Tag Archives: hollywood

Backlots on the TCM Red Carpet

Debbie Reynolds on the red carpet of the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival.

While wandering around the shopping center at Hollywood and Highland today, I was alerted of an incoming email message through the vibrations of the trusty iPhone in my pocket. I took out my phone, opened my email inbox and discovered, to my great delight, that Backlots has been approved for red carpet coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

So, readers, what does this mean? A red carpet credential allows a journalist to procure once in a lifetime interviews with special TCM guests, and to obtain high quality, exclusive content for his or her media outlet. For Backlots, this is an opportunity to talk to stars such as Shirley Jones and Margaret O’Brien, both of whom have significant fan bases on this site and I predict that interviews with them will prove to garner great visibility for both Backlots and TCM.

Shirley Jones in particular has proven to be very popular with readers of Backlots–feedback from readers shows great interest in her films, and all of the articles I have written about Shirley Jones rank among the most frequently visited posts in the history of Backlots. Jones, who is in fine form following her 80th birthday late last month (she wanted to go skydiving for her birthday, before her children talked her out of it) will be in attendance for Oklahoma!, the opening night movie and her feature film debut.

I am also hoping to get a chance to talk to Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz about programming choices, themes, and features for the upcoming year. If any of my readers have questions they would like asked, please feel free to leave them in the comments section or email me at fowler.lara@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you!

I have been in L.A. since March 31, and have been having a marvelous time leading up to the TCM Classic Film Festival. Come Thursday, I very much look forward to sharing my festival experience with you, my dear reader. As usual, I will be live tweeting on the red carpet, between movies, and at social events, as well as blogging every evening. This is definitely one of the highlights of any classic film fan’s year.

See you Thursday!

The Making of a Hollywood Legend

Judy Garland, one of the most prominent and visible legends of Hollywood cinema.

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked those it considered to be the top 50 screen legends–25 male, 25 female–actors whom they considered to have had a considerable impact on our film culture and the cinematic landscape of Hollywood. The rules stipulated that in order to be considered for “legend” status, the actor had to have either 1) made his screen debut in or before 1950, or 2) died, thus leaving a completed body of work. This resulted in a list comprised of mostly actors from the classical era of Hollywood (a term that denotes the years between 1927 and 1963), but featuring several exceptions from influential stars who have since passed on. The list was released with great fanfare, and as a 13-year-old already enthused about classic Hollywood, I was just so happy to see my favorite stars’ names in print that I didn’t stop to think about whether or not I agreed with the rankings. I took the list as the be-all, end-all on who was the best in the business.

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, who got the number one male and female spots on the list, together in THE AFRICAN QUEEN.

A few weeks ago, I decided on a whim to revisit the list. What I found gave me an entirely new perspective on what the list meant. I realized that this was not a list of the best actors in the business, but rather of the biggest legends. And I got to thinking about what that meant.

What is a legend? The word, by its very nature, connotes something immortal. And in order to stand the test of time, one must have qualities that go above and beyond what is seen in the normal course of life. In the movie industry, it seems to take on a unique form–a screen legend has contributed, in one way or another, to the formation of our psyche as moviegoers–they are indelibly linked to our concept of what makes up our cinematic landscape.

And how does one become a legend? I would say that it’s a combination of talent and star power, with a certain element of being in the right place at the right time in terms of audience taste. Marilyn Monroe, for example, is a clear example of how the combination of those three things can make an explosive Hollywood legend. Monroe, blessed with charisma, a huge amount of intelligence and winning talent (her talent would often be seen through the lens of the dumb blonde characters she played, one of the hardest characters to play well), she also reaped the benefits of coming onto the Hollywood scene when something new and different was welcomed. Nobody had ever seen anybody like Marilyn Monroe before, and her novelty fascinated and enthralled filmgoers. Her tragic early death, less than 15 years after her screen debut, has frozen her legend in time, and we see her as an essential part of cinema history.

Marilyn Monroe talks about her fame

For Monroe, though she had extraordinary talent, the primary vehicle by which she became a legend was unquestionably her star power. Though the difference is sometimes hard to visualize, I would say that star power is a certain energy and appeal that is so attractive to audiences that it keeps bringing them back. Talent, on the other hand, is a skill set that the performer brings to the table and though he or she may not have this certain je ne sais quoi that comes with star power, their abilities leave audiences enthralled and hence, they keep coming back. A prime example of this is Judy Garland in the early part of her career. When Judy Garland first came to MGM in 1935, she was an average teenager in every way–there was nothing unusual about this 13-year-old that would give her any staying power…that is, until she opened her mouth and sang a song. Out came the voice of a woman decades older, with emotion far beyond her years. And it left audiences agape.

Judy Garland sings “Bill” from Show Boat in 1935. She was 12 years old.

After those initial years, after developing a signature vocal and performance style at MGM and in her concert life, Judy Garland would acquire a great deal of star power, and she is now perhaps the greatest legend ever to come out of the entertainment world.

The AFI seemed to draw heavily on star power in forming its list of legends, or at least it seemed that way to me when I examined it again a few weeks ago. It is often very difficult to separate personal taste from assessments of star power and talent, and your humble author is certainly not immune to judgments based on taste. I tried to reconstruct the list based on what I thought were better rankings, and I posted it to the Backlot Commissary (for those of you unfamiliar with Backlots, the Commissary is our Facebook group where we can post content and have discussions). But I’m not happy with my list and keep making revisions, because I have come to the conclusion that there is very little possibility of being objective when it comes to ranking of legends.

Below is the AFI list. Do you agree with it? Leave a comment, and let’s discuss! I look forward to hearing your commentary.

1. Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn

2. Cary Grant, Bette Davis

3. James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn

4. Marlon Brando, Ingrid Bergman

5. Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo

6. Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe

7. Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor

8. James Cagney, Judy Garland

9. Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich

10. Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford

11. Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck

12. Gregory Peck, Claudette Colbert

13. John Wayne, Grace Kelly

14: Laurence Olivier, Ginger Rogers

15: Gene Kelly, Mae West

16: Orson Welles, Vivien Leigh

17: Kirk Douglas, Lillian Gish

18: James Dean, Shirley Temple

19: Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth

20: The Marx Brothers, Lauren Bacall

21: Buster Keaton, Sophia Loren

22: Sidney Poitier, Jean Harlow

23: Robert Mitchum, Carole Lombard

24: Edward G. Robinson, Mary Pickford

25: William Holden, Ava Gardner

Book Review: GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Glamor, fashion, and beautifully seductive images are hallmarks of George Hurrell’s unmistakable photographic style. The preferred photographer of many classic Hollywood stars, he became indelibly associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most famous names in portrait photography.

Jean Harlow as photographed by Hurrell. As seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Never has Hurrell been more aptly celebrated than in Mark Vieira’s big and beautiful new coffee table book George Hurrell’s Hollywood (published by Running Press Books), that chronicles Hurrell’s life and work, his relationship to his photographic subjects, and his growth as a photographer over the course of his monumentally lengthy career. A detailed biography of Hurrell is accentuated by hundreds of stunning photographs, ranging from Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford all the way to Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas.

Carole Lombard, as photographed by Hurrell. Seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Vieira was a longtime friend of Hurrell’s, and draws on exclusive archival research, interviews, and diaries to create a portrait of the artist never before seen in any book. He details Hurrell’s rise to fame, his flourishing career in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and ultimately his perseverance when times got extremely hard due to scandal and corruption from the underworld of the art collectors’ community.

The book is also a treasure trove for lovers of old Hollywood gossip, providing the reader with information about the mystery of Greta Garbo that existed offscreen as well as on (Vieira relates an anecdote on the unusual way in which Hurrell finally succeeded in getting Garbo to smile for a picture), the eccentricities of Marlene Dietrich, and the resistance of Olivia de Havilland to Hurrell’s unorthodox methods of getting a shot. One of my favorite parts of the book is an examination of how Hurrell airbrushed his subjects. A famous Hurrell photograph of Joan Crawford, glamorous, sexy, and a true movie star, is shown alongside its original negative–and we see Crawford as the freckle-faced, normal woman she was when she came into Hurrell’s studio. The difference between the two photographs is astounding, and shows what Hurrell was capable of long before the days of digital airbrushing and Photoshop.

Hurrell expanded his horizons a bit during the second half of his career, photographing such musical notables as Diana Ross, David Bowie, and Natalie Cole (Hurrell’s photograph of Cole appeared on the cover of her album Unforgettable…With Love). Sharon Stone, his last photographic subject, provides the foreword to this book and an alluring photograph of Stone graces the first page of text.

Hurrell’s photograph of Sharon Stone that appears alongside the foreword of GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Click here to order your copy of the book. George Hurrell’s Hollywood is a must-have for anyone interested in classic Hollywood, photography, the art world, or simply the life of a fascinating personality whose career survived multiple setbacks and difficulties. A truly loving and fitting portrait to a photographic genius, featuring 420 breathtaking images that testify to the man and his art.

Joan Crawford in 1930, as seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

See you next time!

CLFP: “Virtue” (1932)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

When I learned that Virtue was to be a part of the pre-code festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco this evening, I knew I had to go. This is one of Carole Lombard’s more well-known movies, but one which is rarely seen. This was, perhaps, my one chance to see this movie and review it for the Carole Lombard Filmography Project.

At the outset, the movie plays like a pretty standard pre-code. Mae, a streetwalker, is banned from town after being caught picking up men. Despite the court order to stay away, she returns and strikes up a relationship with a cab driver named Jimmy, not telling him she has been a streetwalker. They marry and on their wedding night, they come home to find a detective in their house. The detective says he is on to Mae and informs her husband that he has married a former streetwalker. Hurt and confused, Jimmy nonetheless decides to make a go of their marriage.

Mae learns that she has been found out.

Jimmy has a dream of being part owner of a gas station, and he has made plans with his friend Flanagan to purchase one to operate together. Though he has vowed to make the best of his marriage to Mae, he is constantly paranoid about her activities when he is not around. Mae assures him that he has nothing to worry about–their bank account shows only what he brings home from work, no more, no less. He is thrilled and excited about getting closer to his dream of owning a gas station, and Mae joins him in his excitement.

This is the point where the movie turns from a run-of-the-mill pre-code to something rather unique.

One day, Mae’s friend Gert falls ill and asks Mae for $200 for an operation. At first Mae says no, but ultimately gives in when Gert tries to commit suicide by drinking poison. When Mae comes home after lending Gert the money, she finds that her husband thinks he met his financial goal that day–not knowing that he was short the $200 that Mae lent Gert.

Later that evening, a friend comes over saying that Gert had asked HIM for $200 for an operation, then pretended to drink poison when he said no. Though she said nothing in order to keep her secret, Mae realizes that Gert was scamming them, and sets out to find her. She is nowhere to be found. Finally Mae tracks her down and starts beating her up, telling her that if she didn’t get the money back she would kill her. Gert swears she will, and tells her to come back tomorrow evening.

Mae beats Gert in this poster for the movie.

The next morning Jimmy, still suspicious, asks her what she did the previous evening. In order to maintain the secret of the $200, she replies that she had just stayed home. When asked what she would do that evening, she replies that she will probably do the same. When the evening rolls around and Mae sets out for Gert’s house, the jealous husband follows her. She enters Gert’s apartment, and her husband assumes that she is there to prostitute herself.

Meanwhile we learn that Gert has been giving the scammed money to a man named Toots O’Neill, the pimp of Lil, Mae and Gert’s mutual friend and fellow prostitute. In order to pay Mae back, Gert steals the money out of Toots’ wallet. When Toots finds out that she stole the money, he starts a fight with her to get it back, ultimately throwing her to the ground. She hits her head on a heater, killing her instantly.

Jimmy sees the silhouette of Toots lifting Gert’s dead body, and it looks like an embrace. He assumes it is Mae, and he is furious.

Meanwhile, Mae finds the door unlocked and enters. Toots hides with Gert’s body but watches her through a crack in the door. Mae finds the $200 on the table and takes it–but accidentally leaves her coat and purse.

She returns home to a furious Jimmy, and when she tries to explain, he will not listen to her and leaves. She hands him the $200 telling him that it is his, but he assumes it is her money from streetwalking and will not take it.

Mae’s coat and purse are found by detectives investigating Gert’s murder, and as they believe she was the only one there with Gert, they identify her as the guilty party in the murder and throw her in jail.

Forlorn about the failure of his marriage, Jimmy has passed out drunk at a local bar. A friend finds him and notifies him of Mae’s murder charge. He sobers up to defend her, and through a series of circumstances he sees Toots’ silhouette and recognizes it as the silhouette he saw in Gert’s apartment. He knows she couldn’t have been alone that night. When he confronts Toots with Lil present, Toots pulls a gun on him and Lil offers him an alibi, saying that she will testify that he was with her that evening. She convinces him to go to the courthouse instead of running out of town, as that will show that he is innocent and has nothing to hide.

Jimmy sees Toots’ silhouette.

Toots and Lil show up at the courthouse and Toots presents his testimony that he was with Lil all night. The judge asks Lil if this is true….and Lil replies that no, this is not true. She had to tell him that she would vouch for him to get him down to the courthouse, and says that he was about to run out of town. Toots is arrested, and Mae set free. The movie ends as Mae and Jimmy get back together, and Jimmy’s dream of a gas station has finally come true.

This was an extraordinarily complex, tight and well put together story. In writing this review, I felt an obligation to write out the entire story instead of the general skeleton, as the film unravels in such a straight and unwavering line that it is impossible to describe one event without all the others. Carole gives a wonderful performance, and the supporting cast is also magnificent. It is interesting to see how versatile of an actress Carole was. She plays this streetwalker with as much aplomb as her later dizzy screwball roles, and she could easily have remained a dramatic actress had her career not gone toward comedy. Had Carole lived longer, I would venture to say that she could have been comparable to someone like Barbara Stanwyck, capable of playing a wide variety of genres with equal skill.

Virtue is a movie that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in pre-code Hollywood, or simply classic Hollywood in general. It is unusually thorough in its treatment of its characters and its plot is meticulously thought out and detailed. The fact that this movie is so rare is a real shame, as it would be enjoyed by so many people if it were more widely available.

See you next time!

“Elmer Gantry” (1960), “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and Hollywood’s Clash with Fundamentalism

Elmer Gantry preaches.

Henry Drummond challenges creationism in “Inherit the Wind.”

The year 1960 marks a significant turning point in the study of film history. With the threat of McCarthy no longer looming over the Hollywood horizon, the studio system nearly chafed into oblivion, and producers less restricted by the dying production code, we begin to see a wave of controversial and complex films emerging out of a new, more liberated Hollywood. Though one might argue that this era began in the mid-1950s (the James Dean movies, to cite three notable examples, were all controversial for their time), it was not until the 1960s that topics such as sex, drugs, and religious fanaticism became routinely discussed in American cinema. The concept of religious fanaticism is especially interesting to note, as though the production code was indeed dying, its very foundation was in religious fundamentalism and the censors took great pain to keep the questioning of religion under control.

In view of this fact, the idea that the dominance of religion over rational thought takes center stage in two seminal films of 1960–Elmer Gantry, the tale of a wandering con man turned revivalist preacher and Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial, is a testament to the breaking of boundaries that were beginning to take precedence over a respect for the previously held rules of Hollywood filmmaking. Each film examines the impact of religion on small, rural communities, and situation that shake the very foundation of their faith.

The title character of Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) is a fast-talking salesman with a charismatic personality and a penchant for liquor and women. Captivated by a revival ad featuring young female evangelist Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), Gantry attends the meeting in the hope of wooing her with his charm. Upon meeting the dark-haired beauty, he cons her into thinking they had known each other before, and convinces her to hire him as a member of the revivalist troupe. Despite a lack of any previous training, Gantry and Sister Sharon form a “duo” act, as Gantry preached about damnation and hellfire while Sharon preached salvation. The ministries become wildly popular, and they play to packed tents throughout the Midwest. With their increasing popularity, it became clear that neither had any popularity, and their notoriety spread due to a newspaper outing the act as a sham. One of those aware of their notoriety was prostitute Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones), who as a teenager had been kicked out of her parents’ house house for having a fling with Gantry, in which he “rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps.”

Shirley Jones in the scene in which we are introduced to Lulu. Jones won an Academy Award for her raw and unabashed performance as the cunning and cutthroat prostitute.

After a raid of Lulu’s brothel in which Gantry recognizes the young prostitute, she invites him up to her room where she has secretly invited a photographer to capture Gantry seducing her. She blackmails Sharon with a threat to publicize the photos, and despite Sharon’s willingness to pay, Lulu refuses her money and gives the pictures to the newspaper out of spite. A riot erupts at the revival following the publication, and Gantry returns to the brothel to find a distraught Lulu abused by her pimp for not accepting the money. He throws the pimp out and comforts Lulu, who publicly apologizes for the frame-up.

Gantry returns to Sharon and proposes that they give up preaching and live as normal people. Sharon, unable to give up her life as a preacher, continues with the revival and turns Gantry down. As Sharon preaches at the revival that evening, a lit cigarette is tossed onto a bale of hay, and the surroundings slowly become engulfed in flames. Attendees run for their lives, but Sharon remains, screaming salvation over the flames as the building collapses around her.
In the wake of Sharon’s death, Gantry gives up preaching, citing the Bible: “When I was a child, I understood as a child and spake as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” He reaches a moral awakening as the movie ends, with a chorus of the spiritual “I’m On My Way to Canaan’s Land.”

The final scene.

The symbolism of the church going up in flames is particularly disturbing to watch, and if there were any question prior to this scene as to the intentions of the filmmakers, this makes it perfectly clear. This is the destruction of fundamentalism, the collapse of a social structure that indeed “burned in its own hell,” if we are to take the irony of the scene and apply it to the teachings of the church. The burning of the church and the death of Sharon opens a door for Gantry to do his own repenting, and find his own way.

Inherit the Wind is by any standard a tighter treatment of religion, framing it in the context of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Though the names were changed in the screenplay (as in the play on which it was based by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee), it takes the circumstances of the actual trial and repeats them nearly exactly as they occurred. Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), an astute legal mind from the North, comes into a small southern town to represent a science teacher on trial for teaching evolution in a science class, contrary to state law. His adversary is Matthew Brady (Fredric March), a noted biblical scholar and staunch defendant of creationism who also happens to be an old friend. The majority of the film takes place in the courtroom, with each side defending his case with equal fervor. Eventually, Drummond resorts to putting Brady himself on the stand, in a scene that rocks the courthouse and is one of the key scenes of the film.

Inherit the Wind is known to be a parable for McCarthyism. When the play was written in 1955, McCarthy was still a very real threat. Hollywood was a favorite target of his, and outward questioning of his beliefs was almost certain career suicide for all involved with the film in question. McCarthy’s death in 1957 freed Hollywood to explore plays that had been far braver in its treatment of McCarthyism, and the equation of religious fundamentalism to McCarthy is especially indicative of the change that Hollywood was undergoing at the beginning of the 1960s.

In the wake of all of this, it must not be forgotten that the code was still alive, grasping at straws to maintain religious purity in Hollywood. A prime example of the hold that the code was desperately trying to keep on the industry is reflected in the bizarre opening message that the censors inserted into the beginning of Elmer Gantry. Note that the punctuation is all just as it appears on the screen:

“We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination- that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity! We believe that everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, but- Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people! However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!”

Until next time, readers!