Tag Archives: classic movies

Judy Holliday and the Hollywood Blacklist: Testimony to SISS, 1952

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 11.01.12 PM

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood blacklist, and to note the occasion, the Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting a blogathon dedicated to the industry members affected by the original blacklist, and the secondary wave with the publication of Red Channels and the creation of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1951. Led by Senator Pat McCarran, the secondary blacklist had a decidedly anti-immigrant tone to it, with McCarran using Hollywood and the theater to justify anti-immigrant legislation that he was trying to push through Congress, limiting the ability of Eastern European immigrants to come into the United States, and deport the ones who were already here.

McCarran specifically targeted what he called people of “Middle European” descent as being potential Communists, a thinly-veiled reference to people of Jewish ancestry. McCarran was, in addition to being a rabid anti-Communist, a rabid anti-Semite, and it was in this vein that Judy Holliday was called to testify before McCarran’s committee. Using the fact that Holliday’s name had appeared in Red Channels, the list of 151 entertainment industry members who might be Communist sympathizers, and the fact that she had “wired greetings to the Moscow Art Theatre,” McCarran called Holliday to testify in March of 1952.

dave-oppenheim-judy-holliday

Holliday with husband David Oppenheim, around the time of Holliday’s testimony to SISS.

Holliday had already suffered from her appearance on the Red Channels list. She had been slated to appear on What’s My Line? and The Name’s the Same, but anti-Communist pressure groups forced the shows to pull her appearances due to the fact that she was now officially linked with communism. Such was the nature of the blacklist, and Holliday knew she was in trouble.

Holliday was no stranger to the political side of entertainment–in fact, she had done little else. Alongside Betty Comden and Adolph Green, she had started her career in a group called the Revuers, a quasi Saturday Night Live-style political sketch show with a decidedly liberal slant, based out of Greenwich Village. From there, she went to Broadway playing Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, a play written as a scathing critique on ignorance and apathy. Adam’s Rib, the film that got her Hollywood career started, advocated for the equal treatment of women in all parts of society. The following year, she made the film version of Born Yesterday, for which she won an Oscar.

v1

Born Yesterday, with William Holden and Broderick Crawford.

She was also Jewish. Born Judith Tuvim on June 21, 1921, her mother was a Russian Jewish immigrant from St. Petersburg and her father a first generation American. Holliday was raised in a political home, her father was a supporter of Jewish political causes and her uncle, Joseph Gollomb, was a famous author and committed socialist. She herself showed a phenomenal intellect at an early age–scoring 172 on a school-administered IQ test and reading Proust and Tolstoy in her free time. Her uncle had wanted her to be a writer like him, and was slightly disappointed when she decided to go into acting.

Given McCarran’s anti-Communist and anti-Semitic tendencies, as well as the history of her uncle, Judy Holliday seemed a natural target for the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and she knew it. When she appeared at the hearing, she had done her homework and was prepared for the questions that would come her way. She had also been advised by her counsel to play Billie Dawn, the seemingly dim-witted protagonist of Born Yesterday, who really was smarter than everyone thought. If she did that, her lawyer reasoned, “how can they take you seriously as a political figure?” Her answers are a testament to her keen and quick mind, already legendary in Hollywood. By contrast, the questions of the committee expose their anti-Semitism and ulterior motives.

She appeared before the committee on March 26, 1952, having just found out she was pregnant with her first child. The hearing was overseen by staff director Richard Arens and Senator Richard Watkins. Arens began the questioning as such:

Mr. Arens: Kindly identify yourself by name and residence.
Miss Holliday: Judy Holliday, 158 Waverly Place, New York City.
Mr. Arens: Your name is Judy Holliday as a stage name, is it?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: A professional name?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: What other name have you used in the course of your life?
Miss Holliday: Judy Tuvim, T-u-v-i-m.
Mr. Arens: Do you have a married name?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: What is your married name?
Miss Holliday: Mrs. David Oppenheim.
Mr. Arens: What was the occasion for the use of the name Judy Tuvim? Was that the name under which you were born?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: You subsequently adopted the name Judy Holliday as a stage or theatrical name?
Miss Holliday: Yes.

The questioning then moved to her involvement in the Screen Actors Guild, the Actors’ Equity Association, and the United American-Spanish Aid Committee. “I put it to you as a fact, and ask you to confirm or deny the fact, Miss Holliday, that in 1941 you were a part of the unit known as the Revuers, one of the entertainers in a party given by the United American-Spanish Aid Committee,” Arens told her. In her answer, Holliday goes into Billie Dawn mode.

Miss Holliday: You mean I should say “yes” or “no?”
Mr. Arens: Yes, if you have a recollection.
Miss Holliday: If I can’t–you know, I can’t place it.
Mr. Arens: We just want the truth.
Miss Holliday: If it doesn’t sound familiar?
Mr. Arens: Then you just state the facts.
Miss Holliday: I don’t know.
Mr. Arens: You have no recollection?
Miss Holliday: Yes.

After several more exchanges like this, the committee became frustrated. At one point, Arens asked “Do you have any difficulty with your memory?” and Watkins took her to task for “not remembering” events in 1946. “It seems to me that a person in your profession has to have a trained memory,” he said. “Now I’m getting one,” was Holliday’s reply, “but I didn’t know then that I needed one.”

Later, Arens asked her about her family. The situation of her uncle Joseph Gollomb had the potential to provide evidence for McCarran’s legislation about limiting Eastern European immigrants, but Holliday was ready.

Mr. Arens: He had written a number of books in defense of Communist principles and and was generally regarded as an ardent Communist philosopher was he not?
Miss Holliday: No. His books were never in defense of Communist principles.
Mr. Arens: He was employed by the Daily Worker, was he not?
Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: The Daily Worker is a Communist publication, is it not?
Miss Holliday: That is right. The books were not. His books were novels about school life for young people, and also they were spy stories and detective stories.

Their line of questioning had not panned out, and thus Holliday had successfully avoided her testimony being used as evidence to support McCarran’s agenda. But when Arens turned his attention to acquaintances of hers that were known Communists, Holliday had to deploy another trick. Here she displays the brilliance of her mind, engaging in a combination of psychological tricks and wordplay. First, she denied knowing that any of them were Communists, and then subtly changed the subject by dropping a bombshell–that she had hired people to investigate her prior to being called to the committee.

“You hired people to investigate you?” Arens asked her, stunned.

“I certainly did,” Holliday replied, “because I had gotten into a lot of trouble.”

Arens asked if anyone tried to prosecute her.

Miss Holliday: Yes.
Mr. Arens: Who?
Miss Holliday: Prosecute? No; I thought you meant persecute.

It is fitting to note here that Holliday was an expert at word puzzles. Her skill shows.

Toward the end of the hearing, the committee made their true intentions known in a way they hadn’t up to that point. They asked Holliday about her views on the “material philosophy of communism.”

Miss Holliday: I don’t know what you mean.
Mr. Arens: Do you believe in God?
Miss Holliday: Yes; I do.
Mr. Arens: Are you a member of a church?
Miss Holliday: No.

The anti-Semitic tone disturbed Holliday, but she thought it better to keep quiet and not call any more attention to her heritage or religion. The hearing wrapped up and Holliday was excused with a warning to be more careful where she puts her energy.

She had successfully protected herself. While the right wing attacks against Holliday went on for some time, she ultimately bounced back and her success on film and on stage continued. Due to her testimony and the liability that came with it, the political edge to her roles was noticeably dulled in the second part of her career. She won a Tony Award for Bells Are Ringing in 1956, and notably filmed It Should Happen to You with Jack Lemmon, The Marrying Kind with Aldo Ray, and the film version of Bells Are Ringing with Dean Martin. Diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1960s, she went into remission long enough to continue working on stage, then had an aggressive recurrence that took her life at the young age of 43.

HOLLIDAY_Judy_phA

Recording the album for Bells Are Ringing, for which she received a posthumous Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

Of her experiences testifying in front of the committee, Holliday said to her friend Heywood Hale Broun:

“Woody, maybe you’re ashamed of me, because I played Billie Dawn. Well, I’ll tell you something. You think you’re going to be brave and noble. Then you walk in there and there are the microphones, and all those senators are looking at you–Woodie, it scares the shit out of you. But I’m not ashamed of myself because I didn’t name names. That much I preserved.”

If you would like to read more posts about Hollywood and the blacklist, check out the other posts in this blogathon, at the CMBA website. Thanks for reading!

 

Advertisements

Update on Olivia de Havilland vs. FX

I wrote a post a few days ago detailing how I would be going to Los Angeles in the final days of the Olivia de Havilland vs. FX trial, and I have been paying close attention to the case ever since. An update to the case has recently been posted to the Los Angeles Superior Court website–FX’s motion to strike was denied by Judge Holly Kendig on September 30, but on October 10, FX filed an appeal.

The trial is still scheduled to start on November 27 as of right now, but I wanted to share the details of the pending appeal with you readers, and have a discussion about its merits.

FX asked for a motion to strike based on the fact that the case was based on protected rights. Kendig agreed, but said that de Havilland’s side could be successful in court, so she let it stand. In a declaration by James Berkley, FX’s senior research analyst for the case, FX disagrees. Berkley takes on de Havilland’s assertions that she “refused to use what she knew about the private or public lives of other actors (which was a considerable amount) to promote her own press attention and celebrity status” but “Feud creates the public impression that she was a hypocrite, selling gossip in order to promote herself at the Academy Awards.”

In his declaration, Berkley says that he has “uncovered numerous examples of [de Havilland] giving interviews in print or in video, appearing on television, and otherwise publicly discussing her life, her film career, the role of women in Hollywood, and her friendships with other Hollywood celebrities, including but not limited to her friendship with her fellow actress, Bette Davis.”

5823424d403a1__olivia-de-havilland-bette-davis

He names several online videos as examples, which I provide below. Now, readers, discussion time. Do you think these videos are examples of de Havilland “selling gossip,” or “promoting her own press attention or celebrity status?” Do the videos invalidate de Havilland’s statement, and does the appeal have merit?

Please leave comments with your thoughts, and let’s talk about this!

Backlots at the Courthouse: Olivia de Havilland DBE vs. FX

Portrait of Actress Olivia De Haviland her Two Oscars 1957

catherine-zeta-jones-831325

Following two days of trying to get the right LA Superior Court department, I am happy to announce that I am on the list of press to be present for the trial of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX when it takes place in Los Angeles in late November.

I am thrilled to be able to attend what will surely be a passionate and complicated proceeding. This is a case that I have been following closely, as it has a number of fascinating components. De Havilland, the plaintiff, has brought FX to trial for infringement of common law right of publicity, infringement of California’s specific right of publicity code, invasion of privacy, and unjust enrichment from Catherine Zeta Jones’ portrayal of her in Feud: Bette and Joan last year. De Havilland was not informed of the fact that she was going to be portrayed, and wasn’t compensated for a portrayal that she wouldn’t have consented to.

FX counters that their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression extend to this situation, and requested that the Los Angeles Superior Court throw out the suit based on the fact that it was based on protected rights. In late September, that request was thrown out. The court agreed that the suit was based on protected rights, but de Havilland’s attorneys had been successful in demonstrating that they would be successful should the case go to court. A court date was set, and the trial is moving forward.

olivia-de-havilland-at-the-hollywood-canteen-1943

De Havilland at the Hollywood canteen, around the time of her Warner Bros. lawsuit, 1943.

De Havilland, 101 years old and living in Paris, is no stranger to landmark lawsuits. In 1943, she singlehandedly took on Warner Bros. for contract malpractice, as they tacked time on at the end of a contract as punishment for roles turned down. Citing a California law that no employer could hold an employee for more than 7 calendar years, she was successful and the suit became the landmark entertainment law known as the De Havilland Decision. It has been referenced in many entertainment cases since, keeping employers of actors, writers, musicians, and athletes in check.

Feud: Bette and Joan creates a number of fictional situations involving de Havilland, including an instance where she refers to Joan Fontaine as her “bitch sister” and says that she doesn’t “play bitches.” This wording seems to be a central part of de Havilland’s case, saying that showing her using such language is damaging to her reputation. The case document says:

“This is false. Olivia de Havilland never called her sister a ‘bitch’ as portrayed in Feud and certainly not to a director. Putting these false words into Olivia de Havilland’s mouth in a documentary format, designed to appear real, has caused Olivia de Havilland commercial and private damage to her reputation. Again, she appears to be a hypocrite, who built a public image of being a lady, not speaking in crude and vulgar terms about others, including her sister, when in private she did the opposite by freely speaking unkindly about others. This is patently false.”

A number of months ago, before the suit was brought, Ryan Murphy, the producer of Feud, was asked about why he didn’t inform de Havilland of the forthcoming show that featured her likeness. He responded that he didn’t want to bother her.

ap_16170581114937_custom-b7183a510c16410fbea6865dbbfc9f822ea0b41d-s900-c85

Last year, at 100.

To my mind, de Havilland’s suit not only brings to light what she feels is unfair treatment, but also draws attention to what happens to the elderly on a far too frequent basis. Assuming that she was too old or too far away to care, Murphy acted without her permission. De Havilland is still vibrant enough to be able to stand up and fight for herself, while so many aren’t.

The trial begins November 27, and is expected to last 7-8 court days (Monday-Friday). I will go down to Los Angeles for the final few days of the trial, in order to get the build-up to the final verdict, and then the verdict itself. For the first part of it, I will be sent press releases by the court and will update Twitter and the blog each day with the day’s happenings. Stay tuned!

The Case of Girl 27: Standing Up to Power in Studio-Era Hollywood

MCDGITW EC001

Like everyone else over the past few days, I have been following the horrific stories of abuse at the hands of production mogul Harvey Weinstein. The abuse itself has been compounded by allegations of complicity by the rest of the company, and the issuing of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and legal payoffs to actors such as Rose McGowan is disturbing to say the least. It is heartening to me, however, to finally see the powerful held accountable. Fired from the company that bears his name, removed from the Academy, ostracized by his family and industry, it seems that Weinstein is finally reaping a small portion of what he has sown. In addition, women and men from all walks of life are coming forward to share their stories, showing the world how prevalent sexual abuse really is–and that it is not confined to Hollywood, but exists in any place where there is unchecked, unbridled power. And it has always been that way.

For the purposes of this post, given the nature of Backlots and the current news, I would like to bring the discussion back to Hollywood and what went on behind the scenes during the days of the studio system. With studio higher-ups reigning supreme, and many people reliant on the studio for employment, countless female stars were sexually exploited, harassed, and abused by powerful executives, co-stars, and other powerful industry figures. Speaking up would often mean being fired, their reputations and financial security ruined. Abuse would happen in executive offices, homes, and at parties, anywhere where the powerful mingled.

It was due to events at one such party that one young starlet dared to challenge the system.

*I must warn you here that the story is graphic and potentially disturbing or triggering for some people. But I want to share it because it is true, and this story continues to happen far too often.*

In 1937, Patricia Douglas was a fresh-faced girl of 17, listed as “Girl 27” on the studio extra rolls. She seemed destined for the Hollywood big leagues, having already appeared with some of the top names in the industry (one of her first roles, at the age of 14, was in the chorus behind Ginger Rogers in Golddiggers of 1933), and so when she saw an ad calling for actresses to work as hostesses at an MGM-sponsored “Wild West” party for salesmen, she signed up.

22320579_124104363176

On the day of the party, Chicago salesman David Ross set his eyes on her and wouldn’t leave her alone. Douglas tried to stay away from him, running to the bathroom and confiding to others that she felt uncomfortable with his advances. By 10 PM, all hell had broken loose at the party. The men were drunk and many women were molested and groped before the party finally dispersed. But Ross, now drunker than before, still had his eye on Douglas, and was angry that she had fled to the bathroom. “He and another man held me down,” she recalled to author and researcher David Stenn in a 2003 article for Vanity Fair. “One pinched my nose so I’d have to open my mouth to breathe. Then they poured a whole glassful of scotch and champagne down my throat. Oh, I fought! But they thought it was funny. I remember a lot of laughter.” They finally released her, and she went back to the bathroom to throw up.

When she walked outside for some air, in a field covered with parked cars, Ross approached her from behind, put his hand on her mouth, and told her he would destroy her. He dragged her to a car, pinned her to a seat, and brutally raped her.

When she came to and got to the doctor’s office across the street, she was examined by a doctor who cleaned her up before the examination, finding no evidence of rape. She learned later that the hospital was in league with MGM, and that by cleaning her up, he had intentionally removed all evidence of what had happened to her. Douglas tried to speak up, but no one would listen to her. Finally, she decided to take matters into her own hands–she would take the case to the Los Angeles Superior Court, calling David Ross out as responsible for what had happened to her at that party. “I guess the Irish in me came out,” she said. “You knew you’d be blackballed. Me, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be vindicated, to hear someone say, ‘You can’t do that to a woman.’”

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 11.12.05 PM

Immediately, MGM went into attack mode. They hired a detective agency to dig up anything they could about Douglas’ past. The studio paid acquaintances to say that she was a drunk and a tramp, and asked a urologist she had seen in the past to re-diagnose a bladder cyst as gonorrhea (he refused). Her up-and-coming friends abandoned her, unable to associate with a woman whose name was linked with scandal.

On the day of the trial, Douglas was forced to recount her rape in detail, all the while listening to Ross’ attorney say to the jury “Look at her. Who would want her?”

At this point, I would like to pause the story and relate how so little has changed. It is so easy to take this statement from Ross’ attorney and put it in the modern era–with so many comments online blaming women for their assaults because they are wearing certain outfits, or they are attractive. The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t about what Douglas looked like, or what she was wearing. Ross was in power, and wanted to exert it. And yet the attorney discredited Douglas’ story by pointing to her looks, implying that only conventionally attractive women are raped.

Outside the courtroom, press photographers tried to get her to look Ross in the face. She began to cry, sobbing that she couldn’t. She ran to a window and nearly jumped. “I was going to jump through the glass,” she said later, “to get away from everything and everybody . . . so I couldn’t be hurt anymore.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 11.07.59 PM

The jury didn’t indict Ross. The following year, Douglas tried again, this time challenging the casting director and several other organizers of the party in addition to Ross. In response, MGM bribed witnesses to lie on the stand, promising them lucrative jobs in return. The judge dismissed the case, but Douglas was not to be deterred–she filed a suit in a U.S. District Court, which Stenn believes is a legal first–a female plaintiff making rape a federal case based on civil rights. But her attorney was up for re-election as District Attorney, and as he couldn’t win if he was challenging MGM, he failed to appear in court with Douglas three times and the judge dismissed the case “for want of prosecution.”

Douglas’ life was ruined forever. Once a modest, retiring woman, after the trial she began to change. “I went from ‘Little Miss Innocent’ to a tramp. I did it to demean myself. I was worthless, a ‘fallen woman,’” she told Stenn, who had uncovered her story by chance while researching his Jean Harlow biography Bombshell. When he interviewed her for his Vanity Fair article in 2003, she referred to herself as “naïve,” “stupid,” “a lousy mother,” “a walking zombie who glided through life.” She told Stenn that his discovery had finally given her something to live for again. “Before you found me,” she told him, “I was getting ready to die. I’d buy less food; I wasn’t planning to be around long. Now I don’t want to go. Now I have something to live for. And for the first time I’m proud of myself.” She died shortly after the Vanity Fair piece was published.

girl_27_-_patricia_douglas_photo_credit-art_streiber_SMALL_

Douglas’ story is evidence of what has historically happened in this society when women have stood up to powerful men, and why women may be hesitant to come forward with their stories. With Weinstein gone in disgrace, I hope that we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel shielding the powerful, and Patricia Douglas can rest knowing that maybe, in the not-too-distant future, other women won’t have to go through what she went through.

-Much of this article was drawn from David Stenn’s remarkable 2003 Vanity Fair article “It Happened One Night…At MGM.” I am grateful to him for writing the article, and for his devotion to righting Hollywood’s historic wrongs. If you would like to learn more about Patricia Douglas, a documentary called Girl 27, available on Netflix DVD, was made of the story.

Models of Resistance and Bravery in Classic Hollywood

With the horrific recent events in Charlottesville and further rallies planned for the San Francisco Bay Area later this month, I have been feeling terrified beyond measure. The fear that I feel is a personal one, due to the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am a member of a minority group specifically targeted by the white supremacists, but it goes beyond that. Racism, bigotry, and intolerance are now condoned in the highest offices of the United States of America, and I fear that things are going to get worse before they get better.

In this time of immense fear, sorrow, and trauma, I recall the words of the great Fred Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In this post, I would like to highlight some of the great classic Hollywood “helpers,” those who spoke out, who didn’t allow themselves to be stepped on–those who saw societal ills and made conscious efforts to fix them. I hope this can encourage us to turn our minds toward helping, whatever that may mean to us as individuals. I would also like to show some instances of resilience in classic movies, to give us a boost in how we, as a country, deal with this national tragedy.

The Bomb Shelter Scene, Mrs. Miniver (1942)

In this scene, the Miniver family hides out in their makeshift bomb shelter during an air raid. To comfort the children as the bombs drop around their shelter, Mrs. Miniver calmly reads Alice in Wonderland aloud.

Each time I recall this scene, I get chills. The intense meaning behind reading a classic English children’s story about retreating into a magical fantasy land, as bombs drop on England, cannot be overstated. If you haven’t seen Mrs. Miniver, do yourself a favor and rent it. It is a masterpiece of wartime cinema.

The one we all know. Rick Blaine, the man who “sticks his neck out for nobody,” ultimately sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Rick sees what’s really important, then sees that Ilsa gets on the plane so that Victor Laszlo can continue his resistance work.

BETTE DAVIS AND JOHN GARFIELD–The Hollywood Canteen

Rejected from the service during World War II due to a heart condition, John Garfield wanted to do something to help the war effort nonetheless. He partnered with Bette Davis to create the Hollywood Canteen, a place that served food, drink, and entertainment to active-duty service members on leave. It was staffed completely by volunteers from the movie industry, and as such was a mutually beneficial enterprise–the service members (it was open to both men and women, and was unsegregated) got top notch entertainment from Hollywood A-listers, and the Hollywood community, many of whom had been told that their services were better used in the movies, got a chance to feel like they were helping out in a meaningful way. Nearly everyone active in movies during World War II worked at the Hollywood Canteen, and while the desegregation that occurred inside the Canteen was usually not a problem, whenever there was a complaint, Bette Davis took to the microphone to defend the policy. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she later said.

MARION DAVIES–The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic

My manuscript on Marion Davies, a book to be published in the next few years, deals heavily on the subject of the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. There is a lot to say, but for the purposes of this post I will stick to the relevant details. Marion believed strongly in quality health care for everyone. When she saw that it was nearly impossible for children in lower income brackets in West Los Angeles to get care, she created a children’s clinic bounded by Olympic, Mississippi, Barry, and Barrington Avenues in the city, treating low-income children completely free of charge. Doctors from elite hospitals around Los Angeles volunteered their time, and every Christmas there would be an elaborate party with toys for the children and groceries for every family. Parents who later wrote in to thank the clinic often expressly credited their children’s lives with the care they received at the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic.

MYRNA LOY

Much more than “the perfect wife” onscreen, Myrna Loy was vocal and passionate about human rights and welfare. One of those on the front lines of the Red Cross during World War II, she served as the assistant to the director of military and naval welfare. Later on in life, she was a member-at-large of UNESCO and the co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. She spoke out fiercely against discrimination in Hollywood, decrying the practice of casting black actors as only maids or servants, once asking her MGM bosses “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

ANNA MAY WONG

Hollywood’s anti-miscegenation laws, prohibiting onscreen romances between people of different races, damaged the career of the gifted Anna May Wong who, under these laws, could essentially only play opposite Sessue Hayakawa, the only other Asian lead actor in Hollywood. She was relegated to “exotic” roles, of which she quickly grew tired and bored. Wong decided to try her luck in Europe, as Josephine Baker had done, and like Baker, she was an instant success, starring in films like Piccadilly, Song and Show Life, and Pavement Butterfly. Upon her return to the United States, she was quick to speak out against the injustices done upon her and other Asian and Asian-American actors. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”

FREDI WASHINGTON

Best known for her role as Peola in Imitation of Life (1934), the beautiful and talented Fredi Washington was in a quandary in Hollywood. As a light-skinned African-American, Washington was bound by the anti-miscegenation laws that governed Hollywood (meaning she was to receive no romantic leads), but was light enough to pass for white, making it difficult for studio higher ups to cast her in maid and servant roles. Intensely proud of being a black woman, Washington was tired of playing parts where she “passed,” and instead left Hollywood to do theatre and join the budding civil rights movement, working with the president of the NAACP and with the Negro Actor’s Guild of America, which she helped to found. She spoke of her Hollywood past in these words:

“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.”

“I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”

May we take the words and actions of classic Hollywood to heart as we face the days, weeks, and months ahead.

TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap-Up, 2017

2017-tcmff-TLC-theater-1

The 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival came to a close this weekend, and since Sunday night, fond memories and farewells have flooded social media. The photos of fans boarding their planes home, sadly telling their friends they’ll see them next year, tug at our hearts and serve as reminders of what this festival means to so many of us.

In day-to-day life, classic film fans of this caliber often have trouble meeting like-minded people. The chance of meeting a person on the street who can talk at length about the Motion Picture Production Code, the Best Actress Oscar winner for 1950, or the final scene of The Heiress is a slim one at best. “Thank goodness for the internet,” is an oft-repeated phrase among classic film fans. “I thought I was the only one.” At the festival, all of us “only ones” convene, creating what has lovingly been referred to as the “TCM vortex.” Nothing matters except the movies on the screen, and watching them with people who love them too. It’s a world all its own.

This was my 6th festival, my 5th with Backlots as a member of the media. I attended the press conference on Wednesday afternoon, which included TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, programmer Charlie Tabesh, vice president of branding/partnerships Genevieve McGillicuddy, and general manager Jennifer Dorian. We heard some very positive things from the conference, including word of the wild success of the Fathom Events screenings, which have sold over 2 million tickets so far this year. At the beginning of 2017, TCM partnered with Fathom Events to bring classic movies to the big screen once (and sometimes twice) a month nationwide, often playing at theaters in the AMC chain. From the beginning, I was excited about this partnership, hoping for its success. I’m very glad that it seems to be working out beautifully for all involved.

We also received word that the next free online course through Ball State University will be on the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Ball State University partnered with TCM last year for a class on the history of slapstick, and before that for a course on film noir. The classes are always exceedingly popular, and based on the interest in Alfred Hitchcock within the TCM community, I predict that this class will be a great success. If you would like to sign up, here is the place to do it.

TCM does a marvelous job procuring top-notch guests for the festival–this year’s guests included Sidney Poitier and Norman Jewison for the opening night screening of In the Heat of the Night, Lee Grant for a discussion of her life and work in Club TCM, Carl and Rob Reiner for a hand/footprint ceremony at (what will always be) Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and celebrity family members Kate MacMurray (Fred MacMurray’s daughter) and Wyatt McCrea (Joel McCrea’s grandson) to be interviewed before movies. At the press conference, I asked if there was any method to their solicitation of festival guests. Charlie Tabesh responded that many guests are very eager to come, and ask on their own accord, while the festival has tried to get other guests for many years, but they’re not able to make it. Age seems to be very much a contributing factor to this–in recent years, the festival has been leaning toward children of stars more than stars themselves, due to the dwindling number of classic Hollywood stars who are still with us, and the physical frailty of those who are.

Among my group of friends, the schedule for this year’s festival was the most anticipated of any year, with such favorites as The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Awful Truth (1937), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and Theodora Goes Wild (1936). Factor in the nitrate screenings of Black Narcissus (1947) and Laura (1944), and it was one of the greatest programs in festival history, from my perspective.

Red-Headed Woman turned out to be one of my biggest festival joys, introduced by Cari Beauchamp, the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Beauchamp is a beloved presenter at the festival, the go-to expert on women in early Hollywood, and the introduction of Red-Headed Woman was a prime example of what I look for in an intro. The TCM Festival crowd is an intelligent one, and most of us know these movies well. Instead of relating plot points or trivia bits, the introduction to Red-Headed Woman focused on backstory and studio politics, and the effect of movies like it (featuring strong, unapologetically sexual women) on the strengthening of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The pre-code era holds a special place in my heart, and an item of particular interest in the introduction was the difference between the way the Hays office (the earlier enforcement arm of the code) and the Breen office (that followed Hays) operated. The Hays office would actually see the movies, while the Breen office would only read the scripts–thus allowing filmmakers to get away with close to anything using costumes and lighting.

Among my favorite things to do in a theater when a classic movie is showing is to glance back at the audience. It gives me an indescribable feeling to see hundreds of people watching a person from 80 years ago, likely someone long gone from this earth, flicker on the screen. That pleasure seems especially meaningful when the movie features Jean Harlow, who died of degenerative kidney disease at the age of 26 at the height of her career, but has remained one of the most alluring stars of any era. Watching the audience watching Harlow seemed to embody what Beauchamp said when introducing the film: “Jean Harlow lives!”

32harlow

As for the overall feel of the festival, I noticed a few differences between this one and previous festivals. This year’s staff seemed larger, contributing to a few snags in communication relating to line management. It was a situation that could have easily have been rectified had there been about half the staff. Despite some initial discomfort and a few panicked moments, I did manage to get into everything I wanted and the line team was always gracious and pleasant in the midst of the pressing crowds and general chaos of impatient film fans. I struck up a conversation with a lovely young line staffer at the Chinese Multiplex while I was in line for Born Yesterday, and she knew who Marion Davies was. Instant friend.

I would like to send TCM a huge thank you for the change they made regarding the pre-codes this year. It made me very happy to see that the festival remembered the two sold out showings of Double Harness last year, and made sure to put the pre-codes in the big theaters. This time, instead of selling out in the small Chinese Multiplex theaters, the movies played at the huge Egyptian Theatre–to packed houses, but no turn-aways. The festival’s love for pre-codes was something that I and many others noted in our post-festival wrap-ups last year, and it was clear that they listened.

Thank you, TCM, for another great festival, thanks to all my festival friends for giving me such a beautiful community, and thanks to my readers for following along so diligently. Here’s to next year!

628x471

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: Watching Old Favorites With a Community

We’re in the middle of the TCM Classic Film Festival’s first full day, and during this break I have between screenings, I wanted to talk about what it’s like to watch an established favorite with a community like the one at the TCM Festival. In a prior post, I discussed the fact that I tend toward the old favorites when faced with a screening dilemma, and much of my reasoning for that comes from the sense of community that comes from sitting in a theater and watching something you’ve seen dozens of times.

born-yesterday

Last year, the screening of The More the Merrier proved to be my festival highlight, due to the sheer joy of hearing raucous laughter while Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea were on the screen, and anticipating when that laughter was going to come. I had the same experience this morning with the screening of Born Yesterday (1950). Those loyal readers of Backlots may be familiar with the love I have for Born Yesterday and its messages of freedom through knowledge, and when I arrived at the theater I was thrilled to see that the line to get in was one of the longest I’ve ever seen, extending around the ropes and even necessitating the management to form another line outside. When we were let in, there was barely a single seat left in the theater. I began to look forward to another enthusiastic crowd.

Born Yesterday, and especially Judy Holliday, have always held a bit of a special place in my heart. The combination of physical comedy, topical and progressive subject matter, brilliant and sincere performances, and a witty, dynamic script combine to make a movie that clicked for me at a young age. So much so, in fact, that in 7th grade I chose to do a class report and presentation on Judy Holliday, highlighting clips from Born Yesterday to illustrate my points about her acting ability, including the one below.

(Apologies for the faulty video, but this is the only clip of this scene that seems to exist online, and it’s too good to leave out of this post.)

When this scene came onscreen this morning, the audience went wild, laughing uproariously at Holliday’s card organizing, as well as her mannerisms and quirks that make the scene one of the greatest bits of downplayed physical comedy that I’ve ever seen. When Holliday called out “Gin!” and spread her cards out on the table, in the face of her brash and uncultured boyfriend, the audience clapped loudly.

To hear others appreciating Born Yesterday as I do, and appreciating Judy Holliday as I have for so many years, is a priceless gift of the TCM Classic Film Festival. Rarely in life do we classic film fans get the opportunity to sit in the dark, with our favorite people up on the screen, with nothing but love opposite them in the audience. But once a year at the festival, we can be assured of it.

Thanks for reading, and keep watching this space for more! Here are some photos from some other things that have been going on:

2017 TCM Classic Film Festival - The 50th Anniversary Screening of "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) Red Carpet & Opening Night

Opening night red carpet featuring In the Heat of the Night (1967)

2017 TCM Classic Film Festival - Hand and Footprint Ceremony: Carl and Rob Reiner

Hand/footprint ceremony for Rob Reiner and Carl Reiner, featuring guests Billy Crystal, Tom Bergeron, and Norman Lear alongside TCM network representatives Jennifer Dorian, Ben Mankiewicz, Coleman Breland, Genevieve McGillicuddy, and Charlie Tabesh.

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

At the opening night. Walter Mirisch, Sidney Poitier, Quincy Jones, Norman Jewison, and Lee Grant, with TCM network representatives Ben Mankiewicz, Jennifer Dorian, Charlie Tabesh, Genevieve McGillicuddy, and Coleman Breland.