCM.
THE ESSENTIAL PASS
Going for $1,099 this year, this is the perfect pass for those who were thinking of going the Classic route, but know they want to see the opening night movie. To justify the extra expense, there are a few ways to figure out what the opening night movie might be––it is usually an anniversary restoration of a classic musical, so that leaves the likely years of 1942, 1952, 1962, 1972, or 1982 (TCM usually doesn’t go beyond the 1980s for opening night movies). If there’s a movie from any of those years that you know will be getting a restoration, and you desperately want to see it, the Essential Pass might be worth your gamble for that alone. The Essential Pass also gets you a gift bag of TCM collectibles, which in past years has included mugs, journals, and collectible programs.
For festivalgoers trying to decide between the Essential and Spotlight Pass, keep in mind that the Essential Pass doesn’t give you priority entry the way the Spotlight Pass does. You’ll be waiting in the general line alongside the Classic and Palace Pass-level attendees. If priority entry and seating is important to you, you might want to consider going up to the top level.
THE SPOTLIGHT PASS
The highest level pass is the Spotlight Pass, which for $2,549 gives you access to everything the festival has to offer. You will attend the opening night movie and go to the party afterward, also attended by VIPs and TCM hosts. People holding the Spotlight Pass get priority entry into all screenings, and opportunities to socialize with the festival’s special guests. In prior years, Spotlight holders also got breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel, though I’m not sure if that will be happening again this year.
The Spotlight Pass is a good choice for people who want to experience the TCMFF in “first class.” Some Spotlight passholders I’ve talked to see the festival as a kind of vacation––the same way people might look at a luxury all-inclusive package. But I know many diehard fans who buy a Spotlight Pass every year, and see it as a unique opportunity to meet their favorite stars and talk to TCM hosts. The Spotlight Pass is really what you make it.
There is also an option that doesn’t require a pass, the STANDBY alternative. Let’s take the photo above as an example: if you know that you want to see My Darling Clementine on Friday at 9:30, you would go early and get in a standby line. Passholders go to a separate section––Spotlight and VIPs in one line, Classic, Essential, and members of the press in another––and they are let in first. If the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, the theater opens to standby attendees, and you purchase your individual ticket for $20.
I know a few people who are doing standby this year, due to the significant increase in pass prices. It is rare that a screening completely fills up, but for very popular films and those in small theaters, you might face a bit of a letdown. But truthfully, sometimes Classic and Essential passholders face the same letdown when demand exceeds expectation, and in that case, the film in question is often shown again. Just like a regular passholder, you can try again when the film is re-screened.
Since 2013, I have attended as a member of the media, which essentially provides the same benefits as a Classic Pass. I did purchase an actual Classic Pass in 2012 when Backlots was in its infancy, and I was very pleased with it. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything––I had little interest in the parties and had other movies on opening night that I wanted to see. But my preferences are not everyone’s, so I hope this guide has been helpful as you consider a pass, or going without one, today.
Classic film fans on social media were abuzz this morning as news emerged that the TCM Classic Film Festival will return in person in 2022.
After two years of virtual programming, this announcement was met with palpable joy among long-time festival attendees. Since this morning, I have seen friends making plans about where they’ll meet for meals, and some have already booked their rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the headquarters of the “TCMFF.”
It will not be a complete return to normal, as COVID-19 protocols will be in place to protect festivalgoers. According to the website, this means that among other precautions, the festival will require “mandatory masking, social distancing, capacity limits, negative test results verification, and/or proof of vaccination.” There will be more detailed updates to come, and the festival will be following Los Angeles County guidelines and best practices.
There are still a lot of updates to come, and I will do my best to bring them to you as I learn them. Backlots has attended the festival since 2013, and I am so happy that this year, we finally have a return to the glorious in-person experience of the TCMFF. There is nothing else like it in the world.
When I first saw The Devil and Miss Jones several years ago, I found myself wondering how I could have missed such a funny, smart, compelling film for so long. Though seeming to have all the hallmarks of an instant classic, The Devil and Miss Jones is one of those films that too often, undeservedly, fly under the radar and land in obscurity. A few weeks ago, I heard that the spring Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon would be celebrating “Hidden Classics,” and I knew immediately which film I would write about.
Not only does The Devil and Miss Jones deserve to be more widely seen, but should be seen by all corporate executives and supervisors. In it, they will find insight into the plight of their workers, and the reasons why they unionize. It is explicitly pro-worker and pro-union, made in an era of seismic shifts for workers’ rights.
In the film, written brilliantly by Norman Krasna and directed by Sam Wood, J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) discovers that employees at his department store have been burning him in effigy and “agitating” to organize a union. As his workers have never seen him, he decides to go undercover and root out the organizers himself. He gets hired as a worker in the “hotbed of discontent” within the company––the shoe department. In a biting commentary, his intelligence test places him one point above the minimum passing score, invoking the disdain of his supervisor.
In the shoe department, in an effort to keep his enemies close, he befriends several outspoken organizers including Mary (Jean Arthur) and her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings). He becomes especially close to a woman named Elizabeth, close to his own age, and begins a romance with her. He takes notes on how to strategically stop the organizing in its tracks, but before long he finds himself sympathizing with the workers and their rights. After the organizing drive fails to get enough support, the list with the names of the 400 people who supported the effort ends up in Merrick’s pocket. But instead of siding with the management who wants to fire the 400 organizers, Merrick helps destroy the list of organizers, saving their jobs and siding with the employees in the struggle for better treatment. He puts the blame on the director for the unrest. “I’ve worked with these people. They have rights!”
Franklin D. Roosevelt had been in office 8 years by the time The Devil and Miss Jones was released. His presidency was seen by the American labor movement as a tremendous success, with the Wagner Act passed in 1935, giving unions collective bargaining rights and workers protection for concerted activity. Roosevelt believed that better treatment for workers was the key to a healthy labor economy, and robust unions were in the nation’s interest. However, the Wagner Act did not pass Congress easily, and in The Devil and Miss Jones, we can see just how new and contentious these rights were in 1941. Under the Wagner Act, no employee can be fired for engaging in organization of a union, but at the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, we see an employer trying to do just that.
The movie coats the seriousness of its message with a healthy dose of self-awareness and lots of comedy. The introduction of the film reads:
“Dear Richest Men in the World:
We made up this character in the story, out of our own heads. It’s nobody, really.
The whole thing is make-believe.
We’d feel awful if anyone was offended.
The Author, Director, and Producer.
P.S. Nobody sue.
Using a name like J.P. Merrick, I suppose this was warranted.
The Devil and Miss Jones has a DVD release through Olive Films, and you can also watch it on Amazon Prime (though the irony is not lost on me, given Amazon’s recent history). It is a highly entertaining, well-crafted movie that takes a stand for what’s right.
Olivia de Havilland died peacefully in Paris on Saturday.
She went the way we all strive to go–in her sleep, having recently celebrated her 104th birthday. Her daughter Gisèle had just been over for a visit. She was loved and adored not only by a wide circle of friends and family, but by fans all over the world. She knew it, and she felt it always. In short, she left this world a happy, fulfilled woman surrounded by love. The fact that this is how it happened for her fills my heart.
With that said, yesterday was a very strange day for me. Olivia de Havilland has been a bedrock of my life for many years. From Backlots’ earliest days, Olivia de Havilland’s life and career has been a source of fascination, inspiration, and admiration. She lived a life filled to the brim with experiences most of us can only dream of, and I viscerally feel her loss–as though there is something missing in the world now.
Her accolades are well-documented. Five Oscar nominations and two wins, the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival jury, and a woman of strength and backbone unafraid to stand up for what was right. She was a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, and received damehood in 2017. She earned vast respect, gratitude, and admiration from legions of fans and members of the entertainment industry. “We all owe Olivia a great deal,” said her sister, Joan Fontaine, in an interview in the 1970s. Indeed, Olivia changed the industry forever with her landmark suit against Warner Bros., singlehandedly striking down a longstanding contractual practice that amounted to involuntary servitude.
Her triumphs are in spite of, or perhaps because of, a life that was not always smooth sailing. From the very beginning, there were bumps in the road that she had to navigate, and challenges that seemed insurmountable. The pressures of early fame and her problems with Warner Bros. affected her psychologically–she developed anorexia and struggled with food for many long years afterward. Her first marriage, to writer Marcus Goodrich, was unhappy and violent. She lost her son, Benjamin, to the effects of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma treatment in 1991.
In many cases, the clarity and levelheadedness with which Olivia met these challenges paved her path to better days. Her landmark suit against Warner Bros. took on the practice of adding suspension time onto a 7-year contract, hinging on a then-obscure California law interpreted to mean that an employer could not hold an employee for more than 7 calendar years. She won, and the case is now a hallmark of entertainment law. It has been cited in such varied industries as sports, music, and writing, and by personalities such as Jared Leto and Johnny Carson.
Following her divorce from Marcus Goodrich, in which she was granted sole custody of Benjamin, Olivia took him to live with her in France, turning over a new leaf far from the stresses that she faced in Hollywood. She bought a house at 3 Rue Bénouville in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, which remained her home until her death. She married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, with whom she had her daughter Gisèle. Though they amicably separated in the 1960s, Olivia and Pierre remained great friends. While Gisèle was growing up, they remained in the same home to provide Gisèle stability, and Olivia cared for him on his deathbed in 1998.
Her move to France allowed Olivia to explore her other interests (which were many), free from the scrutiny of gossip columnists and other Hollywood onlookers. She was able to work when she wanted to, and stay home when she wanted to. This contributed to her happiness, sense of normalcy, and, I believe, her longevity. When Benjamin died, Olivia turned in her grief to the American Cathedral in Paris, a “radically inclusive” Anglican community not far from her home. The Cathedral became a mainstay in Olivia’s life as she came to terms with the death of her child, and she became an active part of the community, often taking on “lay-reading” responsibilities at holidays.
She spent her last years in remarkably good health for a centenarian, and celebrated her 101st birthday by filing a lawsuit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal in the docudrama Feud. The case, about which I wrote extensively, was based on fictitious elements that were written into Olivia’s character that were misleading to the public. The suit went through the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately declined.
I was fascinated by the trial, and as longtime readers know, Backlots covered it meticulously. This site frequently broke news on the case, and I was present in the courtroom as the case was argued on appeal. Last summer I went to Oxford with the legal team (and Olivia’s family) to attend their lecture on the intricacies of the case.
While the Supreme Court’s decision not to take the case was disappointing, Olivia had made her point–that truth and respect should always prevail where real people are involved.
In a short interview in 2011, Olivia was asked about the most important things in life. Her response was indicative of the way she lived–the two most important things, she said, were love and laughter. “It is ‘to love,'” she clarified. “One must love.” Her smile lit up her eyes and her laugh was lilting and loud, reminiscent of her mother’s. Her sense of humor was extraordinary–intelligent, quick, and often quite bawdy.
I impart this information firsthand. I met Olivia in March of 2011 at a screening of I Remember Better When I Paint at the American Library in Paris, and she was everything I had heard she was. Dignified, classy, and articulate, a woman who loved people and valued their company. I heard that lilting laugh, as she realized with delight that my friend Sara and I both had a copy of her long out-of-print memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. As we spoke, she held my hand in hers, which felt so natural and gentle that I felt my palm melt into hers in reciprocation. It was a lovely moment that I cherish.
Olivia was not a big woman physically, but she dominated a room with her presence. Her voice, different in person than on the screen, was unlike any other that I have ever heard. When she stepped up to the podium to introduce I Remember Better When I Paint, I remember the precise moment when she began to speak. I audibly gasped at the beauty and uniqueness of that voice, which I frequently describe as “like melted chocolate.” It was perfect for the stage–deep and rich, carrying easily to the back of the room. To this day, it echoes in my ears every time I think of that evening.
I toasted Olivia last night with a glass of champagne and a screening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). The role of Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s production was very close to Olivia’s heart, that role having launched her career both onstage and in film. It seemed to me a fitting bookend to watch it yesterday, as I remembered all the joy and gladness she has brought to my life, and the lives of all who loved her. I bid Olivia goodbye with one of Hermia’s lines, in Act II, scene ii of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“Good night, sweet friend: Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!”
Ingrid Bergman with Ruth Roberts, to her left, and other crew on the set of Gaslight (1944)
During this COVID-19 crisis, I’m finding daily routine to be a key factor in maintaining some semblance of normalcy. For me, this means daily classic movies at set times of the day. Movies keep me calm, and bring comfort in a world that seems to be crumbling further every day. If you derive comfort from film the way I do, and you haven’t discovered the Criterion Collection yet, I’m finding it to be a godsend in this regard, a movie lover’s dream. Having finished the delightful Jean Arthur collection, I’m now working my way through the “Ingrid Bergman in Europe” collection, a diverse group of films from Ingrid Bergman’s pre-Hollywood days in Sweden, and her work in Europe following her troubles in Hollywood.
I have always found Ingrid Bergman a fascinating personality and from childhood, have been riveted by her comforting, Swedish-accented voice, distinctive beauty, magnificent acting and personal strength of character. Her onscreen portrayals reflect her offscreen strength, as she frequently played independent and strong women, including the likes of Joan of Arc and Golda Meir. The difficulties she faced in Hollywood (she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini and gave birth to their son, Roberto, out of wedlock in 1949) were excruciatingly painful. While she suffered immensely at having been rejected by Hollywood, she held her chin high and continued working–albeit in Europe for the next 7 years rather than in the United States where she had effectively been ostracized.
Ingrid Bergman before coming to Hollywood.
Bergman was a gifted linguist and polyglot–brought up in Stockholm bilingual in Swedish and German, she loved language for its own sake and was able to adjust quickly to life and work in Europe. However, when she came to the United States to work on the English version of Intermezzo for David O. Selznick in 1939, it was a different story. Her knowledge of English was rudimentary at best, and Selznick was worried about how she would sound onscreen. On her first day at the studio, she was introduced to a woman named Ruth Roberts, who was to be her English language and dialogue coach.
Ruth Roberts was the sister of director George Seaton, and came from a Swedish immigrant family herself. Ruth spoke fluent Swedish due to her family background, and later served as Loretta Young’s Swedish dialect coach on The Farmer’s Daughter. But she made the decision not to divulge her bilingualism to Ingrid.
In order to familiarize Ingrid with English, of which she knew just a smattering (she speaks a few lines of simple, broken English in the Swedish film Dollar, which is interesting to hear), Selznick demanded that she spend day and night with Roberts. At first, Ingrid balked at this order–but ultimately accepted. After a few mere hours with Ruth Roberts, Ingrid realized that she had been wrong to resist. She had found a kindred spirit, a woman who would become her best friend and one of the great influences of her life.
The two did, indeed, spend all their time together, speaking nothing but English–and Ingrid found that despite her initial hesitancy at having her freedom curtailed, she adored Ruth and enjoyed spending time with her. In her autobiography, My Story, Ingrid recalled that one day when Ruth was coaching her on the set, there was a word whose pronunciation Ingrid was struggling with. “If only you could give me one Swedish word…” Ingrid said sadly, knowing she could get the pronunciation if she only knew how to form her mouth correctly. Ruth looked her right in the eye and gave her a Swedish word with the same sound.
“You speak Swedish?” Ingrid asked incredulously.
“I am Swedish.”
“Because, Ingrid dear, if I’d told you earlier you’d be jabbering away in Swedish and my job is to get your English right.”
From the American version of Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman’s first English language film.
The revelation of Ruth’s bilingualism deepened their friendship further, and their shared connection to Sweden helped Ingrid acclimate and learn quickly. It was thanks to her friendship with Ruth Roberts that her English improved so rapidly. Ruth remained Ingrid’s dialect coach throughout her career, even when Ingrid spoke perfect English and had established her “voice” in Hollywood. Ingrid’s autobiography is filled with correspondence with Ruth Roberts, in both English and Swedish, and stories of Ruth’s emotional support during Ingrid’s ostracization from Hollywood and her connection to Ingrid’s children. Their friendship was lifelong, and though Ruth was 16 years older, the two died only 3 months apart in 1982.
The gift that this friendship gave Ingrid is immeasurable. Though she did have a gift for languages, eventually learning 2 more in addition to English, her personal and professional connection to Ruth Roberts provided her with the foundation and confidence to not only work in a foreign language, but to win 3 Oscars in it. This was not lost on Ingrid, who treasured their friendship and remained grateful to Ruth for the rest of her life.
Backlots is devoted to honoring and celebrating all aspects of classic film and is written by Lara Gabrielle, a California-based classic film writer and historian. Lara is the author of CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: The Life of Marion Davies (UC Press, 2022).
Here you will find pieces on frequently seen classics and some lesser-known gems, as well as book reviews, festival coverage, and pieces on the history, theory and culture of film as it relates to the study of classic cinema.
Enjoy the site, and thanks for reading!
AFFILIATIONS & AWARDS
2019 CMBA Award for Best Profile of Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker--"The Activism of Myrna Loy"
Winner of the 2018 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series, BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX
Winner of the 2014 CiMBA Award for Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker: A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER 96TH BIRTHDAY
Winner of the 2011 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, THE FINAL SCENE OF THE HEIRESS
I am honored to be a judge of the Animal Film Festival in Grass Valley, CA.
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Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver."