Tag Archives: jean harlow

TCM Classic Film Festival Wrap-Up, 2017

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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!”

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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!

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TCM PRE-CODE FRIDAYS: The Women of RED DUST (1932)

All September long, TCM is shining the spotlight on those films made during the illustrious years of 1929-1934, the saucy and seductive era we call “pre-Code.” In the days prior to codified morality on film, writers and filmmakers were free to tell the stories they thought their audiences would accept, and these films often defy the stereotypes that mainstream audiences visualize when they  conceptualize classic film.

In pre-Code Hollywood, sex and seduction drove plots and defined characters. Women and men knew what they had, and weren’t afraid to flaunt it. It was an open, expressive time for film, and a time to push the social envelope and challenge audiences to analyze those things outside their comfort zone.

At the height of the pre-Code era came Red Dust (1932), a story about an American rubber farmer (Clark Gable) in Indochina who is torn between a stable relationship with one woman, and a steamy affair with another. One woman is a prostitute, and the other a refined lady of the city.

Think you know which one is the stable relationship, and which is the steamy affair?

The prostitute Vantine cares for Dennis Carson after he is shot by the jealous woman with whom he is having an affair (Mary Astor).

The film forces the audience to rethink pre-conceived notions of morality and goodness by switching expected characterizations of women. In this film, it is Jean Harlow’s character of the prostitute Vantine who represents core, upstanding virtue. Though she is a lady of the night, she strives to maintain her standards and dignity when the cards are stacked against her.

Early in the film, after a passionate night with Dennis, the rubber farmer offers her money without a word of judgment. Here we learn two things: though Dennis has just spent the night with a prostitute, he holds his head high the next morning and does what he feels is right. He holds core values and does not shame or feel shamed. We also learn that Vantine is more than just your average prostitute. She yearns for sincere love and a stable partner. When Dennis offers Vantine the money, she sweetly refuses, letting Dennis know that she enjoyed the evening with him.

Mary Astor’s character, a classy, ladylike woman named Barbara, soon arrives in Indochina with her husband, who is to work as an engineer on the rubber plantation. Dennis is attracted to Barbara, and sends her husband away on a long trip whereupon he begins to seduce her.  Dennis is so enamored with Barbara that she persuades her to leave her husband for him, but he soon has a change of heart when he learns just how much her husband loves Barbara. Dennis pretends never to have loved her, and Barbara, in a rageful moment, shoots him. When her husband runs in, they simultaneously cover their relationship and provide Barbara an alibi by saying that Dennis had tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. The film ends with Vantine sitting by Dennis’ side on the bed, reading him bedtime stories.

Visual symbolism. The prostitute, shunned by society, sits on a higher plane than the woman whom society labels as dignified.

This gray moral area and complex characterization of a female character is common in pre-Code cinema, but becomes far less so when one examines movies released from late 1934 on. The modification of the Hays Code in July of 1934 signified a major shift in the portrayals of women on film, and erased once and for all any gray moral area that may have existed prior to the Code’s enforcement. The Hays Code clearly stipulated that there should be no doubt as to where morality existed and where it did not, especially in regard to women, spelling out a clear message for the audience and leaving little room for speculation or analytical thought. In response to these new rules, filmmaking itself experienced a massive upheaval after the enforcement of the Code, and a new cinematic technique developed. In order to make the movies they wanted to make, screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors had to come up with subtle ways to trick the censors and make the film’s message as clear as it could be. The result was the biting innuendo, suggestive costuming, and creative use of props and dialogue that make up the landscape of post-Code cinema.

A movie like Red Dust, however, is a hallmark of the pre-Code era, and would have been nearly impossible to make had it been attempted just a few years later. We’re lucky that it was made when it was.

See you next time!

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!

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “Libeled Lady” (1936)

For my first installment to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, I have the pleasure of reviewing a truly delightful comedy by the name of Libeled Lady. The 5th of the 14 movies movies that teamed William Powell and Myrna Loy, the two possessed all the wit and charm in this movie that they are so widely known for. Add to that the talents of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, and you have yourself a real peach of a movie.

The story deals with a wealthy woman, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) suing for libel after a newspaper article accuses her of breaking up a marriage. In order to counter the suit, the newspaper company hatches an elaborate scheme to make the story true–hiring a notorious ladies’ man by the name of Bill Chandler (William Powell) to woo her and eventually be caught alone with her when his wife walks in. The plan is complicated when the two actually fall in love.

The situation with the wife is a prominent and amusing supporting story. Played by the lovely Jean Harlow, the character of Gladys is the long-suffering fiancé of Warren Haggerty, the managing editor of the newspaper being sued for libel. When the idea is developed and it comes to light that Bill Chandler is not actually married, Warren volunteers Gladys to be the pretend wife for the scheme. Some of the funniest scenes are those in which William Powell and Jean Harlow pretend to be a devoted married couple when there are people around, and as soon as they leave, they are at each other’s throats. William Powell and Jean Harlow were very well matched onscreen, and their good friendship turned to romance in real life. The two became engaged in 1935, and dated for 2 years, despite Powell’s doubts about marrying another blonde movie star after his divorce from Carole Lombard a few years earlier. When Jean Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga, it was William Powell who left the set of his own movie in order to take her home. I think had Jean Harlow lived longer, she and William Powell would have become as beloved a screen pairing as Powell and Myrna Loy. However, it is hard to speculate about this, as Jean Harlow died during the filming of Saratoga at the peak of her career in 1937. She was only 26.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which Bill Chandler, pretending to be an expert fisherman in order to get on the good side of Connie’s fisherman father, actually finds himself having to go fishing. Watch what happens:

This is a truly hilarious movie, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll be in for a treat.

Stay tuned for more posts during the month of August dedicated to TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming!