Hello there readers, Lara here to thank you for all your fantastic submissions yesterday for Hitchcock Halloween. It was a really fun event and I think Hitch would have been proud! I hope you will join us next Halloween for another installment of what proved to be a very popular tribute to Alfred Hitchcock!
This post also closes out the month of October, which was a very fruitful one for Backlots. As a refresher, here are the things that happened this past month on the blog:
Backlots interviewed Joan Fontaine in honor of her 96th birthday.
Backlots interviewed Victoria Wilson, author of A LIFE OF BARBARA STANWYCK: STEEL-TRUE 1907-1940.
Backlots interviewed Kendra Bean, author of VIVIEN LEIGH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT.
The Hitchcock Halloween Blogathon.
Thank you to all my readers for making this such a memorable month at Backlots, and here’s to many more equally memorable months to come!
In about 2 weeks, Backlots will go down to Burbank to blog for the Warner Brothers’ 90th Anniversary VIP Tour, so stay tuned on November 13 for some very special coverage. More details to come!
Today is the day, folks! It’s a spooky Halloween morning, and I have already received several entries for Backlots’ Hitchcock Halloween blogathon! The entries will appear here as I receive them. To those of you with entries to submit, please either send them to my email address or comment under this post (or the original announcement post, as you prefer).
So without further ado, here are the entries for Backlots’ first annual Hitchcock Halloween blogathon!
Cruella de Vil in the 1961 animated feature 101 DALMATIANS.
For my second installment in Countdown to Hitchcock Halloween, in which I am profiling several scary characters from classic film, our focus is on that sociopath socialite who lives for puppy furs (boo! Hiss!), the insufferable Cruella de Vil, who made her appearance in 1961’s 101 Dalmatians and has a bit of a secondary connection to classic film as well.
Cruella de Vil is a rich socialite with a sizable collection of fur coats, and when she hears that her friend Anita’s dog is having puppies, her interest is piqued in a coat made of dalmatian puppy fur. She drops by to see the puppies but is told that the puppies will not be born for another 3 weeks, so on a stormy night 3 weeks later, she returns for the puppies. She is enraged when she finds out that the puppies are not for sale, so she sends a pair of thieves to steal them. The movie chronicles the puppies’ life with Cruella and the ordeal of their owners to try to get them back. It is perhaps one of the most harrowing Disney movies ever released, due in large part to Cruella’s evil nature.
The movie poster.
Cruella was voiced by little-known character actress Betty Lou Gerson, whose Tennessee upbringing and formal voice training created the voice we all know so well as that of Cruella de Vil. Gerson was born in Chattanooga, TN, and began to work in Chicago-area radio in the 1930s after relocating there after high school. Gerson moved to Hollywood in 1949, soon hearing her uncredited voice prominently featured as the narrator in Cinderella (1950). She continued to act in small roles on television throughout the 1960s on such series as Bachelor Father, Perry Mason, and Hazel, before retiring from the business after the death of her husband. She passed away in 1999.
Betty Lou Gerson.
In the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, written in 1956 by Dodie Smith, Cruella is a tempestuous character who has little regard for anything but her own vanity. She is a glamorous and spoiled London heiress who lives for furs and jewels. When Walt Disney got a hold on the property and came calling for the role of Cruella, he knew exactly where to look for a basis. Dodie Smith had even written Cruella with a certain Hollywood star in mind.
Like Betty Gerson, Tallulah Bankhead was born and bred in the South. Hailing from Huntsville, AL, Bankhead was known for her glamorous, indulgent lifestyle and for her bon vivant personality that dominated every room she entered. Dodie Smith stated that she intended Cruella de Vil to be an evil parody of Tallulah Bankhead, and that intention is well reflected in the movie. From Gerson’s voice to the animations of Cruella’s movements, it could easily be Tallulah playing that part.
It must be noted, though, that there was one way in which Tallulah Bankhead was unlike the character she inspired–Tallulah was a passionate animal lover!
Tallulah Bankhead and Winston Churchill, the lion cub she adopted.
See you tomorrow for another installment of Countdown to Hitchcock Halloween!
Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West.
By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
In the days leading up to Halloween and to Backlots’ Hitchcock Halloween Blogathon, I will be profiling several spooky characters from classic film to get my readers in the mood for Halloween! The profiles will culminate in Hitchcock Halloween, a celebration of all things related to the Master of Suspense, appearing on the blog on October 31.
My first installment in Countdown to Hitchcock Halloween is a profile of one of the most recognizable spooky visages in classic film, that character we all love to hate, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz (1939). The role was played by Margaret Hamilton with great skill–so great, in fact, that she has succeeded in frightening generations of young children and nearly cost The Wizard of Oz its legion of young fans right from the outset.
The Wizard of Oz was officially released on August 15, 1939, and like all films made under the strict Production Code, it had to undergo rigorous examination to make sure that there was nothing in the film that violated the principles laid out so strictly in the Code. The movie passed, but with qualifications that “care should be taken to avoid an effect which is too frightening to children.” The British censor board had a similar edict–it was given an adult permit due to the frightening nature of the witch, the “grotesque moving trees, and various hideous figures [that] would undoubtedly frighten children.” Scenes were also deleted upon the movie’s release in Sweden and Denmark.
The image of the witch’s face in the crystal ball was deleted in Sweden.
Margaret Hamilton herself was concerned about the effect the Wicked Witch of the West might have on children. A former kindergarten teacher who was extremely fond of children, Hamilton was concerned about the role’s frightening nature and how her image might be colored in the eyes of the children she so adored. Decades after the film’s release, she recalled how children came up to her and asked why she had been so mean to Dorothy. In response to this, she appeared on the children’s television program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” showing children how she put on her makeup as The Wicked Witch of the West.
The Wicked Witch of the West has also become something of a cultural icon. In addition to her several famous catchphrases, her trademark green makeup is how many of us perceive to be the way a witch “should” look. This is entirely due to the effects of the movie–the green skin tone of the witch is not present in the original novel by L. Frank Baum and was created by the studio as one way to show off the new Technicolor advancement that was all the rage in 1939.
Later in life, Margaret Hamilton was able to shed a bit of her public persona and appear in an entirely different milieu–as Cora, the coffee house woman who only serves Maxwell House in a series of commercials for the instant coffee brand.
See you tomorrow for another installment of Countdown to Hitchcock Halloween!
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."