Tag Archives: Judy Garland

JUDY and Lara in the News

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Apologies for the delayed post, readers. It’s been a rather busy few weeks and this is the first opportunity I’ve had for a blog post since my last one in late September. The Marion Davies book is in its final stages, so I’ve been spending a great deal of time putting together the proposal that will ultimately go to publishers. More about that as the time gets closer, but suffice it to say that writing a book takes a village, and I consider my village to be the best there is. For that I am very grateful.

Since my last post here, I have appeared on a podcast and in print, both for The San Francisco Chronicle. The topic was the new biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, that has stirred up a lot of controversy within classic film and specifically Judy Garland circles. I discussed my feelings briefly with the Chronicle, as time permitted, but I’d like to expand upon my thoughts here, for the edification of Backlots readers and to express things for which there was no time or space on the podcast and in the paper. If you have seen the movie, please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the bottom of this post. I would love to hear from you.

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With my sister, friends and penpals on the steps of Judy Garland’s childhood home, Grand Rapids, MN, 1998.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Judy Garland was my gateway to classic film and remains a constant part of me. As I work on Marion Davies, I am keenly aware that I would not be where I am today had I not happened to pick that Judy Garland tape from the bargain bin at Borders on New Year’s Eve, 1995. Without Judy, Backlots wouldn’t exist, and I wouldn’t have made some of my most cherished friends.

Many of the Judy Garland figures I trust had already panned the movie, and were angry that Renée Zellweger took the role at all. Others praised Zellweger’s performance, saying that she completely channeled Judy Garland in 1969 and that she nailed Judy’s mannerisms, which is no easy task. I didn’t know what to think, so I decided not to think at all. I made an active decision to go into the movie with an open mind.

The backdrop to Judy is the series of concerts that Judy Garland gave at the Talk of the Town dinner club in London shortly before she died, and the scenario is based on the off-Broadway play End of the Rainbow. It is an interesting part of Judy’s life in many ways, and the movie tells the story of her life and career through flashbacks, mostly to the set of The Wizard of Oz and events that occurred around 1939.

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Interacting with the audience at Talk of the Town, January 14, 1969.

As soon as the movie started, I started noticing inaccuracies. The first I noticed was the depiction of Judy’s relationship with Louis B. Mayer. The movie showed Mayer as a seemingly regular part of the Wizard of Oz set, and while executives did visit sets on rare occasions, they generally dealt solely with administrative work and left their directors and producers alone in their work. While on the set, Judy tells Mayer that she wishes she could be a normal girl, going to movies just like others her age. Even at 16, Judy Garland was operating at an intellectual level beyond that of most adults. She knew how to interact with Mayer, and it was not to tell him that she wished she could go to the movies like other girls her age. It is a nuance, but an important one.

In general, Judy’s staggering intelligence is missing from the movie. Friends estimated that her IQ surpassed 160–she learned astoundingly quickly and was capable of performing complex dance routines after seeing them once. She found rehearsal dull and unnecessary, and got very impatient when she was needed to rehearse anything beyond a single take. Her dislike of rehearsal is indeed shown in the movie, which I appreciated, but the reason for it–the speed and depth of her learning–was not.

This number from Summer Stock (1950) was filmed in one take after Gene Kelly had shown Judy the steps once.

At one moment, Zellweger’s Judy says that she never had time to learn to do anything but sing. Judy was, in fact, a very accomplished pianist, having learned at a young age from her mother. She played at such a high level that pianist friends who heard her play told her that she should give professional concerts. “No,” Judy would reply, “this is just for me.” She feared that if word of her skill at the piano got out, it would be exploited like the rest of her talents. She was also deeply political with a strong moral compass, and as a young person was an enthusiastic supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. She was a member of the Committee for the First Amendment, protesting the blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten, and later became involved in the planning of the March on Washington and the election of John F. Kennedy.

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The movie does depict the harrowing sexual abuse that Judy suffered at the hands of Louis B. Mayer. It is dealt with quickly, glossed over almost shamefully, and it is not accurate. This bothered me to no end. It would have been better, in my mind, not to show it at all, rather than gloss over it and put it in the wrong place at the wrong time. Judy wrote about the abuse in her unpublished autobiographical manuscript, which is readily available to the public, and inaccuracy in this domain is inexcusable. It was too important to Judy’s self-image, her psychological problems, and the course of the rest of her life to be dealt with so nonchalantly. The moment could have served as an important link for modern-day survivors, but instead they treated it lazily, as if the moment were required but not desired.

The main action takes place in 1969 and at that point, Judy’s minor children, Lorna and Joe Luft, were teenagers (Lorna was born in 1952, Joe in 1955). In the movie the children are shown far too young, which contributes to a narrative that was not the real one. In general, the timeline was way off, a jarring time bend for those of us who know it. Liza Minnelli was shown at a Los Angeles party early in the movie, but she was not in Los Angeles in 1969, having moved to New York years earlier to start her own career. Nor did she ever call her mother “Mom,” as we hear in the movie. Throughout their lives, all of Judy’s children called her “Mama,” a name by which they all still refer to their mother.

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But for me, the most egregious inaccuracy had to do with the portrayal of Judy herself. The movie showed her wallowing in self-pity, going onstage drunk, and being booed offstage by the audience. Never did Judy bare her soul in interviews or feel sorry for herself, the way they showed onscreen. The closest she came was when she was interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1967, describing her difficulties with her own mother. She did have a few disastrous concerts, notably in Melbourne and Hong Kong, but the Talk of the Town concerts that provide the backdrop for the movie were nothing of the kind. Judy loved London, and London loved her.

To say Judy had an uproarious sense of humor would be an exercise in understatement. Lucille Ball, denying her own comedic gifts, once said “I was never funny. You know who was truly funny? Judy Garland. Judy Garland was funny. She made me look like a mortician.” Judy’s quickness of wit was legendary in Hollywood, and she was an unmatched storyteller. Her tall tales left audiences laughing until they cried.

None of this was shown in the movie. There were a few moments where hints of Judy’s sense of humor came through, but they were only hints. Nothing made the audience laugh out loud or applaud enthusiastically, the way they did when Judy told stories, and it was one of the aspects of the movie that I missed the most.

In regard to Zellweger’s performance, it was clear to me that she had done her research. She made an effort to channel Judy’s mannerisms, which are incredibly difficult to do, and did them to the best of her ability. In concerts and on her TV show, Judy would frequently toy with the microphone cord, tossing it over her shoulder and making it a sort of prop for her performance. Zellweger did this, but didn’t quite do it right, nor did her Garland-esque movements evoke the vibrance and life that Judy’s did. Judy moved with her soul–becoming one with the song as her spirit succumbs to the beauty and power of the music. We the audience feel this with her as she moves, an almost indescribable experience.

Zellweger, by contrast, seems to be going through the motions. She knows the Judy Garland signature moves–the arm over the head, the position of the hand as she holds the microphone–but the life in it is missing.

This is perhaps the best way I can sum up Judy–the life in it is missing. Instead of painting a three-dimensional portrait of a complex woman, it chooses to rely on cursory, surface level research and tells incomplete stories or complete untruths. Renée Zellweger did the best she could, but I couldn’t help but mourn for what could have been.

Podcast Announcement for JUDY (2019)

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On Wednesday night, I went to San Francisco for an advance screening of Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Renée Zellweger, out in theaters today. This has been a highly anticipated event for many months in the classic film community, and I have many thoughts to share about the movie, Zellweger’s performance, and what the movie means for Judy Garland’s legacy. This coming week, I’m going to be on a podcast with Tony Bravo of the San Francisco Chronicle, where we will discuss this most recent biopic and our thoughts. I will post a link to the blog as soon as I have it.

For now, I’d just like to share a bit of what Judy Garland has meant in my life.

Judy was my entrée into the world of classic film. At the age of 10, I listened to my first Judy Garland cassette in the car on the way up to Sacramento for New Year’s Eve. I still remember that car ride–the first moment I heard Judy sing outside of The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was “Dear Mr. Gable,” and within the first 5 seconds, I was in inexplicable awe.  By the time we reached Sacramento, I was head over heels in love and admiration–and over the span of 2 hours, I had become so protective that when our family friend laughed at the situation (a 10-year-old choosing a Judy Garland tape to listen to in the car), I got upset–not for myself, but for Judy.

This was the first song on the cassette that made me fall in love with Judy Garland.

By 11, I had seen all her movies. She was brought up any time I could find an excuse to fit her into a conversation. In addition to her powerful, emotional voice, I was drawn to her outrageous humor, her laughter in the face of troubles, and a pathos and sensitivity that were so vibrant you felt you could reach out and touch her. All of these things were somehow relatable to me, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand how anyone could not feel attached to this amazingly powerful person.

At 12, my mother took me to the Judy Garland Festival in Grand Rapids, MN, where Judy was born and lived for the first 6 years of her life. I ended up going back to the festival 4 times, and at 13 won a trivia competition that landed me an interview with NPR. Many of my most treasured memories from that era have to do with Judy, and the friendships I have made rank among my longest and most lasting.

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After I had exhausted Judy’s entire filmography, I began to branch out into the filmographies of her costars, and their costars. I developed interests in the people who were nominally and marginally part of her life, until I was well versed in classic Hollywood in general. In 2011, I started this blog after friends advised me to create an outlet.

In essence, if you enjoy Backlots, you have Judy Garland to thank. I am grateful that she came into my life, 46 years after her death, and that the same pathos and sensitivity I felt when I was 10 I still feel today when I listen to her recordings. She is a constant and ever-present part of my soul.

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Thanks to Tony and the San Francisco Chronicle for the podcasting opportunity, and following the podcast I will flesh out my thoughts for Backlots.

Talk to you next week!

Smithsonian Seeks Funds to Maintain Ruby Slippers

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The ruby slippers at the Smithsonian Museum, taken on my trip to Washington, D.C. last year.

A few days ago, it came to my attention that the Smithsonian was raising money to keep one of their most visited and prized artifacts from deteriorating further than it already has.

The ruby slippers housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one of 5 pairs worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), are now nearly 80 years old and have begun to show their age. Sequins are falling off, the signature color is fading, and the threads on the shoes are beginning to break–all signs indicative of standard costuming practices at the large studios in the 1930s.

In the days of the studio system, costumes were made not to stand the test of time, but to provide the bare minimum of was needed for a movie at the smallest cost possible to the studio. The material was the cheapest that could do the job, and with the lack of foresight into the era of television rebroadcasts and lasting celebrity, the studio executives saw no need to account for preservation. Saving money and maximizing a film’s profit was their first and foremost concern. When a movie was over, the costumes were just filed away into the studio’s storage–sometimes to be re-used for another movie, sometimes to collect dust.

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In relatively recent years, movie costumes that have survived have become a source of fascination for filmgoers and collectors, if not for studio personnel. When MGM liquidated its costume storage inventory at an auction in 1970 to expand space on their soundstages, former MGM star Debbie Reynolds spent nearly $600,000 rescuing what she considered to be living history. “They literally threw away our history and I just got caught up in it,” she later said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history.”

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But at the National Museum of American History, preserving costumes and props is considered synonymous with preserving the cultural past of the United States. When visitors walk into the museum and make their way to the second floor, they can see the original Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s living room set from All in the Family…and the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. These are all visible and identifiable parts of American heritage, and the Smithsonian treats them with the same respect and care that they take with Lincoln’s shawl and the flag that inspired the national anthem.

With that in mind, the curators jumped into action when it became clear that the ruby slippers would need further attention to keep from deteriorating further. Being a modern museum that relies on both federal funds and the public, they decided to go to the grassroots level to fund the slippers’ care–with a Kickstarter campaign to meet the restoration goal of $300,000. In a matter of hours, their initial goal was well on its way to being met.

The money will go toward a special case for the slippers, which would contain a non-oxygen gas and a meter that would measure barometric pressure that can be adjusted according to conditions. The curators would need to determine the correct amount of light and humidity that the slippers can receive, and design the case accordingly. The idea is not to refurbish them, but instead to maintain their state as they are now. To prevent further loss of paint and sequins, the slippers will be treated with a special coating. “While the slippers undergo treatment their appearance will not change drastically, and we don’t want them to,” reads the Kickstarter summary.

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From the Kickstarter site–museum conservator Richard Barden examines the slippers.

This undertaking is staggeringly expensive and the Smithsonian still needs our help in order to finance the preservation that the curators have deemed necessary. As of this evening, the donations have reached $225,000.

Please visit the Kickstarter campaign site and consider donating. Any small amount is greatly appreciated by the museum. Some of my favorite perks of donating:

-$1 or more: Smithsonian offers its grateful thanks and sends exclusive updates on the project.

-$10 or more: A beautiful digital poster created especially for the project.

-$50 or more: A tote bag created especially for the project.

-$150 or more: A Smithsonian Museum membership.

And if you REALLY have a bit of money to spare…

-$1,000 or more: Lunch and tour with a curator

-$7,000 or more: Your own pair of replica ruby slippers

-$10,000 or more: Watch the restoration as it’s being done.

As many of my regular readers know, The Wizard of Oz is very important to me, as it was Judy Garland who started me on my path toward classic movies. I ultimately have her to thank for much of what I have become, what I have done here on the blog and with my Marion Davies work. I feel a special obligation to pay it forward and make sure that the ruby slippers are protected–not only to preserve the legacy of Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, but to preserve for future generations a tangible example of the American experience–the movies that make us who we are.

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

The Warner Bros. VIP Tour

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Well, readers, today was an exciting and exhausting day to say the least. It began around 9:45 in the morning when, running on adrenaline and caffeine only (I didn’t get very much sleep), I arrived at the Warner lot for the VIP tour. After getting formally acquainted with several classic film bloggers whose names I knew well, we were led into a special screening room where we watched a short video of the history of Warner Bros. and then headed out on the tour itself with our friendly guide, John.

We bloggers got some very special treatment–our first stop was the costume department, which is not normally part of the tour. There, a woman by the name of Elaine showed us stock costumes while explaining to us how the costume system works at Warner Bros. It turns out that costumes are owned by Warner Bros. but can be rented by other studios–there is a bit of a kinship there that allows costumes to be shared. Upon questioning her about a sign on one of the door that said “Trades not allowed,” Elaine also informed me that there is a trade system in place for some of the costumes. If a costume from the collection is lost or damaged, often the person who lost or damaged it can replace it with another costume of the same value. However, in that particular department, trades are not allowed if the costume is lost or damaged. The person must pay, out of pocket, the value of the costume. Very interesting stuff, and really gives you an insight into some of the politics of the inner departments of the studio.

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Some hats from 1920-1960.

As many of my readers know, I am a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck and was keen to know where Stanwyck’s pre-Code Warner Bros. films were shot. I posed my question to John, who was wonderful in getting the answer to me. He handed the question off to several people until I finally got an answer, and the answer was that most of the Barbara Stanwyck pre-Codes were filmed in Studio 14. When we passed Studio 14 later, John incorporated this new information into the tour. The Warner Bros. tour guides clearly respect and value new information, and I appreciated his diligence in answering my question and imparting it onto the whole group.

A scene from BABY FACE, shot on Warner Bros. Stage 14.

One of my favorite aspects of the tour was the prominent inclusion of A Star is Born. Having seen the movie at least two dozen times, I recognized the set where the opening shot was filmed, and we also passed Stage 7 where many prominent films were shot including A Star is Born, 42nd Street, and Casablanca. Though there were ladders blocking the bottom part of the plaque, I was able to get a bit of it in a picture. I hope you can read the text!

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From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

From the opening shot of A Star is Born.

Halfway through the tour, we got a taste of the more modern Warner Bros. with a visit to the set of Friends. As this was a tour specifically geared toward bloggers, several of us classic film bloggers, John was kind enough to also include a lamp from The Maltese Falcon that appears alongside the Friends set. It was fascinating for me to experience the gamut of Warner Bros. through my lens of a classic film fan. It truly gives the visitor a holistic view of the company, and how its history (with which I am mostly familiar) has shaped its present.

The tour ended with a bang, as we were given special access to take pictures in the museum, something not generally allowed on tours. I have a real soft spot for costumes, so I was thrilled to be able to take photos of such costumes as the three dresses shown below.

Three Elizabeth Taylor costumes from GIANT, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Costumes worn by Joan Crawford (left) and Elizabeth Taylor.

Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner, happened to be on the lot that day and visited with our group, which was a wonderful moment. She is part of Warner Bros. 90th anniversary speaker series, “Meet the Family,” telling the story of the Warner family through the eyes of its members. Cass has her own production company, the Warner Sisters, that is doing very prominent work in the industry right now. She also shared stories of the family, how she wanted the Warner record set straight. People often think of the movie moguls of classic Hollywood as being tyrannical and controlling–and Cass Warner wanted to reiterate that her grandfather was a loving man with whom she was close. She has also devoted much of her life to learning more about her family history. “I’m sort of the family detective!” she joked. She was very interested in the work we classic film bloggers were doing, and I was lucky enough to get a picture with her.

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The tour ended at the commissary, where we were given a very delicious lunch. My blogging friends Kimberly Truhler, Kristen Lopez, Elise Crane Derby and I had exciting and lively discussions about our favorite classic film stars, little-known old Hollywood gossip, and our modest but vibrant online classic film community. We are indeed a rather small, devoted, and tight-knit bunch.

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I got an added bonus after the tour–my friend Marya, who works at the Warner Archives, brought me up to see the closet where they keep all the Warner Archive DVD releases. Needless to say, I was like a kid in a candy shop. Marya and I talked about all the movies, I got to see where she works, and of course I got a picture with Robbie the Robot.

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I can’t imagine a more fun-filled day for a classic movie fan. I departed Warner Bros. an exhausted, but very happy blogger.

Now for the good stuff!

If you would like to go on a Warner Bros. tour, I would highly recommend it. It was a lot of fun, and if you’re a film fan in L.A. it’s a great thing to check out. The VIP tour package looks like this:

Departs: Mon-Sat 8:15am-4pm  and Sundays (limited availability)
Duration: 2hrs 15 min
Cost: $52.00/person
Children 8yrs + are welcome

We technically went on a VIP tour, but with the added special access it was actually more like a Deluxe tour in many ways. This is what the Deluxe tour looks like:

Departs Mon-Fri 10:15 am
Duration: 5 hrs.
Cost: $250.00/person

As I mentioned before, Cass Warner is speaking on tours through the end of the year, so if you would like to see her then this is the time to go. Also, apparently there is a tour in French, if you (like your author here!) speak French. However, act fast for that one because it’s only going on through November.

If you’re in Los Angeles and have a school or club who would like to see Warner Bros., give them a call because hey have special discounts for groups larger than 24. More information can be found on their website.

Thank you, Warner Bros., for this wonderful opportunity!

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The Cultural Influence of Kay Thompson

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Kay Thompson is a name with which most people outside of the classic film world are unfamiliar. If she is known at all, it is often through the lens of Eloise, the immortal children’s book character she created in the 1950s. In classic film, she is primarily remembered by the legions of Audrey Hepburn fans, who know Kay Thompson for her work with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Most people I’ve come across fail to realize that the the author of Eloise and the woman in Funny Face were the same person. While Kay Thompson was indeed a wonderful author and brilliant in Funny Face, these endeavors showcased only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the extraordinarily widespread talents of this gifted woman.

I am entirely confident in saying that Kay Thompson may have been the single most versatile personality ever to come out of classic Hollywood. Actress, singer, dancer, vocal coach, vocal arranger, cabaret performer and author, Kay Thompson ranked among the very best in every medium of the entertainment world she tackled. Associated with MGM for many years, she worked on some of the most celebrated films of the era, and served as vocal coach to the likes of Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and June Allyson. She became especially close to Judy Garland, developing a devoted relationship of best friend and confidante. She is the godmother of Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli.

Judy Garland and Kay Thompson.

Born Catherine Louise Fink in St. Louis, MO, she signed a contract with MGM in 1943 after a stint as a singer and chorus director in radio. Her position as the head of the vocal unit, which included responsibilities such as arranging and directing the vocals in productions under Arthur Freed, enabled her to work on such films as Ziegfeld Follies of 1946 and Good News (1947) and helped hone her distinctive style of vocal arrangement.

Judy Garland in a segment of Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, which Kay Thompson co-wrote with Roger Edens.

“The Varsity Drag” from Good News.

In 1948 Thompson left MGM to pursue a nightclub act at Ciro’s, in a group she called “Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers,” an act which included the young Andy Williams in one of his first appearances. The act was a smash hit, with Kay Thompson writing all the songs for the group’s nightly productions.

When her goddaughter Liza Minnelli was born in 1946, Thompson immediately took to her. The two became very close and their friendship lasted until the day she died. Thompson witnessed all of Liza’s mischievous antics, and in 1955, while living in New York, decided to write a book about a young, mischievous girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel. It is said that this character was based on Liza herself.

The book was Eloise, a book that remains popular today and that heralded several subsequent books by Thompson. Eloise is a character that has proven to be a timeless symbol of childhood, and in 2006 prompted a cartoon series for children on Starz.

Thompson made the first of only two movie appearances in 1957, in the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire vehicle Funny Face. Though the part was essentially a secondary role to Astaire and Hepburn, it is Kay Thompson who steals the show with several show-stopping numbers that prove her abilities as a dancer as well as a singer. Despite Audrey Hepburn’s obvious charm, it is Kay Thompson who is the larger-than-life character in the movie, and hence it is her character that makes an impression and whom you remember after the movie is over. In addition, in this number in particular, her influence on Judy Garland’s performance style in her later career is very visible.

“Clap Yo Hands” from Funny Face.

Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go On Singing, 1963.

Kay Thompson only made one more movie appearance in her life, and that was with Liza Minnelli in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon in 1970. She moved back to New York from Hollywood in 1969, and in 1974 directed a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles. She moved in with Liza in the late 1980s, and lived there until she died, at the age of 88, in 1998.

Liza created a tribute show to Kay Thompson in 2008, based upon Thompson’s nightclub act at Ciro’s. The show was called Liza’s At the Palace, and it won several Tony Awards in 2009. During her Tony acceptance speech, Liza thanked her parents for “the greatest gift they ever gave me, Kay Thompson.”

I think the reason Kay Thompson is not widely acknowledged today may be the fact that she was so talented and did so many things so well. The fact that she nurtured all of her talents, without focusing on one specific area, spread her too thin. Had she been able to concentrate her energy on one of her many talents, I think she would have been one of the biggest stars of her day. Yet if she had done that, we may not have had Eloise, we may not have had the magnificent vocal arrangements we have come to associate with MGM, and we may not have seen the talents of so many stars she nurtured. Kay Thompson was indeed an integral part of the entertainment world, and her influence lives on through her work.

See you next time!

COUNTDOWN TO HITCHCOCK HALLOWEEN: Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West

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!