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Trailblazing Women to be Highlighted on Turner Classic Movies in October

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For the second year in a row, Turner Classic Movies will pay tribute to significant contributions to the film industry by women, through their Trailblazing Women series in partnership with Women in Film. Last year’s programming was a huge success, with a spotlight on female directors in what has become a crushingly male-dominated industry. This year’s theme will be “Actresses Who Made a Difference,” focusing on those women who contributed to issues outside of acting, and made waves that are still felt today in the film world and beyond.

The month-long Tuesday/Thursday night programming is hosted by Illeana Douglas, joined by a different female guest each night who will discuss the actresses, why they were chosen, and introduce a film made during a significant period in their life. On the first night, October 4, Douglas will be joined by the leading expert on women in early Hollywood, Cari Beauchamp, author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. The subjects on the first night will be three actresses who seized the idea of the traditionally male studio executive and turned it on its head.

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Mary Pickford was one of the most prominent figures in early Hollywood, both on and off the screen. While moviegoing audiences knew her as “Little Mary,” a perpetual little girl in curls even at the age of 30, in reality she was a woman with an steel will and iron constitution, a shrewd businesswoman and a savvy investor who knew the industry inside and out. In 1919, she founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, and subsequently founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which (now operating as the Motion Picture and Television Fund) still serves those in need in the industry. She will be discussed and profiled in conjunction with Little Annie Rooney, a movie she produced and performed in at the height of her position as a head of United Artists Studio in 1925.

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Lucille Ball, former contract player at RKO and “Queen of the Bs,” decided in 1950 to join with her husband Desi Arnaz to form their own production company, Desilu, in order to pitch a series based on Ball’s radio program My Favorite Wife. The series eventually became I Love Lucy, the production company became one of the most formidable forces in the business, and Lucille Ball became one of the most influential figures in movies and television. In 1960, she became the sole owner of Desilu and was directly responsible for shows such as Star Trek and The Untouchables getting to air. The movie Yours, Mine, and Ours was made in 1968, while Lucille Ball was serving as the powerful president of Desilu.

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Following directly in Lucille Ball’s footsteps was Mary Tyler Moore. 3 years out of her debut hit series The Dick Van Dyke Show (in which she broke significant ground for women on television in her own right), Moore created MTM Enterprises with husband Grant Tinker in order to pitch The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1969. The show premiered the following year and lasted for 7 phenomenal seasons, during which time MTM Enterprises grew and produced not only the show’s spinoffs, Rhoda, Phyllis, and Lou Grant, but also the popular  The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. The movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, chosen to represent Mary Tyler Moore this first evening, was made in 1967, in the in-between time just after Moore’s run on The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, and MTM Enterprises began.

Other nights to watch with significant women profiled:

Bette Midler, discussing women who controlled their own destiny, including:

  • Olivia de Havilland, the first person to make a major dent in the studio system by winning a contract case against Warner Bros. The ruling, the De Havilland Decision, is still cited often in entertainment law cases. She will be profiled in conjunction with Devotion (1946), filmed in 1943 but unable to be released until after she won the lawsuit.

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  • Marilyn Monroe, who left her Twentieth Century Fox contract behind to study at the Actor’s Studio in New York, only to return and demand director approval on all her projects–then form Marilyn Monroe Productions in 1956 in which she had full control over her work. Her work will be discussed with The Prince and the Showgirl (1956), produced by Marilyn Monroe Productions, as an example.

Jane Fonda, discussing women activists, including:

  • Myrna Loy, who served as the co-chair on the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, campaigned actively against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, and became the first Hollywood personality appointed to U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. One of her best-loved movies, The Thin Man (1934), will be shown to profile her onscreen work.
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Dr. Emily Carman, discussing actresses’ wartime contributions, including:

  • Bette Davis, who together with John Garfield established the Hollywood Canteen, where soldiers could eat and be entertained for free while on leave. A semi-Hollywood movie, Hollywood Canteen, was made in 1944 to promote the canteen and enhance the war effort, and TCM will show it this evening.

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  • Hedy Lamarr, who developed frequency-hopping technology to help with communication between Allied forces, an invention that is still used today in cell phones, wifi networks, and Bluetooth technology. The Conspirators (1944) will be shown to highlight Hedy Lamarr’s war efforts as well as her film work.

Be sure to tune in every Tuesday/Thursday in October for what promises to be a timely and informative look at a group of women who made a difference in the betterment of their industry and their world.

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Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: LUCILLE BALL

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On August 1, TCM began its annual summer tradition of Summer Under the Stars, a full month of specialized programming that honors one classic film star per day. Yesterday was devoted to the films of Edward G. Robinson, and the rest of the month will see days dedicated to such stars as Esther Williams, Ruby Keeler, Karl Malden, and Cyd Charisse. TCM fans look forward to Summer Under the Stars all year, and the announcement of the lineup is always a popular topic of discussion in the online classic film world.

Today we are watching movies starring a very familiar face–but those more versed in television may be surprised to see it on TCM. Before Lucy Ricardo, before the founding of Desilu and the immortal show that cemented Lucille Ball in our collective conscience, she was a rising star at RKO and later MGM, starring with all the big names of both studios and creating a reputation for herself as the “Queen of the B’s.”

Some of the highlights of today’s programming are windows into Lucille Ball’s career as few people know it–that of a talented dramatic actress whose foray into comedy was simply one of the many roads her career could have taken. Ball herself once said “I’m not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. I am not funny. What I am is brave.” Her comedy was a manifestation of a woman driven not toward being funny, but toward perfection and success. Movies like The Big Street and The Dark Corner give us a glimpse into what Ball’s career could have been like had she chosen drama rather than comedy.

In The Big Street, Ball plays a singer who becomes disabled after being pushed down a flight of stairs by her jealous lover, and takes refuge with Pinks (played by Henry Fonda). After a series of circumstances that include being rejected by a former lover for being in a wheelchair, she lashes out at Pinks in a scene that merits Ball an Oscar for her raw, nuanced performance. Unfortunately, the clip does not exist online.

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The Dark Corner features Lucille Ball in a film noir, one that is so steeped in the noir trope that it almost seems a parody of itself. Ball is the femme fatale, the beautiful secretary who unwittingly becomes involved in an intricate murder plot. Starring with Mark Stevens and Clifton Webb in a delightful thriller, this is Lucy as you’ve never seen her. She is a convincing and attractive femme fatale, possessing an energy that holds your eyes on her whenever she is onscreen. I first saw this movie at Noir City this past year, and it was a wonderful experience to see it on the big screen for the first time with hundreds of other fans.

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Other programming choices today like Best Foot Forward and The Long, Long Trailer show Lucille Ball in roles familiar to the I Love Lucy-loving public–involving raucous comedy and situational humor. But even here, the carefree nature of Ball’s comedy that has become her trademark is carefully planned and calculated to appear so.

The Long, Long Trailer, co-starring none other than Desi Arnaz, was filmed and released during the fourth season of I Love Lucy, and the influence of the show’s characters is clear in Lucy and Desi’s portrayals of their characters in this movie (in a less-than-subtle move, Desi’s character is even named “Nicky”). Talking with a friend of mine about this The Long, Long Trailer the other day, we came to the conclusion that The Long, Long Trailer is really just one big, extended episode of I Love Lucy, with similar characterizations and even similar gags used in each.

I was slightly surprised to see that TCM hadn’t programmed Dance, Girl, Dance this year for Lucille Ball day. It is one of my favorite roles of hers, and a marvelous example of how filmmakers circumvented the code to make the movies they wanted to make. Ball’s character of Bubbles in Dance, Girl, Dance is clearly a “kept woman,” in view of the massive amounts of furs, jewels, and fancy clothes that accompany her wherever she goes. And it features Lucy doing the hula, just about the most seductive dance that could ever have made it past the censors. It also sums up how Lucille Ball, despite her legacy as a comedic genius, was a woman whose genuine talent in many arenas and drive for success defied categorization.

I leave you with Lucille Ball doing the hula in Dance, Girl, Dance. Happy watching, readers!

This is an entry for the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, hosted by my friend Kristen Lopez. Check out the other entries at http://www.journeysinclassicfilm.com

Noir City 14: THE DARK CORNER and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS

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The 14th annual Noir City festival, the spectacular tribute to film noir that has become a must-see San Francisco tradition, took place last week at the Castro Theatre. The festival is one big noir extravaganza, with the theater packed to the gills every day and every night for ten days straight. It was truly an event to experience, and one that I was thrilled to have been able to attend.

While the programming at Noir City is always top-notch, programmed by the man who has come to be known as the “czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, this year had some truly unusual and unique offerings for the noir aficionados and for the uninitiated alike. Paired with noir classics like The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Rear Window were creatively programmed films like The Red Shoes that rose above the traditional definitions of noir to give the audience an entirely new vision of the genre.

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One of the films that most fascinated me in the Noir City program this year was a 1946 detective/murder mystery called The Dark Corner, starring Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens. By 1946, film noir had reached its zenith, the genre having been molded and firmly established during the years of World War II. Dark alleyways, shadowed angles, cigarettes and hard drinking characterized a noir film, as did the appearance of a savvy and smart femme fatale who often drives the plot.

Earlier in 1946, Lucille Ball had walked out on her contract at MGM. She was having problems at the studio and problems at home, her marriage to Desi Arnaz on the brink of collapse. At the studio, she was being cast almost exclusively in glamorous roles, ones that she knew didn’t fit her well and where she was being cast aside for the more established MGM stars like Judy Garland. In search of something different to propel her career forward and to take her mind off her home troubles, she left MGM and freelanced for several years. The Dark Corner, filmed at 20th Century Fox, was one of the first movies she did following the termination of her contract at MGM, and if Lucy had wanted to depart from MGM-type glamor roles in taking this role, she succeeded.

Playing a secretary in love with her boss who has a sinister past, Lucille Ball’s role is that of the smart, savvy version of the femme fatale. It suits her well, and the audience’s eyes are rarely off her when she is onscreen. As for the movie itself, as a murder mystery and detective story in one, The Dark Corner is so noir that it almost parodies itself. Audiences at the Castro Theatre are unusually well-educated in their cinema, and never was that more clear than when the audience laughed in delight at those scenes where Mark Stevens lights a match on his shoe at breakfast, or drinks several glasses of gin in one sitting. San Francisco knows its noir, and a self-aware movie like The Dark Corner was a fun choice for this audience.

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The Two Mrs. Carrolls is an old favorite of mine. The only film to pair cinematic legends Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, it tells the story of a mentally unstable painter who endeavors to kill all the women he loves after painting their portraits. It, too, is a prototypical noir, even taking hints from earlier dark movies and weaving them into the plot in similar ways. A clear example of this is the idea of the painter poisoning his wives with milk, one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, from 6 years earlier.

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Humphrey Bogart brings Barbara Stanwyck a glass of poisoned milk in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

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Cary Grant brings Joan Fontaine a glass of milk in Suspicion.

The treatment of Barbara Stanwyck as the naive, sweet second wife who is haunted by the first, The Two Mrs. Carrolls also echoes a second Hitchcock film, Rebecca, in which the innocent, sweet Second Mrs. De Winter is tortured by the memory of the ever-present first wife. In Rebecca, the first wife’s memory is poison in itself, leaving in its wake fear, destruction and death. In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the first wife is the saving grace of the second, with hints about her demise leading the second wife to figure out what her husband is plotting. Where in Rebecca the first wife’s memory may be characterized as the villain, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls she may be characterized as the hero.

Thank you to Noir City for another great year, and I look forward to next year’s programming!